Turkey is a fascinating wine country, with a history as long as wine itself. I have always believed we should be less Israel-ocentric and take time to learn from our neighbors. Remember, kosher is not a country and Israel is not an island. We belong to a region; the Eastern Mediterranean wine region. Of course, it is a region with borders defined by war, discord and religion. The relations between Israel & Lebanon, Greece & Turkey, and Cyprus with Northern Cyprus, are scarcely made in heaven. There are things in common though. The sun, sea, mountains, stony soils, mud coffee, the anise flavored spirit (Ouzo, Raki or Arak), the east med cuisine…and the wine of course. One should not over simplify things, but in general, Christians make wine in Cyprus, Greece and Lebanon; Jews are the winemakers in Israel, and Muslims make the wine in Turkey (and in Northern Cyprus for that matter.) However, this fertile crescent was the hub of the wine trade over 2,000 years ago, the France and Italy of ancient times in terms of production and the cradle of wine culture.
If the Biblical narrative is correct, Noah was the first wine grower. When the ark came to rest on Mount Ararat, he planted a vineyard. Mount Ararat is in Eastern Turkey. Here the Biblical story matches archaeology. It is close to one of the earliest sites where grape pips have been found, and not far from where the oldest ever winery has been discovered. The Hittites made wine here and came up with the immortal phrase, which I frequently quote: ‘Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.’ A great recipe for life, encouraging one to live in the moment.
Turkey is a massive country, which extends from Greece in the west, all the way to Georgia and Armenia in the east. As such Turkey connects the Eastern Mediterranean with the Ancient World of winemaking. The winemaking history has had ebbs and flows over the years, depending on the religious edicts of the time, which were always considered against the economics benefits of the wine trade. In the late 19th century there was a boom period, as wine was supplied to France and Italy, when they became affected with phylloxera, which destroyed their vineyards. However, many of the winemakers were Greeks or Armenians. After the population swops of the 1920’s, many of the Christian winemakers left, and the country became predominantly Muslim.
The first president of modern Turkey was Kemal Attaturk. He wanted the right balance between state and religion, and arranged for a state wine and spirits monopoly to be founded in 1927, which was called Tekel. They made Raki and wine, and sold grapes to the first private wineries. These were Doluca founded in 1926 by Nihat Kutman, and Kavaklidere established in 1929 by Cenap And.
It will surprise many that Turkey has the 5th largest vineyard area in the world, but only 2-3% of this goes into production of wine. There are 164 registered wineries and a number of new wineries, with large investments in quality, were founded in the 2000’s. In the 1990’s international noble varieties were planted, but since the turn of the millennium, wineries have focused more on quality and local varieties have come to the fore. Turkey has a treasury of 1,200 indigenous varieties, of which about 35 are used in winemaking. Production is about double of Israel’s, and exports total $10 million. Consumption is a mere one liter a head. Raki is far more popular than wine.
In 2005, the state monopoly was privatized and bought by the Texas Pacific Group. The Raki business was seen as promising, but the wine side was losing money hand over fist. A Californian winemaker Daniel O’Donnell had worked with TPG when they purchased Beringer from Nestle, so they decided to send him to Turkey to find out what was going on.
Daniel O’Donnell came from St.Helena in Napa wine country, where he was a chef. When he received an offer for his café-restaurant, he sold it and started working at Ravenswood Winery, one of the iconic wineries especially famous for its Zinfandels. It was a fortuitous career change. He found a new passion and changed course. When Constellation bought Ravenswood, he moved on, but by that time he was already wedded to wine. He studied, gained more experience and became a consultant or flying winemaker.
He arrived in Turkey thinking he would be there three months. What he found horrified him. There were seven wineries, dirty, dank, with old primitive cement tanks and a lack of clean barrels. The vineyards were a patchwork of vines under different ownership. Growing grapes was to make raisins, wine was way off the radar. Pruning meant letting the goats into the vineyard. Harvesting was a matter of doing it when you could, then the grapes would be left in the sun, sometimes overnight, until the donkey or dilapidated tractor were available to take them to the winery. Turkey had made wine for 7,000 years, but there was no winemaking protocol. Nothing was written down. Wine was made on distant instructions from French advisors, but no one could taste and evaluate the results, because they were Muslims.
Why did he last even three weeks? Simply he tasted Turkey’s indigenous grape varieties, and a spark went off in his mind. He had never tasted anything similar before. So, he went into action like a whirlwind. Five of the seven wineries were closed, 16 million liters of wine were dumped or sold cheaply to Russia. The new company was named Mey Icki and the wine brand was renamed Kayra, a word that expresses kindness and grace. The wineries they decided to keep and develop were at Elazig in Eastern Anatolia and Sarkoy in Thrace. These were established in 1942 and 1996 respectively, and a program of upgrading them to the standards of the 21st century began.
In the end O’Donnell decided to stay around for a year. That was 15 years ago. He is still going there every two weeks. I wanted to meet him to hear his story. We have certain things in common. He came from California to Turkey to advance Turkish wine and became a vocal crusader spreading the word. I came from England to Israel with similar objectives. In my personal experience, Turkish wineries are way behind international norms in terms of media and press relations. Often they just do not respond at all if a request is in English. That is apart from Kayra, who to their credit, responded immediately.
