March has gone by quite fast and I didn’t even get the chance to write about my extraordinary experience with the Turkish wines in the Sommeliers’ Selection held in St. Regis Hotel in Istanbul last 25 – 26 February that was organized by Gustobar. I had a very fast-paced trip to Istanbul arriving from Rome at midday on the 25th just in time for a late lunch, the Sommelier Masterclass and a few minutes of tasting wines at the almost empty tasting rooms before the event closed for the day. The 26th was a different thing as the wine tasting event opened to the public. It was full of wine enthusiasts but it was surprisingly nice to see such excited anticipation of the wines produced in Turkey, 179 of them from 40 producers and a handful of international labels from Italy, France, Chile and Spain.
Turkish wines are very much under the radar and I think that they need to find a niche in the wine world and be recognized outside the country.
The Museum of Anatolian Civilizations in Ankara have some exhibits pertaining to early wine production dating back from 4,000 B.C.
Even if wine production in Turkey has been established thousands of years ago, the country has only started to focus on quality production the past few years. The Turkish wine industry is growing slowly, sure-footedly but still underrated. The 2013 ban on the promotion of alcohol (that includes wine tastings and advertisements) hindered the smooth road for domestic growth for the wine producers and at present, they are seeking recognition in the international market with Germany, Cyprus and Belgium as the main importers of their wines. Needless to say, they have the need to widen their scope in the international market.
Ampelographers (botanists who identify and classify grapevines) estimate that Turkey has about 1,200 indigenous Vitis vinifera grape varieties although only about 60 of them are commercially cultivated. It is the sixth largest country in terms of grape production, however, only 2% of the production is used for wine production while the rest are used for other food products.
Being a large country, Turkey has diverse climatic conditions and soil characteristics that are very suitable for grape cultivation. The main wine producing regions are Marmara (Thrace), Aegean, Central Anatolia, and Mediterranean. One of the most popular authochthonous white grapes is Narince which can be compared to Chardonnay. It produces straw yellow wines with floral notes, yellow fruits and delicate citrus aromas. This is also the grape that I like looking for when I drink Turkish white wine. Emir is another authocthonous white grape variety of the Cappadocia area that produces light and crisp white wines with notes of green apple and minerals for easy drinking. Then there is also the Sultaniye which is the most widely-cultivated white grape variety used as table grapes, sultana raisins and winemaking that produces light, fresh wines with notes of tropical fruits and pears.
For the native red varieties, the Okuzgozu, translated as bullseye in English is known for its complex wines with lively acidity, and mature fruit and floral notes. Kalecik Karasi, yields lovely red wines with notes of cotton candy, strawberries and other red berries and low on tannins. Bokazkere which means throat burner is known for its full-bodied red wines that are rich in tannins. Calkarasi is the red variety that produces significant acidity in wines with peach and strawberry aromas that is used often in rosè wines.
For the international grape varieties, there is a big cultivation of Shiraz followed by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc while the white varieties are Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Pinot Gris, Riesling and Semillon.
The Sommelier Masterclass was conducted by Master Sommeliers (there are only 214 in the world) Ronan Sayburn (UK) and Isa Bal (Turkey). Both have impressive credentials serving or having served as head sommeliers of three Michelin-starred restaurants in London of the Gordon Ramsay group (Sayburn) and The Fat Duck (Bal). While Sayburn was recently the UK Sommelier of the Year, Bal also bagged the title of the 2008 Best Sommelier of Europe.
Out of the 179 wine entries in the event, they chose a very good selection for the masterclass wine tasting of 13 wines, 12 of which are from Turkey and one from France, with indigenous and international grapes.
The white wines are:
Kocabag, K Emir 2015
Vinolus, Vinolus Narince 2015
Irem Camlica, Chamlija Chardonnay 2014
Champalou, Les Fondraux 2015 (France)
Yazgan, Vodina 2013 (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah)
During my last trip to Turkey a couple of years ago, I went to the Marmara (Thrace) wine region in the northwest of the country that shares the border with Bulgaria. The country has a number of distinct wine regions spread out in its land giving the wines a diversity of interesting characteristics. I found most of the wines so easy to love especially in the wine region we settled in because they are balanced and fresh. Important wine producer Arcadia Vineyards and newcomer Porta Caeli Vineyards are a couple of wine labels to look out for at the Marmara wine region.
The Sommeliers’ Selection last February opened new windows in appreciating Turkish wines in a more profound nature underlining the uniqueness of the terroirs and grape varieties. The native varieties are definitely interesting and new to the nose and palate but also the blends and the international varieties give different perspectives to the wines.
Where there’s wine, there is also food. Food and wine walk hand in hand in gastronomy because they are perfect partners in the palates. Without each other, it’s hard to enjoy them singularly and at the Sommeliers’ Selection, a few tables of cheese, bread, and extra virgin olive oil were present to accompany the wines. I am a big lover of strong flavors so aged cheese is my usual preference. The Gorcola is a local cheese produced in the Posof-Hanak districts in northeastern Turkey. It is produced from skimmed cow’s milk and when mature, produces molds and becomes greenish. Quite powerful and explosive with flavors. Another Turkish blue cheese is the Konya Kuflu, a Tulum cheese which is a traditional goat’s milk cheese that ripened in a goatskin casing called tulum.