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Talking Turkey
By Jim Clarke
Oct 27, 2015
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It’s that time of year when wine columns everywhere start talking turkey.  What to pair with it, the challenges of the Thanksgiving dinner, and so forth.  But  (and read this in the voice of Peter Segal from public radio’s Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me if you can) we’ve invited you hear to talk about wines from Turkey instead.  We’ve got three things to tell you about Turkish wines; if two out of three catch your interest, you should track down some of these wines.

Given its geographical location, it should be no surprise that Turkey makes wine.  The entirety of Asia Minor was pretty thoroughly Hellenized; if wine wasn’t being made there before the Greeks got to it, it certainly was afterward.  However, that hasn’t made Turkey a home for the Greek grape varieties we know today.  Instead, what varieties would you expect to find there?

A.  Indigenous white varieties.  Emir is more acid-driven and saline; if one were to compare it to a Greek variety, I suppose Assyrtiko might come to mind, though it’s rarely as intense and can be a bit more floral.  Narinçe pushes that floral character further, and is often softer in texture.  Again, it’s typically light-bodied, but can take on a bit of heft in warmer growing areas.

B.  Their own set of red varieties, notably Öküzgözü, and Kalecik Karası.  The former is the darker, more powerful of the two, leaning toward ripe tree fruit aromas -- cherry, black plum, and sometimes a graphite-tinged earthiness.  Its tannins can be a bit gritty in some cases, but are generally firm and balanced.  Kalecik Karası plays Burgundy to Öküzgözü’s Bordeaux, lighter, less tannic, and more floral, with a more pronounced acidity.  A third variety, Boğazkere, is the real powerhouse, often high in alcohol (the name means “throat burner”) and tannins, with licorice, pomegranate, and other purple fruit notes.

C.  A healthy dose of international varieties, most notably Chardonnay, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon.  These appear as varietal wines as well as in blends with the indigenous varieties.

Recent history has worked against Turkey’s long winemaking history.  While secular, Muslim culture (as expressed in recent decades, at least) has not been conducive to wine culture, and domestically the wines are heavily taxed and subject to many restrictions in terms of advertising, etc.  Grapes are well loved:  Turkey has the 4th largest grape-growing area in the world, but only 2% of that is wine grapes.  And those are fairly scattered across the country:

A.  The Aegean Area, stretching along the western edge of Asia Minor, accounts for more than half of production.  The climate is Mediterranean, and the soils varied, but mostly clay loams and calcareous chalks.  All sorts of the grapes mentioned above are grown here.

B.  Anatolia, in the middle of the country, is also home to vineyards.  Very broadly speaking these vineyards see a more continental climate, hot and dry in the summer and sometimes seeing quite cold winters.  Öküzgözü, Boğazkere, and Narinçe are the most planted grapes, along with some Syrah in the area around Ankara, the nation’s capital.

C.  Marmara, on either side of the Bosporus, is a substantial producer and sees a lot of international varieties; touched by three seas, the Black Sea, The Marmara Sea, and the Aegean, the climate is Mediterranean in character thanks to that maritime influence.

While domestic restrictions meant Turkish production was in the hands of two large companies for 90 years or so, more than a dozen new brands have appeared in the past couple decades.  Few have U.S.  importers, but here are three to look for:

A.  Vinkara:  Created in 2003, Vinkara has vineyards in various regions, but focuses on the area around Kalecik -- the town that gives the grape Kalecik Karası its name -- not far from Ankara.  They there fore specialize in the variety, and it constitutes 60% of their plantings; they use it to produce a rosé, a method Champenoise sparkling, and a red.  Look for those, but also for their Narinçe and Öküzgözü, which were standouts when I tasted them in Istanbul.

B.  Kavaklidere:  Kavaklidere, created in 1929, Kavaklidere was Turkey’s first privately-owned wine producer.  Today they’re quite large, with over 1300 acres of vines across Anatolia.  They make a couple dozen wines from both indigenous and international varieties.  Standouts include their “Pendore” Syrah -- a top Turkish take on an international variety -- as well as their Prestige line: the Narinçe, Öküzgözü, and Kalecik Karası in particular.

C.  Turasan:  Another older producer, dating back to 1943, and based in Cappadocia – the first privately owned winery in the region.  Their Emir is a top example of what the variety can do.

Despite the “Wait, Wait” inspiration, hopefully you’ve realized by now that there were no incorrect answers above; I wanted to “talk Turkey” about wines from Turkey, not just indulge in playful wordplay (or did I?).  I don’t see Turkish wines storming the American market; they’re definitely lagging behind other “newcomers” like Georgia or Moldova that claim similar pedigrees.  But that’s largely for lack of a strong marketing budget and an insufficient number of brands imported to present as a “category,” not for reasons of quality.  That third one is the correct answer as to why the wines are worth seeking out.