Most people, including many wine enthusiasts, have not heard of many (or any) of Turkey’s grape varieties. While Turkey shares some native grapes with its geographic neighbors, the majority are endemic to the country. There’s no Narince in California. No Öküzgözü in South Africa. Nor is there any Kalecik Karası in New Zealand…but there is Boğazkere in Australia. The story of Lokum Wine began in 2005 when Robert Paul and John Runting (respectively a winemaker and a viticulturist) were visiting Istanbul. In a restaurant on the shores of the Bosphorus, they took a stab at ordering a bottle of Turkish wine from the menu. Eschewing the wines made with international grapes, they chose a Doluca “Kav” Öküzgözü-Boğazkere blend. While he says that he cannot recall the exact details of what was on the plate, he does vividly recall the flavors in his glass.
“I had never tasted a wine like this before…at once medium-bodied yet rich and full of flavour. Yes, there were tannins but they melted on to the palate especially in company with the food. The aromas were new to me, full of spice and exotic fruit scents.”
This wine unfolded a sea of possibilities for the two. After working with Doluca for a year, they decided to try bringing a Turkish grape back to Australia. Their hunch that Boğazkere, originally from Turkey’s hot and dry Diyarbakır would grow well in Central Victoria paid off. In 2014, they released their first vintage of Boğazkere…and drank all of it! Subsequent vintages of this small production wine have been snapped up quickly by shops and restaurants in Melbourne and Sydney. I heard about Lokum Wine a few years ago and have followed their progress as much as I can via the winery’s website and Instagram. Turkish grapes being grown and made into wine abroad? How could I not be fascinated? I was thrilled then, when Robert Paul graciously agreed to an interview about Lokum Wine and his adventures with Boğazkere.
Andrea Lemieux: To begin, can you tell me a little bit about how you got started in wine?
Robert Paul: Well, I graduated from university with a degree in medieval history and philosophy. This was pretty useless, as you could imagine, from a career point of view so after a few years of no real direction, I decided to study winemaking. It’s a truism that winemaking is a combination of art and science and I think that appealed to me. And once you get on the winemaking bus, it’s not easy to get off.
Andrea Lemieux: In 2005, when you had your first Öküzgözü – Boğazkere blend you were working with (and still are) Doluca. How did that come about?
Robert Paul: I was working with a wine consultancy firm here in Melbourne. One day, we received an email out of the blue from Ahmet Kutman of Doluca asking if we were interested in working with them. At the time, Doluca had commenced an ambitious programme of vineyard establishment and development to ensure high-quality fruit and to free themselves somewhat from the tyranny of growers (as I was to later see, much of this purchased fruit was not of premium quality).
The Kutmans wanted to make sure they were doing things as well as possible in the vineyard and in the winery so after some initial discussions, I travelled to Turkey with a viticultural colleague to assess the vineyards and wines of Doluca. I can only assume that the Kutmans had a high opinion of Australian viticultural and oenological prowess (that being said, Australians were well-known as “flying winemakers” at that time).
Sixteen years later, I am still working with Doluca and I still remember fondly that first bottle of Doluca “Kav”. It was at a waterside restaurant near Florya on a beautiful summer evening and I just fell in love with that wine and that blend. It’s still my nostalgic favourite of all the Doluca wines.
Andrea Lemieux: In the ‘Lokum story’ on your website you mentioned that Boğazkere presents “real winemaking challenge.” Could you talk about that a little?
Robert Paul: Boğazkere is a fascinating grape in many ways but two of the most intriguing things about it are its pronounced tannin profile and its large bunches/reasonably large berries.
As you know, the accepted wisdom is that one needs small berries to make great wine (it’s supposedly all about skin to juice ratio) but Boğazkere seems to show that this isn’t always true. (And by the way, Öküzgözü is even more noticeable in this—I am continually amazed at how good vineyards in Elazığ can produce such deeply-coloured and flavoured wine from such large berries).
