You could consider boğazkere, öküzgözü and kalecik karas the Shem, Ham and Japheth of Turkey’s native grapes – thriving on the surrounds of Mt Ararat in East Anatolia where Noah and his three sons sought refuge, planted grapes and begat generations of winemakers, wine merchants and wine drinkers.
Noah’s grandson Canaan – Ham’s son – was the father of the Canaanites, who migrated to Phoenicia (modern-day Lebanon), bringing their wines to the Egyptians around 3,500 years ago. From the Egyptians to the Greeks and onto to the New World. The two-handled amphora wine jars that came to proliferate in the Phoenician, Egyptian, Greek and Roman empires originated with the Canaanites.
Canaan’s second son Heth was father of the Hittites, who controlled the empire of Anatolia in eastern Turkey more than 3,000 years ago.
The Hittites were the first known civilisation to regulate and protect wine and winemaking – one way to protect such an important commodity. “When a man drinks it, from him all ill vanishes, from you Gods in the same way,” uncovered cuneiform text extols. Evidence of viticulture has been found in excavations at Çatal Höyük, dating from around 7,000 BC. Meaning ‘forked mound’ due to its layout, it is regarded as the most sophisticated settlement of the age and the world’s first city, where nomadic life gave way to a permanent farming community.
Yet winemaking here has waxed and waned over the millennia. While there is more land under vine now than in the US, it is overwhelmingly for table grapes and distilling into raki, the national drink of Turkey. Only perhaps as few as 40 grapes varieties are used in Turkish winemaking. But the trajectory is on the up.
Leading the charge is wine made from three indigenous varieties that thrive in the Central and Eastern Anatolian regions – boğazkere, öküzgözü and kalecik karasi.
Bordering Armenia, Iraq and Syria, Eastern Anatolia’s vineyards, largely planted along the Euphrates River, are exposed to a rugged climate: extremely cold, snowy winters and very dry summers, with varying elevations, typically more than 1,000m above sea level, with soils comprising decomposed sandstone and red clays. It is the elevated, mineral-rich soils in these harsh environs, with pronounced diurnal temperature variations, that provide premium growing conditions for these local grapes.
Dating from 1926 when the modern Republic of Turkey was born, Doluca Wines (dolucawines.com) is one of the oldest and largest wineries. It has come a long way since its wines were towed – by rowing boats – in massive barrels to larger vessels waiting off the Marmara coast, and then off to the old tap rooms and wine maisons of Istanbul. The winery is now run by third-generation brother-sister team, Ali Kutman and Sibel Kutman Oral. Sibel plays an integral part in the recent ascendancy of women winemakers in Turkey. “We are the courageous ones,” she muses, a handy trait in the country’s at times exacting conditions.
Doluca’s range of wines is extensive, where “ancient world meets new world” as Sibel puts it, with both traditional (Sarafin label) and native varieties (Karma and DLC labels). Their Tugra and KAV labels (available in Australia) are made purely from indigenous grapes. The native öküzgözü and boğazkere grapes are sourced from vineyards from Elazig, by the Euphrates river and at the source of the Tigris river, and also downstream along the Tigris at nearby Diyarbakir.
Sibel sees boğazkere as the most “brutish” of all the natives (it means “throat-burner” in Turkish). It is a very dense, tannic red, medium acidity with complexity and old-vine character. In premium expressions, it can age gracefully, akin to a quality Bordeaux or Barolo.
Vinkara Winery (vinkarawines.com), in the central Kalecik region, produces a richer, aged boğazkere and the öküzgözü (‘bull’s eye’, in Turkish) variety that has large, round, black berries, like you would find in a bovine stare. Commonly blended with its cousin boğazkere, öküzgözü brings balance and depth in palate: a harmonious blend reflecting the Anatolian terroir.
Öküzgözü’s lively acidity and medium-bodied fresh, fruity characters complement boğazkere’s intense, spicy and tarry aromas and tannins – similar to how the classic Australian cabernet-shiraz blend plays out.
Kalecik karasi is a more refined variety. Affectionately known as ‘K-K’, it is a black, thin-skinned, late-ripening aromatic grape that produces distinctive light and elegant red fruit flavours. It can be likened to a pinot noir-gamay cross.
Recent excavations have revealed that an ancestor of this grape was discovered by the Hittites around 3,000 BC. With more than 60ha of vineyards and wineries in the area, mainly planted with kalecik karasi, Vinkara is mimicking the Hittite ancestors. Backed by leading Italian oenologist, Marco Monchiero, the winery is playing a key role in securing K-K’s prominence among the native Turkish grapes. Monchiero is passionate about the area. “If a variety of grape is named after the region, it shows that the region is seeded in tradition and culture. We must promote this land, rooted in culture, to the world”. And so together they are.
Sevilen Group (sevilengroup.com/en) produces a range of kalecik karasi offerings, too. Sevilen (meaning ‘beloved’) has been producing wine since 1942. Current winemaker and third-generation owner Enis Guner is proud of his heritage and acknowledges the special terroir in the Anatolian region, with clay and limestone soils at wildly varying elevations. However, the climate can be tricky. “You live four seasons at one time,” he says. Nevertheless, the ancient grape varieties thrive here and he sees “big potential” for the overseas markets.
Three white grapes are also receiving greater recognition for local winemakers: narince, with citrus and floral aromas and crisp minerality; emir, which is typically grown as non-trellised bush vines producing crisp, herbal dry whites; and misket (bornova misketi), producing aromatic, perfumed and floral dry or lightly sweet wines.
Narince (‘delicate’ in Turkish), with its large, oval yellow-green, bronze-tinted berries, offers crisp, high-acid minerality, not unlike Chablis. The most widely grown white grape in the Anatolian region, it was once prized by Hittite royalty.
