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Jefford on Monday: The Turkish Renaissance

I was discussing grape seeds and insomnia over breakfast with Randall Grahm when the sirens went off. We walked over to the window and looked out. There, six floors below, was a world at standstill; only the Turkish flags rode gently on the breeze. Passers-by had halted, suddenly meditative on the pavement; buses paused randomly between stops. I looked across the dining room: an elderly Turkish lady stood over her half-eaten breakfast, dabbing the corner of her eye.

This was 09:05 on November 10th, exactly 74 years since Mustafa Kemal Atatürk died (of cirrhosis of the liver). At the Gala Dinner that evening, the 280 self-assembled delegates to the 5th EWBC, the European Wine Bloggers’ Conference — nowadays glossed the Digital Wine Communications Conference — were led in a solemn toast to Atatürk’s memory by the Director of Wines of Turkey, Taner Öğütoğlu.  

This was no mere effusion of patriotism. If we were here at all, our Turkish hosts pointed out, it was thanks to Atatürk. His 1920 reforms, which set Turkey on the path of secular modernity, underlay Turkey’s current wine revolution (or renaissance: as José Vouillamoz told the conference, researchers now think that South-Eastern Anatolia has as strong a claim as the Caucasus to be ‘wine’s birthplace’). There was a political undercurrent: a retreat from these advances remains thinkable. The English-language Hürriyet Daily News noted that Turkey’s Prime Minister, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, had found a reason not to return to the country as scheduled for November 10th. Mostly, though, our United Nations of Wine Bloggers (40 nationalities represented) just got on as usual with talking, sniffing, slurping and spitting. What did this one learn?

First, that Turkey has five grape varieties of distinction. Two are white: fragrant, summery, light-boned Emir and the slightly richer, faintly peachy Narince. The three reds form an attractively harmonic trio. Kalecik Karası is the tenor: pale, poised and raspberry-fruited, an Anatolian Pinot. The baritone would be Öküzgözü: a mid-weight red of lip-smacking, brambly juiciness if unoaked, and smoky sensuality with oak. My favourite, though, was the bass: Boğazkere. Its skins are thick enough to be described as ‘leathery’ by Kayra’s winemaker Dan O’Donnell (and its seed tannins as “heinous”); sure enough, it makes wines with wonderfully gastronomic, sticky tannic textures. In flavour, too, this seemed the most ‘Asian’ of the five, with dusty red fruits behind which lurked something which at times seemed like pounded almonds, and at other times like fenugreek.

Needless to say, all the usual international celebs are planted in Turkey, too, and can convince on their own, blended with their kind, and in blends with indigenous varieties as well. On my last day in Turkey, dizzy after stepping out of the time capsule of Ephesus, we drank the 2007 Premium Syrah-Merlot blend from Sevilen with a fine roadside lunch. Its richness and voluptuousness left me lusting for a second glass. And a third.

What about regionality? Speculation is premature – but no blogger is ever dissuaded by that. At least three styles seem to be emerging. Thrace (between Istanbul and the Bulgarian and Greek borders) can produce some of the country’s most accurately drawn varietal wines. The many sub-regions up and down the Aegean coast seemed to be able to combine softness and weight very attractively — though if not watched carefully, the ripeness can turn raisiny and adipose there.  

Very different conditions in Cappadocia – volcanic soils at higher altitude, with a dramatically continental climate – produces finer-grained wines with more sinew and more grace. If you want to use the word ‘mineral’, too, it seems to make most sense in Cappadocia. Some of my favourite Cappadocian wines came from Vinolus and Kocabağ.  

Larger producers like Doluca, Kavaklidere and Kayra (who source fruit from most regions) have excellent wines scattered through their ranges and, in addition to Sevilen, the mid-sized Yazgan, Pammukale and Suvla as well as the much smaller Galî (from Gelibolu or Gallipoli) and Urlice (from Urla) all impressed.

Turkish wine producers still face struggles: duty and tax levies are high and bureaucratic difficulties baffling (producers are only allowed to import new barrels, and it remains hard to import plant material, too). Turkish drinkers like the taste of oak more than this particular international consumer does. Even today, only two per cent of the country’s 4.2 million tonnes of grapes are made into wine, and with per capita consumption at just a litre a year, there is plenty of room for growth. Politics allowing.

Written by Andrew Jefford

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