And the tannin profile is where it gets interesting. The grapes are not pleasant to eat…in fact, it’s the only grape I know that is like this…but in the winemaking and particularly in the maturation, these tannins are malleable and the end result is less severe than one might have supposed at the beginning. We have recognised that we need to be careful with oak maturation where we can see a tendency to added dryness on the palate if the oak and time is misjudged. This is so much the case that now we do not use any oak in our maturation-it’s all done in tank.
Andrea Lemieux: When you got the vines to Australia, were the challenges you knew from Turkey similar?
Robert Paul: I think we faced some new ones, such as damage from kangaroos and wallabies!
Pruning did present some challenges, due in part to our row orientation (north/south) which exposed the western side of the vine to the fierce Australian summer sun in the afternoon.
Overall, the challenges were not that different from what we might find in any new variety.
Andrea Lemieux: You’re planting in Central Victoria which is hot and dry similar to Diyarbakır, but I imagine there are some differences in your climate/terroir. Could you talk a little about those and how you see those differences affecting the grapes?
Robert Paul: Our climate here is not quite as extreme as Diyarbakır. While it is very hot in summer, we don’t get the consistently high temperatures that you see in Diyarbakır. In winter, it’s a similar story—cold but not as extreme.
Rainfall is slightly higher and more evenly spread throughout the year. This helps moderate the high temperatures in the growing season especially.
The grapes ripen late, as they do in Turkey. In the adjacent vineyard, all the other varieties have been picked before we even think about picking ours. That’s what we hoped would be the case and it links with my response to the next question. Grapes that ripen late have the advantage of ripening in more stable conditions which means for example that natural acidity is more likely to be retained (we never need to add acid to our wine which is quite unusual in the hotter parts of Victoria where we are). We like to think this gives a better balanced wine.
Andrea Lemieux: How many hectares of Boğazkere are you working with for Lokum Wine and how does that translate into production levels for you?
Robert Paul: It’s really a small planting. You might even call it a “vanity project”. The reasons behind bringing Boğazkere to Australia were not personally commercial. We wanted to introduce a variety that traditionally grows in a very hot and dry environment without much, if any, additional water via irrigation. As you know, Australia has vast areas of vineyard in our inland regions, all irrigated extensively. There’s a strong case to be made that the varieties currently planted there are ultimately unsuitable because of their water demand. We wanted to show that there are other varieties that might replace these thirsty ones. And then there is the quality angle-I don’t think anyone in their right mind would say that Chardonnay for example has a natural home in a hot inland irrigated vineyard in Australia. Its natural home is somewhere with a temperate climate, such as Burgundy. But Boğazkere has always thrived in hot, dry places.
So to answer the question…we only have an acre or so of vines at this stage and we produce only about 100 cases of wine annually.
Andrea Lemieux: Could you describe your Boğazkere wine?
Robert Paul: I like to say it resembles a cross between Grenache and Nebbiolo. The former because of the lifted juicy characters and also some darker licorice and fig notes, the latter because of the tannin profile. This comparison also applies to the body or weight of the wine. It’s medium-bodied yet has an intensity of flavour.
We have changed our label to reflect how we see the variety. The new label has three intersecting circles, like a Venn diagram. Each circle represents one of the “holy trinity” of the Mediterranean, the grape, the fig and the olive. Where these circles intersect is where we see Boğazkere, in flavour and character. In a good Boğazkere, I believe one can find these grape, fig and olive flavours.
Andrea Lemieux: Have you compared your wine now to Turkish Boğazkere? Clearly there would be some differences in the wines depending on winemaking, but have you been able to pinpoint anything in your wines that might be uniquely Australian?
Robert Paul: Generally, Australian red wines are less tannic than their northern hemisphere counterparts. We see that with our Boğazkere, where any lessening of tannin is probably a good thing. The grapes still taste very tannic but in the winemaking these tannins are remarkably malleable and soften out rather easily. There is still a noticeable tannic profile, as there should be since this is the feature that sets the variety apart, but it’s not overwhelming.
We also see a more elevated fruit profile with a noticeable ester lift. Of course, that is due in part to our winemaking approach—we crush very gently, retaining lots of whole berries so there is an element of carbonic maceration.
