A Primer on Turkish Wine Grapes – Part One: Black Grapes
I’ve been writing about Turkish wine for going on five years now and still the most common question I get about it is an incredulous, “Turkey makes wine??” Yes, it does! Unintentionally, Turkish wine remains a well-kept secret; but one well worth discovering. To help you do so, I offer a little two-part primer on Turkish wine and its grapes.
But first, a little history.
Modern Turkey is the product of thousands of years of acting as a crossroads between the east and the west: a fact that Istanbul uses as one of its big tourism selling points. It is famously known as the city that straddles two continents. This cultural melting pot has also greatly influenced wine production in Turkey. During their time ruling Anatolia, the Hittite Kingdom (1700 – 1200 BC), Anatolia was called “Wiyanawanda” – land of the grapevine. The Hittites, who used wine for religious ceremonies in addition to enjoying the beverage themselves, laid down numerous laws to regulate both vine growing and winemaking. After the Hittite Kingdom fell, subsequent peoples like the Assyrians, Phrygians, and of course the Greeks and Romans both continued and contributed to winemaking traditions in Turkey. Winemaking in Turkey continues today and those looking for off the beaten track enotourism can find wineries in all corners of the country. For those looking to expand more than their wine horizons, history buffs will be delighted by the number of UNESCO historical sites including ruins, monuments, underground cities, ancient churches, and archaeology museums that are within easy reach of wineries.
In the early days of the Twentieth Century, it was largely the Ottoman Empire’s Greek population responsible for wine production. Then the population exchange in the 1920s saw the loss of both that population and wine production know-how. Modern, commercial wine production in Turkey, now by ethnic Turks themselves, was born in the 1940s. It began slowly and was of dubious quality. However, government grants in the 1990s helped small production wineries get off the ground and drive a movement away from quantity to quality.
Today, Turkey produces approximately 8 million liters of wine annually. The country is home to 146 wineries making wines in all styles (still, sparkling, sweet, and fortified) and with both domestic and international grape varieties.
If you’ve encountered Turkish wine in Turkey or abroad, you may have been a little hesitant to try some; either because you couldn’t comprehend wine in Turkey or due to unfamiliarity with the grape name. Turkey is home to a vast and rich array of native vitis vinifera grapes to delight all wine lovers from the neophyte to the geekiest of wine geeks. While some of their names might be a challenge to say, they are a joy to drink.
So, what exactly are these domestic grape varieties? Here, in part one of the Primer on Turkish Wine Grapes, we’re going to focus on the most popular black grape varieties. The bulk of Turkish wine production centers around red wine. Let’s get to know the six most popular black varieties.
Boğazkere (bow-aahz-keh-reh) is one of the most tannic grapes Turkey has to offer, so much so that the grape’s name, Boğazkere, means “throat burner” or “throat scratcher.” Grown primarily in South East Anatolia (Diyarbakır), Boğazkere grapes make dark, full bodied wines with dense tannins, medium acid, and complex flavor profiles. The complex aroma profile for Boğazkere wines may include: black cherry, raspberry, blackberry, black mulberry, pepper, clove, eucalyptus, tobacco, leather, pine forest, dark chocolate, and liquorice.
Because of its high level of tannins, Boğazkere is often found blended with other black grapes, most notably Öküzgözü. However, when made well and softened with oak ageing, Boğazkere can be a full-bodied wine with red and black berry flavors accompanied by herbaceous, spice, and leather.
Big and tannic, Boğazkere needs equally big and bold flavors to stand up to the grapes’ sometimes ferocious personality.
Çalkarası (chal-car-as-ser) is a native Aegean grape that makes rose and light, fruity red wines and can grow in both clay/loamy and chalky soils. Generally, Çalkarası grapes have a high level of acidity making them particularly good for rose wines and have an aroma profile of: peaches, strawberries, red fruits, and ripe white fruits.
Çalkarası can and is vinified as a varietal red wine, included in red blends, made into dark and light rosés, as well as blanc de noir wines. This great versatility helps it pair with a range of foods and flavors.