Predominantly found in the southern Izmir region, misket is an ancient native variety and the ancestor of all the world’s muscat-style grapes. It is one of the oldest unmodified vines still existing, producing highly aromatic and pleasant drinking wines, with rosy notes (Turkish delight, even) and bergamot orange flavours.
Turkish winemakers are saving rare varieties that have all but disappeared. Seyit Karagözoğlu, founder of Paşaeli Wines (pasaeli.com), has played an important role in reviving almost-lost varieties, such as yapincak, a grape native to Eastern Thrace. Karagözoğlu was the first winemaker to bottle 100% yapincak, with runaway success – his 2011 vintage claimed Turkey’s first gold at the San Francisco International Wine Challenge. It almost never came to be: a near stuck fermentation caused by plummeting outside temperatures was only arrested with two electrical heaters placed outside the tank to slowly heat up the must.
Paşaeli also makes a wine from the çakal variety, native to Kaz Daglan (Mount Ida), near the site of ancient Troy. Meaning ‘jackal’, apparently çakal was so named because as it ripens, it attracts the jackals down from the hills for a midnight feast.
He works with other varieties, too, such as çalkarasi (“makes a very elegant and perfumy red”, he says), sidalan and kolorko. “These new varieties don’t pop up in the rest of the world like they do here,” he notes.
His kolorko, native to Thrace, grew from cuttings he sourced from a handful of remaining growers who only had three or four vines each in their vineyards.
Take a bow Vinkara Winery, too, for almost single-handedly saving the aromatic white grape, hasandede. Originating from the Kazmaca region in Anatolia, the name means ‘grandfather Hasan’, reflecting its heritage and veneration among Turkish grapes.
Another hasandede-phile is German-born Udo Hirsch at Gelveri Manufactur winery (guezelyurt-gelveri.com). His vineyards, located in the town of Guzelyurt, sit about 1,500m above sea level, among the highest in Europe. His passion extends to reviving ancient, natural winemaking techniques, using the Byzantine küps (amphorae) from the 4th–12th centuries that he has acquired from local monasteries. Unlike thin-walled Georgian kvevri, küps are thick and sturdy, and don’t need to be buried.
In addition to his kalecik karasi and hasandede, Hirsch makes other natural wines from indigenous varieties on the edge of extinction. These rare grapes are known to the local villagers as keten gomlek (‘linen shirt’ grape) and the plainly named üzüm quartet: kizil üzüm (‘rusty grape’), tas üzüm (‘stone grape’), koku üzüm (‘fragrant grape’) and it üzüm (‘mongrel grape’). As yet these grapes have no official identity. They have been tended by the local villagers for generations without authoritative scrutiny. Hirsch recognises that the “genetic richness” of Turkish grapes is at stake. With the aid of local farmers, he is on a quest to save another 30 or so undocumented varieties, to have them officially recognised.
But Turkish winemaking is not all wonder and delight. Many battles lie ahead as the country navigates the hurdles of intrusive regulations, unpredictable climate and fickle global markets. The local industry is still small by comparison, and while the future remains somewhat precarious, it is still exciting, with the local winemakers conjuring their own magic brew of refined indigenous styles, hopefully for the next 10,000 years.
2017 Doluca Tugra Boğazkere is translucent crimson jelly in colour, full of sweet cherry-berry aromas, with a dissipating red liquorice sweetness and light tannic finish. Take to a picnic spread, complete with baba ganoush and beetroot dip. A$35
2013 Vinkara Mahzen Boğazkere has a deep ruby robe and is scented with red berries and smoked almonds. The palate is all deep cherry with earthy, almost chocolate, notes. Can accompany a lamb stew on a creamy roasted eggplant purée. A$32
2018 Doluca 2018 KAV Boğazkere-Öküzgözü is aged for 12 months in French oak barrels and matured for 24 months in bottles before release. Red dancing-lipstick colours, with a rich mulberry and spicy quince bouquet. With mature tannins, it has a full-bodied, peppery tobacco leaf finish. Match with tandir kebab, spiced chops or a Sunday roast. A$25
2014 Vinkara Mahzen Kalecik Karasi is full of bright, perfumed red fruits, with a lingering earthy mouthfeel, wrapped in soft, powdery tannins. Partner with roasted duck or goat tangine. A$32
2015 Sevilen Plato Kalecik Karasi is the premium expression for this winery of this native Anatolian grape. Crimson-blood colour, delicate aromas of spiced cherry and port wine jelly, with concentrated layers of peppery red fruits on the palate and fine lingering tannins. Subtle, it relaxed into an even more enjoyable version the next day. Match with grilled quail or harissa-marinated beef salad. A$39
2018 Sevilen Nativus Narince is a pure expression of this indigenous variety, from 25-year-old vines planted on clay soils at 600m altitude where the Black Sea’s cooling breezes prevail. Pale straw in colour with green flecks, delicate floral and citrus aromas, and tasting of light grapefruit and white peach. Significant ageing on lees, it offers lush and ample mouthfeel with creamy, even oily, texture and a punchy, refreshing finish. Partners well with raki-marinated grilled salmon or eggplant salad, or simply serve as an aperitif with almonds and Turkish dolma. A$25
2017 Paşaeli Yapincak has a golden straw hue, and a delicate scent of citrus and quince. Bright and light citrus-mandarin flavour, with a crisp, acid touch to end. Serve with lightly fried squid with tahini sauce. A$34
2018 Vinkara Hasandede is a pleasant surprise. Scented with sweetened aromas of citrus and quince, with a hint of Christmas cake spice and an unctuous waft. The palate is full-bodied lemon-lime and pear, with racy acidity, culminating in a refreshing finish. Slightly creamy texture. Partner with pan-fried rock ling and Choban salad. A$25