I wish I were writing these words above the bustling streets of Istanbul or out in the countryside off the Aegean, but sadly my first explorations of Turkish wine had to be as an armchair traveler. Or should I say, by-the-bottle traveler?
At the great generosity of a Turkish friend, who happens to be a wine critic for a Turkish newspaper, I got the chance to spend an afternoon eating Turkish food and trying a bunch of wines that he was tasting for a story.
I've been intrigued with Turkish wine for some time now, and for a number of reasons, not the least of which is a purported 1200 native varieties of grapes not found anywhere else in the world (about 60 or so are in active commercial cultivation). These ancient grape varieties could be a gold mine of interesting wine if they are cared for like the agricultural treasures they are.
As new as it may be in the consciousness of some global wine drinkers like me, Turkey can easily make the case that it may be the oldest commercial wine producing country in the world. Somewhere around 6000 years ago, in roughly the area where Turkey, Armenia, Georgia, and Iran come together, people started drinking the fermented juice of the fruits from the vitis vinifera vine, getting drunk, and getting rich from selling the stuff to civilizations across Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East.
The first President of the country, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, established the country's first modern commercial winery in 1925, according to Wikipedia, beginning the short modern history of winemaking that caps one of the world's longest histories of the craft. While there are several competing statistics, Turkey now sits somewhere between the 4th and the 6th largest producer of wine grapes in the world. And this is a remarkable feat for a country whose dominant religion forbids the consumption of alcohol, and whose politicians have implemented almost draconian tax levels on the sale and import of wine (roughly 4x Europe's hefty taxes).
Despite these somewhat daunting obstacles, Turkey has long had a culture of drinking wine, and of late, seems to be blossoming into a broader interest in, and appreciation for the fruits of the vine. Starting in the 1990's international grape varieties were introduced, and the next 15 years saw a rapidly increasing and serious commercial investment into wineries. The result was an explosion of smaller (and the increased growth of a few larger) wineries all over the country's seven major wine growing areas (the country has not yet established an official system of geographical designation for wine).
Of course, an explosion means that the number of commercial wine producers in the country now number by the score, rather than the hundreds, but growth is growth.
Judging by my (albeit narrow) experience tasting these wines, Turkey is poised to do very interesting things with its wines given the right combination of investment, care, tourism, and international curiosity in its wares.
Now all I have to do is find the time to actually go visit the place.
2009 Pasaeli Kolorko, Thrace, Turkey
Light yellow-gold in the glass, this wine smells of toasted nuts, lemon oil, and wet stones. In the mouth the wine offers a lightly bitter lemon pith flavor with a hint of pink grapefruit to it. Bitter herbal and mineral flavors linger with pomelo zest in the finish. Slight sulfurous in quality. 12% alcohol. 100% Kolorko, which is an obscure indigenous grape variety from the region. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2009 Urla "Symposium" Muscat, Ukuf Mevkii, Turkey
Pale greenish gold in the glass, this wine smells of green melon and green apples. In the mouth lightly waxy green melon and green apple flavors mix with a moderate level of sweetness. Simple and pleasant, with nice acidity. Score: between 8 and 8.5.
2008 Cotes D'Avanos Kalecik Karasi, Kalecik, Turkey
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of grapey raisins and cassis. In the mouth raisin, mulberry, and blackberry flavors mix with a hint of bitter tree bark and alcoholic heat. Somewhat awkward. Score: around 7.5
2009 Urla Red Blend (Nero d'Avola and Urla Karasi), Ukuf Mevkii, Turkey
Dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of pepper and cassis and leather. in the mouth the wine offers flavors of cassis, leather, wet felt, and some interesting exotic spices. Quite distinctive and unusual. Reasonably balanced, with fine tannins. A blend of Nero d'Avola and Urla Karasi.13.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2009 Urla Red Blend (Nero d'Avola and Sangiovese), Ukuf Mevkii, Turkey
Light ruby in the glass, this wine has a wonderful nose of cherry, strawberry jam, and violets, and over time hints of sandalwood and chocolate. In the mouth, the wine is smooth and silky, with fine powdery tannins that wrap around flavors of cherry, sandalwood, leather, and orange peel. Nice acidity, and wonderful light body makes this wine a beautiful mouthful. Quite delicious, and something I'd love to drink regularly. Score: around 9
2008 Urla "Vourla" Red Blend, Ukuf Mevkii, Turkey
Dark ruby in the glass, this wine has a nose of marzipan and plum and dried black cherries. In the mouth, the wine has a wonderful smoothness, with cherry, leather, dates, and roasted fig flavors. Lightly leathery tannins linger with earthy flavors in the finish. A blend of Bogazkere, Merlot, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon. 13% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5.
2008 Pasaeli Red Blend (Karalahna and Merlot), Thrace, Turkey
Light garnet in the glass, this wine smells of cherry, cocoa powder, and sweet oak. In the mouth the wine offers lightly woody tannins, sweet oak, and cherry vanilla flavors. Good acidity and a light body make this an easy wine to drink, but too much oak mars the flavors, making them seem slightly artificial. A blend of Karalahna and Merlot. Score: around 8.
2006 Pasaeli Red Blend, Kaynaklar / Izmir, Turkey
Inky garnet in the glass, this wine smells of sweet oak, dried black cherries, and cassis. In the mouth, the wine is deep and rich with dark cassis, dried black cherry fruit, and somewhat overpowering flavors of sweet oak. Faint leathery tannins linger with a hint of bitterness in the finish that is unfortunately overly oaky. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Petit Verdot. Score: around 7.
2009 Urla Bogazkere, Ukuf Mevkii, Turkey
Medium to dark purple in the glass, this wine smells of wet leaves, cassis, and black cherry with some slightly savory notes. In the mouth it offers cassis and smoky black cherry flavors. Lightly leathery tannins mix with woodsmoke in the finish. Good balance, and interesting personality. Score: around 8.5.
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