Vinkara Winery, Turkey / Courtesy Vinkara Winery
Turkey’s wine heritage dates back nearly 7,000 years, and its contemporary wine culture continues to evolve. While some of the world’s oldest known grape varieties in production are grown here, in recent years, low domestic consumption and a 2013 law prohibiting wine or spirits advertising and marketing led many Turkish wine producers to turn to the export market.
Those eager to explore Turkish wine can dive into its distinctive indigenous grapes, growing regions and complex economic, cultural and sociopolitical histories.
The History of Turkish Wine
Archaeological remains show that grape cultivation began in the Tigris-Euphrates Valley of modern-day Turkey in the fifth millennium B.C.E. and carried on through the Hatti, Hittite, Phrygian, Greek and Roman cultures. Winemaking continued through the Ottoman Empire, which spanned some 700 years until its dissolution in 1922. During the Ottoman period, production was often carried out by the country’s non-Muslim communities, including those of Greek or Armenian descent.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as phylloxera ravaged the vineyards of Europe, demand for wine unaffected by the blight grew. Turkish wine exports to Europe totaled 340 million liters in 1904, a figure considerably higher than the 75 million liters that the country currently produces each year.
From 1920 to 1924, Turkey briefly prohibited the sale, production, import and consumption of all alcohol. This period lasted four years to the U.S.’ seven-year-long Prohibition; but, like the American experiment, its impact endures. During this same period, Ottoman rule ended, and the new Turkish Republic was formed.
Grapes to Know
Currently, Turkey is among the largest producers of grapes in the world, though many are consumed as table grapes or raisins. Around 30 of Turkey’s 800 indigenous grape varieties are made into wine in commercial quantities.
Turkey’s most cultivated red wine grape, Öküzgözü is at its best when made with very little oak or none at all. Much is grown at high elevation, where cooler nights help it retain high acidity. Its name means “bull’s eye” in Turkish, and its flavors of black cherry, pomegranate, lavender, chocolate and brambles are right on target for easy-drinking, young red wines.
Named for its hometown in Anatolia, Kalecik Karasi means “black of Kalecik.” One of the most widely grown grapes in the country, it can produce elegant and complex red wines with flavors of strawberry, cherry, black pepper and clove with a note of confectioners’ sugar.
Originally cultivated in ancient Mesopotamia, Boğazkere’s name means “throat burner.” Its strong tannins and moderate acidity yield ageworthy red wines. While it is often blended with Öküzgözü, single-varietal versions are becoming more popular. Expect flavors of blackberry, raspberry and black cherry with accents of mocha, anise and baking spices.
Narince, pronounced nar-een-jah, translates to English as “delicately.” The most widely grown white wine grape in Turkey, it has medium body and good acidity. It has flavors of lemon, grapefruit and pineapple intertwined with floral notes. Narince’s leaves are often used to make dolma, stuffed grape leaves.
In addition to these and other indigenous grapes, Turkey also produces numerous international varieties including Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. Red blends are very popular, and rosé is gaining traction.
Turkish Wine Regions
There is no official appellation system in Turkey, which is divided into relatively large wine regions. In the west, the Aegean coast benefits from proximity to the sea. It has a Mediterranean climate, while farther inland, altitudes reach up to 2,500 feet in a more continental climate. The Aegean region is home to around half of the country’s 150 or so wine producers.
The second largest region is Marmara, which holds about 30% of the country’s vineyards and wineries. This area is surrounded by the Aegean, the Black Sea and the Sea of Marmara, and it has a cool continental climate.
Anatolia is divided into north, south and central subregions. The Tigris-Euphrates River Valley is centered here, and the region is mainly home to indigenous grapes like Boğazkere and Emir.
The Modern Turkish Wine Industry
According to some sources, 80% of contemporary Turks don’t drink alcohol. The national average for wine consumption is estimated one liter per person each year, compared to Italians’ 40.
Decreased domestic consumption is partially due to regulations installed under Turkish Prime Minister Abdullah Gül in 2003 and enforced by his successor, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. A teetotaler, Erdoğan has stated that the country’s national drink is not beer, wine or local spirit raki, but rather ayran, a non-alcoholic yogurt beverage. Policies enacted and sustained during Erdoğan’s presidency have limited the advertising, marketing and sales of beer, wine and spirits in Turkey.
Turgay Gümüş, the owner of Buradan, a boutique winery in Çeşme, a resort town on Turkey’s Aegean coast, says the marketing restrictions put in place in 2013 remain some of the biggest challenges for contemporary winemakers to reach markets. “The main [hurdle] is the restrictions on marketing programs related to alcoholic beverage sales, including wine,” says Gümüş. “The impact of these restriction is very heavy on ‘new’ producers like us, who may also have a unique story or style to promote.”
Buradan’s winemaker, Italian native Tina Lino, feels challenged by the lack of intergenerational winemaking traditions and “high-level training courses for the study of oenology,” she says. “There are only three para-university schools with many teaching limitations and very few students, which means that most of the oenologists in Turkey have been trained abroad or are foreigners like me.”
Two of the most well-known winemakers in Turkey today are her countryman Marco Monchiero, who makes wine at Vinkara, and Frenchman Stéphane Derenoncourt, who consults at Kavaklidere.
How to Find Turkish Wine
Until recently, wines from Turkey could be difficult to find in the U.S. In addition to some wineries that export their own bottles, importer House of Burgundy (HOB), based in New York City, currently imports 20 brands from 10 different Turkish producers. It distributes them in 25 states.
“In the past three years, we’ve seen a significant growth of interest for Turkish wines,” says Lillian Lai, vice president at HOB. “The wines previously in the market were available mostly in Turkish restaurants. Today, with more Mediterranean-style restaurants opening in the Northeast, there is more space for Turkish wines in wider range of wine programs and higher visibility.”
Some U.S. sommeliers and wine directors are eager to serve more Turkish wines in restaurants, too.
“The New York City market has a spectrum of wines from around the world, but Turkey is still very underrepresented,” says Amy Racine, the beverage director for New York-based JF Restaurants, whose properties include IRIS and The Loyal. “It’s been exciting to bring these to guests who are also hungry for something new.”
New York City’s Contento Restaurant has a section on its wine list devoted to what it calls “Wines of the Ancient World,” which includes one from Turkey.
“One of my favorite wines that we have is…Paşaeli from Turkey, made from Yapincak,” says Partner Yannick Benjamin. “We have an incredible pork katsu that is salty and pairs beautifully with its high acid and citrus aromas.”