Root, origin, soil: exploring Turkish wine, varieties and old vines in Istanbul

A decade ago, I was among a flock of MWs invited to Turkey to judge Turkish wine and participate in a “Masters of Wine Weekend”. In one of Istanbul’s many glamorous hotels, we were arrayed on an elevated table, like polyamorous brides, looking not at each other but down at “the audience” below. That audience, we discovered as our first results were displayed in real time, comprised the winery owners and winemakers whose wines we were judging. There were gasps. Great sense of drama though.

The wine discourse in Turkey was among the most aspirational I had heard or read. These were cultured, often intellectual, wine lovers, accustomed to the best of life, and proud of their discernment. At the masterclasses we were each charged with hosting, my flight was “The Grands Crus of DRC”. A fellow MW had “The First Growths of Bordeaux”.

Despite one on-stage row about the merits of a Boğazkere (think Tannat, via Turkey), we were captivated by the wines made from these autochthonous Anatolian grape varieties. But at that time domestic superstars of Turkish wine were from “international” varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay. Many solid and several good wines in a big, assertive and familiar, even predictable, idiom. The unusual suspects (such as Öküzgözü, Kalecik Karası, Boğazkere, Emir, Narince) were nuanced, textured, and mysteriously fresh.

The ten years since have challenged Turkey’s wineries with a hostile regulatory structure, disrupted tourism, falling currency and even wild fires. But last weekend in Istanbul, I was filled again with hope and excitement for Turkish wine.

Root, Origin, Soil (Kok Koken Toprak) is a conference on “Anatolian Heritage Grapes” founded in 2019 by Sabiha Apaydin. Apaydin is the long-term wine director at Mehmet Gürs’ visionary Mikla Restaurant in Istanbul. As well as creating the world-class wine list at Mikla, she is a certified WSET wine educator, and contributed to the Roca Brothers “The Turkish Way” 2015 documentary on contemporary Turkish food and wine. She was a prescient advocate for the value of autochthonous Turkish wine grape varieties. Her wine list spotlights the most exciting wines of Turkey. It is a rich selection, including varieties that were new to me, thanks to the commitment of even more producers to recuperating and making wine of their land and community.

I was at the 2022 edition of Root, Origin, Soil to speak (alongside Umay Ceviker) about an Old Vine Conference project to nurture heritage vineyards in Turkey. The galvanising energy of Sabiha’s mission was there in the speakers (who included Turkish experts in viticulture and wine culture, as well as renowned winemakers such Mateja Gravner, who spoke on wine and sustainability). And it was in the audience, a full house of wine professionals, students and enthusiasts more diverse and youthful than those we had met in our lordly MW weekends.

That energy also filled the evening wine tasting, held at Mikla as the sun set over Istanbul, at which more than 20 Turkish producers poured thrilling wines from autochthonous grapes for a joyous, youthful crowd. (I’ll publish my picks from that tasting next week.)

“Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire” admonished Mahler. Turkish wine culture today is more flame than reverence. Turkish Master Sommelier, Isa Bal, co-owner of Trivet, thinks that reverence reserved for “International” wines, and their grape varieties, was a form of cultural imperialism constricting Turkish wine. Apaydin’s vision, ambition and networks are like oxygen for this contemporary culture informed by heritage, energised by community. As Mehmet Gürs says, “Every bit and sip we take can truly change the world.”

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