Kalecik Karası (kahl-eh-djik kar-ra-saih), often referred to as Turkey’s answer to Pinot Noir, hails from the area around the country’s capital, Ankara. While it’s now widely found and planted, it was almost extinct until the 1970s when the grape was reinvigorated by Prof. Dr. Y. Sabit Ağaoğlu.
Grown largely in pebbly clay loam soil, Kalecik Karası produces a light to medium bodied red wine known for its distinctive cotton candy aroma. Other common aromas and flavors found in this wine include: red berries, cherry, strawberry, raspberry, pyrazine, game, and stable. Kalecik Karası wines are not complex. Kalecik Karası at its worst is a simple fresh and fruity wine without complexity but with enjoyable fruit and candy aromas. However, when made well, the grape is capable of producing wines with elegance and complexity and an aroma profile that includes: red berries, cherry, strawberry, raspberry, cotton candy, pyrazine, game, and stable.
A delightfully versatile grape making blanc de noir, rosé, red, and sparkling wine, it’s almost easier to say with what Kalecik Karası does not pair. But to keep in theme with the rest of the grapes, let’s talk about with what it does pair well.
Karasakız Known also as ‘Kuntra’ the Karasakız (kar-ah-sah-kiz) grape is the oldest grape variety grown on the island Bozcaada where it has been grown for at least 500 years. Preferring warmer climates, this grape is often cultivated in the traditional way in which the vines are grown low to the ground. Karasakız grapes generally produce fruity and spicy medium-bodied wines with low tannins and medium acidity. Black pepper is often the dominant flavor along with red fruits like cherry and strawberry, dried fruits, sweet spices, candy and thyme.
Karasakız wines are becoming increasingly easy to find in a variety of styles including: rosé, unoaked red wines, oak-aged and reserve red wines, and traditional method blanc de noir sparkling wines. This versatility is also reflected in the range of foods with which it can pair.
Cheeses: wide range depending on the wine’s age and oak influence level but everything from soft, bloomy-rind (brie, camembert) and semi-hard (gruyere, gravyer, comte) to hard cheeses (parmesan) and those of the smoked or pungent arena
Herbs/Spices: balsamic, bay leaf, bitter chocolate (think cocoa nibs), black pepper, cinnamon, clove, cumin, herbs de Provence, lavender, marjoram, oregano, rosemary, savory, sumac, sweet paprika, thyme, truffle, walnut
Öküzgözü is the most widely planted native variety in Turkey. This tongue-twisting grape originated in Mid-Eastern Anatolia (Elazığ) but is now grown across the country.
Pronounced uh-küz-guh-zü, Öküzgözü grapes prefer red clay or sandy/limestone soils. These grapes get their name, Öküzgözü, meaning “bull’s eye” from their large, round shape and nearly black color. While the name might be a mouthful, Öküzgözü grapes usually produce wines that are light red and medium bodied, with round, fruity flavors, some tannins, and rather lively acidity. The aroma profile of Öküzgözü wines often include: raspberry, dark cherry, mint, chocolate, eucalyptus, sour cherry, pomegranate, ripe plums, cherry marmalade, clove, and cardamom.
Öküzgözü is flexible and food friendly. Because it’s made in everything from dry rosé to rich, oaky reds it can pair well with a wide range of flavors.
Papazkarası Also spelled Papaskarası, this ancient grape has a history going back at least 1,500 years native to Turkey’s Thrace. Papazkarası (pa-paz-ka-rah-sih), or “black of the pope” earned its name as allegedly being the favorite wine of the Constantinople-based popes of the Byzintine era. Suspected to be the result from a natural crossing of Balkan black grape Prokupac and Romanian white grape Alba Imputotato, this round, nearly black-colored berries grows best in clay-loam soils and dry conditions. It has the ability to make versatile wines that are aromatic, fruit-forward, and naturally highly acidic light bodied red wines and blanc de noir white wines.