Turkish Wine – Rediscovering an ancient art

I come from a beer-drinking country. Well, we’re not as mono-cultural as we once were, thank God. When I was a kid, New Zealand culture could be pretty much summed up by the three words: Rugby, Racing, and Beer. There was an institution known as ‘The 6 O’clock Swill’. This phenomenon owed its existence to the fact that pubs in NZ used to close their doors at 6 pm, or shortly thereafter. Those who had built up a thirst during their working day (mostly men at that period of our history) had one hour to get to the nearest watering hole and quaff as much ale as they could before the law of the land decreed that they should get out and head home to their loving wives and/or families. As you may imagine, this was not conducive to the development of civilised drinking habits – and the effects are still felt, a generation or two on.
A selection of Turkish wines
Of course, other alcoholic beverages were available. The more sophisticated or perhaps feminine might sip sherry, or something euphemistically labelled ‘Pimms’. Continental tastes were provided for by immigrants from Eastern Europe, who produced something distantly akin to red wine, commonly referred to as ‘Dally Plonk’. Unshaven gentlemen of no fixed abode were sometimes to be seen on park benches sampling this brew from bottles concealed in plain brown paper bags.
I’m happy to say, we are a more civilised nation these days. A referendum in 1967 extended bar hours to 10 pm – allowing for less frenetic speed drinking. Somewhere around the late 1970s, a wine culture started to gain a foothold. Citizens began to discover the surprising fact that moderate consumption of alcohol could accompany a meal and intelligent conversation. The drinks themselves could become a topic for discussion: “Well, I’d say this full-bodied red shows dark rich berry, chocolate and spice characters enhanced by subtle toasty oak nuances, what would you say darling?” “Oh do shut up, Charles, and pass the bottle, won’t you?”
These days, teachers and civil servants nearing retirement age aspire to establishing a boutique winery in Hawkes Bay or Marlborough, or some other location where the micro-climate is conducive and the real estate prices more affordable. New Zealand wines have a well-earned reputation abroad, winning medals at international events, and wine exports are a nice little earner for our humble economy. New Zealanders of a certain class pride themselves, not only on knowing the difference between a Chardonnay and a Sauvignon Blanc, but also on what vintages of which particular vineyards produced the best ones.  
What I want to say here is, though, this didn’t happen over night. An increasingly wealthy society and an expanding middle class availed themselves of greater opportunities to travel abroad and see for themselves the older oenophile cultures of Europe. Organisations of wine producers brought together like-minded entrepreneurs who exerted persuasive pressure on governments to create a favourable climate for growth, and on the media to help in educating the populace and building a potential market. Another factor has undoubtedly been a hard-line approach by authorities to drivers who drink, such that it is a brave soul who gets behind the steering wheel after even one beer or glass of wine.
Two generations, then, have seen radical changes in drinking patterns of New Zealanders (and our Australian cousins, though I have to confess, they were always a little ahead of us). These days, executives and other high-flyers watch rugby matches while sipping quality wines in corporate boxes with their spouses or paramours. Of course, remnants of the old ways live on in footie clubs and suburban beer barns – but as a nation, we have diversified in many fields, and alcohol consumption is one measure of this.
So, what about Turkey, you’re asking. Weren’t you going to say something about that? And so I am. The land occupied by the modern Republic of Turkey is one of the birthplaces of human civilisation. Asia Minor and the plains between the two rivers, whose waters rise in south-eastern Turkey, witnessed the first domestication of animals and the growing of crops for food, the moulding and firing of clay to make pots, and the early stages of metallurgy. Hand in hand with the march of civilisation went the production and consumption of alcoholic beverages. It seems likely that the first wild grapes were cultivated here, and the first hesitant steps taken on the road to producing an award-winning pinot noir. The classical civilisations of Greece and Rome enjoyed their wine. They even assigned responsibility for it to a junior member of their divine pantheon – the Romans, Bacchus, and the Greeks, Dionysus. After the Imperial authorities gave up massacring and otherwise persecuting Christians, and Romans and Greeks joined the ranks of the Saved, apparently they didn’t let their new faith stand in the way of imbibing an amphora or two of Bacchus’s nectar.
