The country of Turkey, then known as Anatolia, began producing wine six thousand years ago.  There are exhibits of this early wine industry dating back to 4,000 B.C. in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara.  The ancient word for wine by this pre-Hittite civilization was actually Vino.  Today, Turkish wines fly under the radar of most people and most wine lovers. 

It is showing up more often in eclectic wine stores and certainly in Turkish restaurants.

Primarily a Muslim country, the use of alcohol in Turkey is quite limited.  In fact, wine drinking was banned during the five hundred year rule of the Ottoman Empire.  What little wine was produced during this time was made by the Christian Greeks and Armenians and Jews.  At the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, most of those wine producers fled the country leaving the wine industry in a position of starting over.  Today although Turkey is a secular country the population is still mostly Muslim and the average per person consumption is less than one liter of wine per year.  

The climate is diverse in a country as large as Turkey.  The main wine growing areas have warm summers while the winters tend to be mild.  Likewise the soils are quite diverse but include areas with volcanic and sandstone soils.  There are 1,250 different grape varietals grown in Turkey making it the fourth largest country in terms of vineyard acreage and sixth in terms of grape production.  Only about 32 of these grape varietals are used for wine (22 of them being indigenous) with the rest being used for raisins.  There are five main wine producing regions, Marmara and Thrace, Aegean, Central Anatolian, Mediterranean, and the South East.  Almost 300 wineries produce almost 70 million liters of wine per year.

The most important export markets are Belgium, Cypress and Germany which account for two thirds of all exports.  

Some of the most popular red wine grapes are Bogazkere know for it tannins, Kalecik Karasi perhaps the best red known for its figs, roses and strawberry notes, Karasakiz a simple wine that adds some body, Çalkarasi which produces pleasant fruity wines, and Öküzgözü known for strong acidity and fruity floral wines.  The most well-liked white grapes include, Emir which produces dry unique wines, Narince, possibly the best white as it turns out rich wines capable of ageing and Sultaniye a low acid easy to quaff fruity wine.

The wine producer with the reputation for the best wines is the Kavaklidere winery.  Kavaklidere means valley of the poplars.  The winery is near Ankara, the capital of Turkey.  It is also the first privately owned winery, established in 1929.  With more than 5300 hectares of vineyards, Kavaklidere is the largest winery in Turkey producing 43 different wines.  About 20% of their production is for export.  I recently tasted thru a variety of their wines.  

The Kavaklidere Cankaya is a blend of the Narince, Emir, and Sultaniye grapes that retails for about $12.  It is green/gold in the glass.  The nose has white pepper and tarragon.  With air, grapefruit and smoke emerge.  This is an austere wine and pairs well with a Turkish style Lentil soup.  The Kavaklidere Selection white is blend of Narince and Emir grapes.  It retails for around $15.  This is a light wine, similar to a Pinot Grigio with a bit of jasmine on the nose.  It has bitterness on the palate, that is a bit distracting when sipping, but it goes well with food.  The Kavaklidere Narince Tokat retails for around $22 and is 100% Narince grape.  Silvery gold in color, clear and bright, the nose has peach pits, minerals and some vanilla.  This is a light bodied wine that probably should be enjoyed in its youth.  On the palate, this has citrus and turns a bitter almond note on the finish.  

The Kavaklidere Selection Red is a blend of the Öküzgözü, and Boğazkere grapes and retails for around $16.  It is purple/ruby in color, mostly opaque.  The nose reveals dark cherries and dusty attic with a hefty amount of oak as well.  With air, some tart plums emerge.  It is an interesting wine that drinks well right now as there is not much in the way of tannins or structure.  The Kavaklidere Kale’cik Karasi retails for around $20.  Kale’cik Karasi is the name of the grape.  It is light garnet in color, mostly clear and bright.  The nose is intriguing with cherries, persimmon, pomegranate and also some spice.  It has an almost Pinot Noir quality to it but a bit more dried with a pleasant earthy element.  This was a good wine and really needs to be served with food.  It will cellar well for five to seven years at least.  

All of these Kavaklidere wines have a strong backbone of acidity.  They are made to coexist with the Mediterranean style foods they are served with.  While the wines can be sipped alone, they really perform better at the dinner table.  

There are other wineries in Turkey producing interesting and worthwhile wines.  The Doluca winery’s traditions date back to the founding of the Turkish Republic in the 1920’s.  They make a wide variety of wines using native Turkish varietals.  Büyülüag winery produces mostly international varietals.  Pamukkale is a winery that began in the 1960’s as a bulk winery but made a commitment to quality in the 1970’s.  They also produce mostly international varietals.  

Finally there is a state run winery in Turkey originally called Tekel and now renamed as Mey Gida.  For years, this winery was synonymous with the poor quality of wine being made in Turkey, there has been a new commitment toward improving wine quality over the last few years.  In 2005, they hired an American, Daniel O’Donnell to help with this quest.  One of his first actions was to pour out 70% of the wines held by the winery for being low quality.  

Despite its 6,000 year winemaking tradition, the Turkish wine industry is really at its infancy.  As capital flows into the region, vineyards will be developed, better winemaking facilities will be built and (hopefully) the indigenous varietals will be developed.  

In terms of food, I always recommend local food to match local wines.  These wines are no different.  Cultures develop tastes as a whole, not in parts.  Besides, since most of these wines will require going to a Turkish store or restaurant to purchase, why not go for it all.  Order some falafel or hummus with the whites and some lamb shish kabob with the reds and enjoy.  I would love to hear what you think.

Loren Sonkin is an Featured Contributor and the Founder/Winemaker at Sonkin Cellars.