The Preternatural Volcanic Landscapes and Wines of Cappadocia

Visitors to volcanic regions often have little doubt about where they are. Volcanic mountains and hills (active or not) make up places like Mount Etna, Santorini, Somló, and the Canary Islands. Wherever you happen to be, you know you’re on land created by violent, fiery, eruptions. But not all volcanic regions are so obvious. In Turkey’s Central Anatolia, Cappadocia, famous for its hot air balloons, hidden cave churches, and strange fairy chimneys, does not have a towering volcano. There are no craters or deep piles of lava rocks. But this land too was created by fire, ash, and lava.

While volcanoes have not been active here in a very long time, (between 3 and 9 million years ago) they left an indelible stamp on the area. The alien landscape dotted with the fairy chimneys that has made Cappadocia so famous is a direct result of those very eruptions. Volcanoes first belched ash that, layer by layer, covered the land. Then came lava, which coated mountains of ash deposit and formed a hard, crusty surface. The resulting tuff (rock made of volcanic ash) had areas of both strength and weakness. Pounding water washed away the weakest sections. Rushing winds then entered these tunnels to race around, carving out wider pathways, and finally to swirl around the hardest and immovable sections of rock. The result, the eerie, basalt rock formations we call fairy chimneys. Early Christians took advantage of the softer tuff, hollowing out caves for churches and burrowing deep into the earth to create underground cities used to escape enemies and persecution.

Within the strange beauty of this region lies a dynamic industry of which few are truly aware. Wine. An industry that predates Christianity and its use of wine; it played as important of a role in the rituals and culture of the peoples who came before. Above all, it exploits the region’s volcanic legacy. Wines created here are unique among Turkish wines for their expression of the volcanic terroir.

Although it is unknown exactly when wine first appeared in Cappadocia, evidence of grape and wine production dates back to at least 3000 BC during the Neolithic era. It was, however, the Hittites who really established wine culture in this era. During the height of their empire (1700 – 1200 BC), the Hittites were prolific vignerons. Wine was used in religious ceremonies, for everyday drinking, and featured heavily in commerce. They were among the first civilizations to lay down viticultural legislation. Wine played such a vital role in the Hittite Kingdom that their lands were called “Wiyanawanda” – land of the grapevine. It is from their word, “wiyana” that many modern languages derive their own word for wine.

While “land of the grapevine” evokes an image of lushly green vine canopies and rolling hills akin to a classic European wine region like Tuscany, visitors here will find anything but. In fact, one might look around the desolate and barren soils where volcanoes once spewed forth lava and think anyone who tries to make wine here is insane. But, as the saying goes, where nothing else will grow, plant vines.

Part of Central Anatolia, Cappadocia sits at some of the highest elevations in Turkey. It is a plateau, pierced by volcanic peaks, that reaches over 1000 meters (3,880 feet) in altitude. It has a markedly continental climate due to its inland location and high altitude. Rainfall is sparse and the region is largely semi-arid. If Turkey has any one region that could be considered “extreme” it would be here. Some of the vineyards at the far edges exceed altitudes of 1500 meters (4,920 feet) and are home to ungrafted vines that clock in between 150-200 years old.

Many grape varieties have found a home here. Some, like Kalecik Karası, Hasandede, Chardonnay, and Tempranillo are popular grapes, but not originally from here. Others, like Keten Gömlek, Kızıl Üzüm, and İt Üzümü are native to this region but are incredibly rare and only just beginning to capture the imagination and attention of wine lovers. But there is one grape native to these tuff and basalt soils. This is the land of Emir, one of Turkey’s predominant native white grapes.

Emir, the Lord of Grapes

Emir is thought to have earned its name (which means “prince” or “lord”) by being a favorite at the table of princes and lords during the Ottoman Empire. Or perhaps the name is meant to show how finicky and difficult the grape is to grow!

While the grape does not go up on the hot air balloon rides, being at home in this region means it’s not afraid of heights! Cappadocia has a generally high altitude of over 1,000 meters and the grape, grown in head-trained bushes, usually grows on the slopes above the plateau. Nor does Emir fear the chill, a bonus in this cold continental area where bitter, autumn rains and deep winter snows account for the majority of precipitation.