Andrea Lemieux: What has been the reception for your wine in Australia? Australia has a pretty good Turkish wine import market with The Turkish Drop and Opel importing some really good wines. Do you think that helped at all when you released yours?
Robert Paul: Well, it certainly helped open some doors. Tan at Opal Wines has been very supportive and has been assisting us from the very beginning.
Nevertheless, it hasn’t been easy to develop the market. We like to joke that we have violated the two most important wine marketing rules since we:
1. Have an unpronounceable name that no-one has ever heard of
2. Have a wine that is not soft and consumer-friendly but is tannic and somewhat dry
Andrea Lemieux: Have you had to teach people how to correctly pronounce the grape?
Robert Paul: Yes, we have but without much success! It’s the “ğ” that gets them every time.
Nevertheless, we persevere. Lucky we didn’t start with Öküzgözü.
Andrea Lemieux: I think I saw somewhere that you were also going to start working with other Turkish grapes? If I didn’t make that up, how is that going? Will we start seeing Australian Narince or Öküzgözü soon?
R Robert Paul: Yes, we did have plans, but Covid-19 has put a stop to them. At the moment, we are evaluating if we wish to proceed. To introduce a new variety is a decade-long process really.
First, we have to select the right mother vines after finding the right vineyard, then take cuttings in the winter then transport them to Australia and place them in quarantine. Here they are held for up to two years to ensure they are free of any virus. Then we have to propagate the cuttings to get enough for a worthwhile planting, then wait for three years to get a viable crop for winemaking, then make the wine, mature it, bottle it etc etc. So you can see it’s not an overnight proposition.
We are evaluating our options just now.
Andrea Lemieux: As far as I know, you are the first to grow native Turkish grapes outside of Turkey-at least as far as commercial production goes. I have my own suspicions as to why that could be, but why do you think that might be the case?
Robert Paul: This is a good question. Of course, there is a cultural and historical bias in people’s wine choices. The connection between Christianity and wine is ineradicable and plain to see. The Ottoman Empire did not and could not emulate this social and religious nexus.
Historically as you know, the French and Spanish took grapes to their colonies while the British took French grapes to theirs. So, in effect the wine industries in Europe and all over the once-colonial world are based on these European grape varieties. The Italian diaspora in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries only added to this trend.
It is understandable then that a large part of the wine world knows only these grapes. Most wine consumers are generally conservative in their choices and stick with what they know. This further reinforces the hegemony of European varieties. It takes a long time for new and different varieties to become known. Luckily, this trend is accelerating now that we live in what we might call the “Era of Wine”.
Andrea Lemieux: Do you think Turkish varieties could be successfully grown elsewhere in the world? And what, in your opinion, do we need to do to get people interested in doing it?
Robert Paul: Yes, I think Turkish varieties can and will be grown elsewhere. The key, as it is so often, will be found in Turkish cuisine and the improvement in quality that we are seeing in Turkish wine. When tourists return en masse to Turkey, I think they will be surprised at the developments in the local wine industry. There is a great opportunity to reach these consumers through Turkish food and it’s a great pity that wine prices locally remain so high. Also, Turkish cuisine is getting noticed world-wide. We see it here in Australia with the opening of some upmarket restaurants such as Yagiz and Tulum in Melbourne and Anason in Sydney. There is also a new generation of sommeliers and wine professionals who are looking for new tastes and new varieties and are not bound by tradition. These people will be asking for Turkish varieties.
Andrea Lemieux: I know Esat Ayhan has his (empty!) bottle of Lokum proudly on display at La Cave in Cihangir; his bottle aside, I know you’re not exporting to Turkey but are you looking to export at all?
Robert Paul: No, we really don’t have the quantity available. Besides, in my experience, dealing with Turkish customs is a level of difficulty that I don’t think I have the patience for!
Andrea Lemieux: Clearly the pandemic has disrupted a lot of businesses, events, and travel plans…but when travel is possible, will we see you in Turkey at any of the wine events like Challenging Master Class or Bir Yüdüm Üzüm?
Robert Paul: I hadn’t planned on attending any of these events but if they coincided with a harvest there, it might be a good thing to do. Let’s see what happens.