Glass of Boğazkere, Anyone? How About Öküzgözü?
As if winemaking wasn't already challenging, imagine doing it in a country where 83% of the population doesn't drink and the government keeps enacting ever-more restrictive measures on marketing and selling alcohol. Now add a civil war next door and an increasingly volatile political scene and you begin to marvel at the dedication and determination of Turkish winemakers.
One such intrepid vintner is Ardiç Gürsel, who founded Vinkara Winery in 2003 and was in New York recently to showcase her latest vintage. While some Turkish wineries have stuck with tried-and-true international varieties, such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon, Gürsel's focus is on Turkey's indigenous grapes. "I needed to understand if we could make world class wines with these indigenous varieties. We researched the grapes, the climate, the terrain, the chemical components of the soil and many other variables. Everything we found out was telling us, yes, we could do this. My mission is to offer people something truly unique."
Vinkara's 200 acres are located in central Anatolia near the town of Kalecik, an hour north of Turkey's capitol, Ankara. Winemaking is thought to have originated in this part of the world, with evidence of viticulture dating back 8000 years. So for Gürsel, it made sense to grow the grapes native to the land where they developed over the centuries. And she had a lot to choose from. Today there are around 1200 vitis vinifera varieties, although only about 60 are cultivated. Most are grown as table grapes, but recent improvements in winemaking in the last decade have shown that these indigenous grape varieties make really good wines. Vinkara's lineup includes Narince, Kalecik Karasi, Boğazkere and Öküzgözü. The vineyards are planted along the Kızılırmak River basin at an elevation of 2,000 feet, which translates to wines with great acidity and full of flavor.
With such a long history, how come we've never heard of these wines before? Blame it on 600 years of Ottoman rule, which outlawed winemaking for its Muslim citizens, nearly wiping out the region's winemaking traditions, much like Prohibition did in the U.S. in the 1920s. Christians and Jews were allowed to make small amounts of wine for religious purposes, but not until 1925 with the end of World War I was Turkey's modern winemaking industry revived. And by none other than the secular founder of the new Turkish Republic, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who started the country's first commercial winery.
Today there are around 300 wineries scattered throughout five main wine producing regions: Marmara and Thrace, Aegean, Central Anatolian, Mediterranean, and the South East. They produce more than 70 million liters of wine per year, most of which is consumed domestically. However, Turkey has one of the lowest annual consumption rates in the world at 1.5 L per person (the EU's is around 10.7L). Compounding the problem, in 2013, the current government controlled by the Justice and Development (AK) party passed a law targeting the alcohol industry. Taxes were increased, advertising and marketing alcoholic beverages were prohibited, and restaurants near mosques were forbidden to sell alcohol. Some fear things may get worse as Turkish President Recep Erdoğan's continues his mission to convert the secular state to a religious one by 2023, the republic's 100th anniversary. What this means for the country's winemakers is anyone's guess.
For Ardic Gürsel the export market could become increasingly important, and to that end she recently teamed up with Winebow for distribution in the U.S. These wines are fantastic and worth seeking out regardless of their history, but how gratifying to know you're helping Turkey's wine renaissance continue to flourish.
Narince (Na-rin-djeh) is a high acid white grape that produces wines with floral and citrus notes, think cool climate Chardonnay. Vinkara's version offers bright lemon notes and a lovely minerality. There is also a Reserve version, which spends 14 months in new French barrels, which lends a subtle streak of oak.
Kalecik Karasi (Kah-le-djic-car-ah-ser) makes a light to medium-bodied wine and is often compared to Pinot Noir. Vinkara's is a real standout. It's light bodied but full of delicious red fruit flavors such as raspberry and cherry, and has soft fine-grained tannins. The Reserve version also spends 14 months in new French oak, infusing the wine with a hint of oak flavor and amping up the tannins.
Boğazkere (Bow-aahz-keh-reh) produces full-bodied wines with high tannins, similar to Tannat. Vinkara's spends 30 months in new French oak and is often blended with Öküzgözü
Öküzgözü (Oh-cooz-go-zoo) is known as "bull's eye" for its large, black berries that bring wonderful ripe red fruit and a bright acidity. It is the most widely planted red grape in Turkey.
Vinkara also makes Turkey's first méthod champenoise sparkling wine. Called Yaşasın, which means "long live," in Turkish, it is entirely of Kalecik Karasi grapes, (i.e. a blanc de noir) and has lovely notes of pear and apple. Pop a bottle and make a toast: long live Turkish wines!