We met in London. O’Donnell is a bear of a man and a great raconteur. He liberally sprays expletives into his narrative, but this is not out of vulgarity, simply for emphasis. The odd swear word here and there adds spice to the explanation, like the chef he was, adding a seasoning of herbs and spices to the pot on the stove. Goodness knows how many times he has told the same story.
He passionately believes in the indigenous varieties. As he says disdainfully: “you can make an average Chardonnay in any country in the world.” There are six that are more well-known than the others. There is Narince, Emir and Bornova Misket (related to Muscat) amongst the whites, and Bogazkere (so tannic, the word means throat catcher), Okuzgozu (meaning bulls eye, which is similar to Merlot or Barbera), and Kalecik Karasi (like a young Pinot Noir.) Most of the Turkish wine industry is based in the west of the country, in the Thrace-Marmara and Aegean region. The Bokazkere and Okuzgozu come from inhospitable Eastern and South Eastern Anatolia. Kayra’s winery at Elazig is in this area, which is a distinct benefit that Kayra has over its competitiors. It saves having to truck grapes over enormous distances to get to the winery.
O’Donnell went back to basics, and tried to instill good habits. He started by attempting to introduce his style on the wines, but soon learnt he had to listen to the grapes and throw away the manual. It was not without challenges. He was shot at in one vineyard and had to be escorted by the National Guard out of another. He describes it as the wild west. It was as though the winery went through fifty years of development, squeezed into ten years! However, with time and perseverance, he prevailed. He now has a fantastic team of winemakers, including chief winemaker Murat Uner, Huseyin Adem winemaker of Elazig and the diminutive Ozge Kaymaz, winemaker of Sarkoy. She is young, tiny, especially alongside Daniel, but manages to keep an older, more experienced male Muslim workforce strictly marching to her tune. He calls her the Princess and I get the feeling he is as proud of the team as of any wine he has produced. He emphasizes time and again, it is a team effort and he could have done nothing on his own. He spent half the interview singing their praises.
Turkish wine is far more advanced than the casual visitor to Turkey would know. Many of the better wines are just not accessible to tourists. The leading wineries like Kavaklidere, Doluca, Sevilien and Kayra all have wines at every price point and there are now many new, technologically advanced, small wineries designed from to produce high quality wines, but they are priced high, due to small production and high taxes. They just do not reach the budget hotels and tourist restaurants.
Though the wineries themselves are shy of public relations, Wines of Turkey and certain individuals have done a great job in inviting wine critics and Masters of Wine to Turkey. We in Israel could certainly learn from their efforts. They have managed to get the message across to the trade that something good is happening. Reaching the non, ex-patriot consumer is more difficult.
Daniel O’Donnell has become the most powerful advocate of Turkish wines in the wider world, possibly because he is an English speaker, but also because he is charismatic and has a great story. He is never satisfied, is constantly experimenting and is prepared to fail many times in the search for the golden path. I tasted his wines. Most famous is the Buzbag. This was the first Turkish wine I ever heard of. It was first produced in 1944 and it is a big brand. O’Donnell took care to clean it up, without removing the essence of the wine because of its popularity. The white is a fresh blend of Emir & Narince and the red a rustic blend of Okuzgozu & Bogazkere.
My favorite wines were Kayra Narince 2018, Kayra Kalecik Karasi 2018 and the Kayra Versvs Alpagut Okuzgozu 2014. The Narince was refreshingly fragrant with delicate notes of peach, a touch of citrus, a minerally spine and a refreshing acidity. The Kalicik Karasi was bright, fruity with a cherry-berry aroma and a lively freshness. A wine to drink and enjoy. I loved it. Finally the Okuzgozu, from Alpagut vineyards, is a quality wine. Deep colored, with black cherry and ripe plum fruit, at the same time quite full bodied, but elegant with everything in its place. It had a long well-balanced finish. As I tasted it, Daniel told me this was the variety that kept him in Turkey. I had previously tasted their Shiraz, which ticked all the boxes.
In 2012 Diageo, the world’s largest spirit company, purchased Mey, attracted by the sales of Yeni Raki and the potential their distribution channel had for their array of global brands. Diageo at one stage was also in wine, but later retreated. Therefore, paradoxically Kayra Winery is today their only wine brand.
Quite apart from the new quality and interesting varieties, all wine lovers should support Turkish wine because their lives are made hell by the anti-alcohol authorities and politicians. Anyone trying to make wine in today’s Turkey should be applauded and supported. Their efforts to bring quality wine to a country that puts up obstacles rather than offering support, is nothing short of heroic.
Kayra Winery is a prominent as any Turkish winery because of their openness, and their eagerness to engage and share. The wines are at every price point, they represent great value and some of them are truly excellent. If you want to sample the improvement in Turkish wines and experience their unique local varieties, Kayra is a good place to start.
Wine trade veteran Adam Montefiore has advanced Israeli wine for over thirty years and he is the wine writer for the Jerusalem Post. www.adammontefiore.com