An Exposé on the Turkish Wine: Busting the Myths with Facts
I’m a big proselytizer for Turkish wine. If you’ve ever stopped by my website before or seen my Instagram account then this does not come as a surprise to you. But of all the time I spend trying to get people interested in it; a fair amount of my effort goes into correcting misconceptions about it. So here I want to address the most common things I’ve heard.
1. Turkey Does Not Make Wine
Let’s start with the big one. The number one thing I hear when I start talking to people about Turkish wine is: “Turkey makes wine?!” Yes. Yes, it does. Turkey has a fairly robust wine industry with over 140 registered wineries and produces about 8 million liters of wine a year.
2. Turkey Hasn’t Been Making Wine For Very Long
Not true at all! Georgia and Armenia have been battling it out for years now over which country has the longest wine producing history. Although some (e.g. me) might say that argument is moot since 8,000 years ago their respective country lines hadn’t been drawn up yet…but I digress. Turkey’s wine history predates history. Heard of the Hittites? Yeah, they were in (what is now) Turkey and had actual written viticulture regulations. But both viticulture and winemaking were happening in Turkey before the Hittites ever dreamed of coming here.
And that segues nicely into myth #3
3. Turkey Does Not Have Its Own Grapes
I understand how people might think this. Go to any shop here and you’ll see tons of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Syrah, Merlot, both of the Cabernets, Tannat, Sangiovese, Montepulciano, etc ad nauseam. Not only does Turkey have its own, native vitis vinifera grapes (about 1200 actually), research says that the first vitis vinifera grapes likely originated in Anatolia, eastern Turkey.
Sadly, not nearly that many grapes are used in wine production. Maybe only 40 to 45 varieties are being vinified right now. The most common you’ll see are:
White: Bornova Misketi, Narince, Emir
Black: Öküzgözü, Kalecik Karası, Boğazkere
Happily, a small group of wineries is working hard to resurrect old grapes. Thanks to these wineries, Turkey has seen a resurgence of wines made from grapes like Kolorko, Sıdalan, Acıkara, Foça Karası, and many more.
4. Grape Growing and Winemaking were Forbidden under the Ottoman Empire
Not at all! This is a huge misconception. While there were periods during the Ottoman Empire during which the making (and of course drinking) of wine was illegal, it was illegal only for the Muslim population. During the time of the Empire, what is now Turkey had a large Christian population, larger than it is now actually. The Ottoman Christians, mostly Greek, Armenian, and Assyrian, produced wine throughout the period. In fact for a very brief period during the Ottoman Empire, Turkey was the largest wine exporting country in the world. Europe’s vineyards had been decimated by phylloxera, which had not yet reached Turkey. Because Europe could not make its own wine, they turned to Turkey as the next largest wine producing country for it.
5. All Turkish Wine Is Bad
This misconception I also understand. When I first moved to Turkey over seven years ago, I had a hard time finding good wine. Also, I was a little afraid of these local grapes! I also hear stories from friends who have lived here longer about how incredibly bad the wine was until as recently as even 12 years ago. Wine quality here has improved dramatically and in such a short period of time. Enthusiastic young winemakers armed with international winemaking education and experience are moving into wineries. Those without formal training, many of them who have opened a winery in their retirement, are wine lovers who know what good wine should taste like and they get there even without a certificate from a viticultural school.
On top of this, several of the mass production wineries buyout restaurant wine lists. So if you’re here as a tourist and you’re only drinking wine in a Turkish restaurant, chances are what is on that list IS bad because it comes from these huge factory wineries. Bad and comes with a 200% markup over retail.
Furthering Turkish wine’s bad reputation are the imports. Sigh. I’ve seen what’s on the shelves in the US and UK. I know there are some importers out there who are dedicated to importing high quality, small batch wines. But it is difficult and expensive so they’re not hitting the larger wine markets. Unfortunately, right now if you want to find good Turkish imports wherever you are you need to seek out more specialized wine merchants. Please don’t buy Turkish wine from Total Wine. I know what they carry and it does Turkish wine’s reputation no favors.
6. Turkish Wine and Food Do Not Pair Well Together
This is a tough one because it’s not entirely untrue. And while I come down on the “food and wine pairing is junk science” side of this discussion; several basic food and wine pairing principals really will help you out in pairing Turkish wine and food.
Strongly flavored foods will overwhelm wine. The Turkish spice palate can be quite overwhelming. A little fenugreek goes a long way people! Then there’s the garlic and the onions and all the various paprikas…The key here is to choose a wine that also has a strongly flavored palate. If you try to drink a delicate Kalecik Karası with your kebab, that’s just not going to work. Try Acıkara or Barburi.
Speaking of spice. Turkish food can be very spicy. The red chili used here, acı biber, literally means “pain pepper.” Big tannic reds like both the Acıkara and Boğazkere I mentioned above will only exacerbate that burning heat. If you have a meat dish that has a lot of heat spice, go for the less tannic reds like Kalecik Karası, Merzifon Karası, Patkara, etc. If you’re eating spicy but meatless dishes, like Turkey’s çiğ köfte, try a semi sweet wine made with Bornova Misketi.
Oil. There is a lot of oil involved in Turkish food. Not in an unhealthy fried way, but many of the delightful mezes here are topped with or preserved in oil such as the stuffed grape leaves and many of the fish dishes. Try pairing these with a high acid wine like Emir, Vasilaki, Yapıncak, Ada Karası, Papazkarası, etc.
And we can’t not talk about yogurt. I don’t know why they bother to put it back in the fridge because it comes out for every single meal. And in Turkey, yogurt is a savory thing and often comes flavored with salt and garlic. How do you pair wine with that?! Öküzgözü rosé. Seriously.
7. Turkey Does Not Make Sparkling Wine
This is something I heard recently and I was a little surprised. Granted the way it came to me was that Turkey does not make “a lot” of sparkling wine. However, I think for the size of the industry as a whole, there’s a respectable chunk dedicated to sparkling wine. The good stuff though is going to cost you.
Last time I checked; Turkey offers at least 15 different sparkling wines. A good chunk of those are cheap fizz made by adding carbonation. But there are also higher quality tank method production wines and a good half dozen made in the traditional method. Of those, the best (in my opinion) are those made with native grapes but you can also find sparkling tank and traditional method wines made with international grapes.