This month we talked to Sabiha Apaydin, leader, coordinator and wine educator of Istanbul’s renowned Mikla restaurant. She is also a passionate advocate of heritage Anatolian grape varieties and the founder of the conference Root, Origin, Soil (Kok Koken Toprak) where Sarah was invited to speak on the importance of creating a credible category for old vines.

How did you come to wine?

I studied tourism and hotel management. I have worked in the food and beverage industry since I was a student so I’ve always had an interest in wine. In the last 15 years, I have focused on wine in more detail. I have a vineyard but do not produce wine yet; I teach wine and front of house at the culinary arts academy [as well as writing] articles and giving speeches on Anatolian grapes. Also, the Root, Origin, Soil conference, the second of which I organized on June 19th, 2022. I try to keep important issues on my agenda about wine.

The fine wine scene in Istanbul is small but incredibly sophisticated, attracting some of the most discerning and wealthy wine collectors in the world. It’s easy to imagine that such a wine culture might be traditional, even conservative – I know that Mikla lists all of the great iconic wines of the world, from Bordeaux to Italy and beyond. Have you found your customers at Mikla receptive to the Turkish wines you champion?

Mikla cuisine is made with only local products and ingredients from local research all over the country. With these dishes, we wanted to serve only the wines of local producers. We did choose as many high-end Bordeaux wines or wines from Italy and other countries as possible in our wine list but tried tried not to have foreign wines in what we call the ‘middle segment’. We also serve about 40 different local wines by the glass. Both foreign and domestic customers are pleased that there is more choice in the glass. In addition, our tasting menus are paired with only local wines. I can say that we mainly promote local wines.

Tell me what’s exciting you most about the Istanbul wine scene at the moment.

I am very excited about the increasing number of wines made with local grapes. Drinking wine from a grape whose name I have heard for the first time is priceless. Especially if these are wines fermented in their natural yeast, it seems much more interesting to me. In countries like ours, where the world of wine has been disrupted, it is exciting that domestic grapes come from behind and make up for it, even though international varieties dominate at first.

What is it that drew you to champion Anatolian heritage grapes?

We must emphasize the importance of the grapes and viticulture in Anatolia, which continues to exist in richness despite all the ignorance. The continuation of the processing of grapes that are about to disappear by local people and large and small wine companies should be the sole issue that we will not stop talking about, both in terms of a sustainable future and in terms of distinguishing Turkey from others in this large and global industry.

In 2018, I started to research Turkey as a country that dwells on the lands that gave birth to wine and the numerous grape varieties it had in the past. That’s why I decided to organize a “Root, Origin, Soil” symposium, which first took place in June 2019. I aimed to discuss our grape varieties’ past, present, and future. It is important to note that such an event has rarely happened in the past due to many regulations and that most other wine events that got the go-ahead were either a tasting or a competition but not a discussion. Tasting is essential, but we must also consider our wine history. Today, 70% of the wine produced worldwide comes from only 30 grape varieties!

According to the Tekirdağ Bağcılık Araştırma Institute, which is the vine Research Institute here, Turkey has more than 1435 grape varieties, many of which are genetically unique.

It is essential for a sustainable future that the wine produced from local grapes continue to be processed by wine companies of all sizes. The only distinctions between Turkey and the other wine producers are the size and globalization of the wine industry in the production of local grapes in a way that reflects their characteristics. Our common goal should be to protect the local grapes with thousands of years of history and value held back by mediocrity and uniformity in today’s conditions. However, the Turkish market is very different today. People are considering the type of grapes used in wine even though many remain unknown or forgotten, just waiting to be discovered out there.

We think your focus on autochthonous grapes is not just influential, but visionary. How have you empowered Turkish producers to feel comfortable working with autochthonous varieties rather than the international varieties which used to characterise Turkish wine production?

It was usual for the Turkish wine industry, which had been interrupted for various reasons, to prefer slightly more accessible ways to recover. Oenologists from abroad, the durability of international varieties, and their compatibility with all kinds of soils have benefited the survival of this reconstructed sector. Despite the persistence of local grape varieties, the grape varieties that continue today are used differently. I decided to support this issue when I realized that this diversity continued.

The attention you can attract with new world-style wines and international grapes by saying that we live in the land where wine was born will not be permanent. Despite everything, Turkey is a famous region in terms of tourism. It is not something to be expected in the first place for a foreign group to come and order a Chardonnay from Turkey. Even if we make delicious Chardonnay, the thing you will want to try for the first time will be a local grape. Our level of good winemaking has come to a head. I think most producers are in pursuit of innovation. Consumption trends are changing rapidly both in the world and in Turkey.

I keep asking Turkish producers how we should describe ourselves as a wine country? It is necessary to find the answer to this question. If we start the work now, maybe we have a chance to catch it from somewhere. How do we raise the bar? How do we differentiate? Uniformity and mediocrity are increasing but being different are intriguing and demanding.

What were your key takeaways from the second edition of the Root Origin Conference?

I had gained momentum in the first conference, and people had a question mark in their minds. I saw it. I got perfect feedback. Local grape trials began to increase, and the majority shared it. As in the world, we took a two-year break from our lives, and although the second program was ready, I had to cancel it. This year, I wanted to show that I am determined despite everything. My determination could also affect producers and consumers. So, it happened. Our collective selves need to keep working. We do not have government support; we only have ourselves. We must keep moving.

What is it that you think makes Turkish wine unique?

With its geographical location, Turkey has the most suitable climatic conditions for viticulture and grape growing. It ranks 5th in the world regarding the size of vineyard areas.

It is in the place of civilizations where grapes were cultivated, and the variety of grapes is very rich in terms of local species. The wine regions of Turkey haven’t changed a lot since the ancient peoples were here. Turkey has a wealth of its native grapes.

Despite all this, it continues to produce wine in modern ways. But the number of producers returning to traditional methods and using local grapes is increasing day by day.