Emir grapes prefer soils largely composed of sand, sandstone, and decomposed volcanic tuff. Grapes are slightly oval, green-yellow, grow in medium-sized conical clusters, and ripen mid-season. When it grows here in its native land, Emir seemingly (if not actually, scientifically) soaks up minerals from the volcanic soils giving the wine a “salty” edge to its otherwise fruity and floral profile.

Unsurprisingly given its growing environment, Emir grapes never develop a high level of sugar. This translates into wines that are always dry with high levels of acidity. Emir has no affinity for oak and therefore (usually) ages in stainless steel. However, some degree of malolactic conversion or sur lie ageing is not unheard of.

The best examples are pale straw yellow wines famous for the crisp apple, zesty citrus, and minerals in the nose. On the palate this fresh and lively wine carries the flavors of apples, pineapple, kiwi, citrus fruit, white roses, and mineral. A few wineries have tried growing Emir outside its continental volcanic home. However, the grape does not adapt well to other terroirs. Only a few wineries make their home where Emir is. The only other option (which some do) is to buy grapes from other growers and truck them across the country. Based in Cappadocia itself are Turasan, Kocabağ, Argos, and Kavaklidere. All the way across the country, Melen makes two wines from Emir it buys in as do Bozcaada-based Corvus and Aegean/Denizli-based Aykut Özkan.

Food pairing

With its crisp and lively character, Emir pairs very well with oily and fatty foods such as many of Turkey’s traditional mezes like stuffed grape leaves and anchovies. It loves more than just Turkish food. It enhances Thai and Singaporean flavors as well!

Emir loves prosciutto and ham as well as pork and chicken. Of course, fish and seafood are great pairings and the wine does remarkably well with sushi and ceviche. 

These light to medium-bodied wines pair well with salads, cheeses like feta, Manchego, harder goat cheeses, and cream cheese. Try Emir with fruits, vegetables, and nuts such as lemon, lime, grapefruit, fennel, celeriac, kohlrabi, purslane, green bell pepper, endive, zucchini, asparagus, pine nuts, and almonds. Also, using the following herbs and spices will serve you well: lemongrass, lemon balm, kaffir lime leaves, chive, tarragon, cilantro, white pepper, mustard, capers, and sweet-sour flavors.

Wines to look out for

Kocabağ K of Kapadokya – As one of the leading, and onsite, producers of Emir, Kocabağ offers several different bottlings at various price points. This is Kocabağ’s entry level Emir. Pale lemon in the glass. Not especially expressive on the nose, the wine nonetheless displayed delicate aromas of lemon blossom and sea spray. Kocabağ leans towards a softer approach to Emir than neighboring Turasan. Round palate with understated acidity, more lemon, pomelo, and wet stone. Medium – body with 12.5% abv.

Kocabağ Emir – Also pale lemon but more intense aromas of lemon peel, again pomelo, and lemon salt. Round with mid palate weight, medium acidity, and 13.5% abv. Flavors largely reflected those sensed on the nose with the addition of pink grapefruit and a pleasant citrus pith bitterness on the finish.

Turasan Emir – A giant in the Turkish wine industry, Turasan’s Emir is the embodiment of what it means to be this grape. Light straw with green highlights in the glass with green apple, lime, lemon peel, and mineral. Electric and tense in the mouth, the acidity in Turasan’s Emir immediately puckers the mouth before an explosion of mouthwatering green apple, lemon zest, freshly squeezed lemon, and kiwi flavors. Once you’ve recovered from that, the minerality that makes Emir so notorious reminds you why you bought the entry ticket in the first place and leaves behind a lemony salt and sea spray finish. Light and almost effervescent for all its high (14.5% abv) alcohol.

Argos Gilamada Emir – Argos’s Emir shows light gold in the glass. Not your usual Cappadocia Emir, the nose reveals pear, and floral aromas lifted by bright citrus and filled out with a hint of earthy herbs. Pleasingly low alcohol at just 12.3% abv, its light-weight body is somehow both soft and aggressively acidic. Largely reflective of the nose but dominated by pear and acacia flowers.Kavaklidere Altın Köpük – Another industry giant, Kavaklidere produces the only 100% Emir sparkling wine. Altın Köpük (Golden Foam) is a brut, tank method wine. Pale gold with fine perlage, the bubbles burst with aromas of biscuit, toasted nuts, and lemon. Sipping reveals a dry wine with a vigorous mousse, 13.8% abv, and flavors of lemon curd topped shortbread.

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