Grape cultivation and wine production in Asia Minor continued in good heart until the Muslim Ottomans took over. The Prophet Muhammed was, I understand, quite specific in his proscription of wine for true believers. Why didn’t he mention beer, cider, Pimms and other spirituous liquors (if, in fact, he didn’t. My Arabic is not up to checking the original text to see what his exact words were)? Well, one reason very likely is that, in the evolution of alcoholic beverages, distillation arrived relatively late on the scene. Scotch whisky may now be regarded as a traditional tipple North o’ the Border, but most of the great whisky houses in fact date from the 19th century, as by the way, do most of the clan tartans. Anyway, the Prophet’s lack of omniscience on this one left an alcoholic loophole for Turks to slip through. For some at least, obeying the letter of Koranic law and abstaining from wine is enough – and the considerably more powerful rakı, with an alcohol content of 45%, is readily accepted.
It also helped that the Ottomans adopted a tolerant approach to religious minorities within their borders. Jews, Orthodox Greeks and Armenians were not only permitted to observe their religious customs, speak their own languages and educate their children relatively unmolested, they were also allowed to grow their grapes, trample the vintage, ferment, bottle, sell and imbibe the fruit of the vine pretty much according to established practice. More than a few Sultans, most of whom anyway were born to Christian mothers, are reputed to have liked a drop from time to time – and no doubt some of their Muslim subjects saw little harm, occasionally, in joining their Brothers-of-the-Book in a glass or two for friendship’s sake.
Nevertheless, it must be true that, for a considerable period, at a time when European civilization was making great strides towards modern alcoholic sophistication (and in other fields too for all I know), wine production within the Ottoman domains failed to keep pace with developments in France, Italy, Germany and so on. When the Ottoman Empire breathed its last and the Turkish Republic came into existence in 1923, its first president, among a host of better known reforms, freed up the production and consumption of spirituous and fermented liquors. While tobacco and spirits were under state monopoly, wine, probably in deference to the status quo, was left in the hands of private producers – though the state did also establish its own vineyards and wineries.
Tezcan Gürkan, owner of Ganoswineries in Mürefte, began his career with the state Tekel organisation. His vines produce a range of boutique wines, red and white, under the Krater, and the more up-market Ganos label. Tezcan Bey has mixed feelings about the current state of the wine industry in Turkey. He is passionate about its long history, and its potential to compete in world markets, owing to the country’s congenial climate and fertile soils.  In terms of human health, he points out, the benefits of moderate wine consumption, especially red wine, in reducing the risk of heart attack, diabetes and even some forms of cancer, have been well publicized. Tezcan Bey further notes that, in the past ten years, during the tenure of the present AK Party government, locally produced wines have improved markedly, both in variety and quality. He is enthusiastic about wines produced from local grape varieties such as boğazkere, öküzgözü and kalecik karası. While accepting that Turkey’s climate is more conducive to the production of red wines, he also mentions the potential of narince and other white varieties in certain microclimates. On the other hand, he is less sanguine about the future, given the punitive level of taxation targeting alcohol in Turkey. I can attest to this from my own experience, having seen the cost of a mid-price red wine at the supermarket checkout almost double in the past five years.
Still, it’s not government policy alone that is impeding the industry’s growth. That same bottle of Angora or Villa Doluca, selling for 20 Turkish liras at Migros, will probably add sixty to eighty liras to your bill at a restaurant. The Ministry of Tourism would do well to take a look at the effects of such pricing on visitors to the country. It may be that Turks themselves, weighing up relative value for money, will go for a bottle of rakı with four times the alcohol content – but foreign visitors are more likely to drink one bottle of wine instead of two, and feel scalped into the bargain.
Nevertheless, the younger Gürkan generation seems more optimistic. Tezcan Bey’s son, Doruk, recognizes the potential of a growing, and increasingly sophisticated middle class in Turkish cities. One measure of this is the regular appearance these days, of articles in Turkish newspapers and magazines discussing wine, local and imported, and the industry itself. As was the case in my own home country, the twin processes of increasing awareness, and growing demand feed off each other.
Still it is evident that the Turkish wine industry is nowhere near to achieving its potential as an export earner for the nation. A recent article in Hürriyet newspaper examined and compared the state of play in a number of comparable countries, in terms of grape vine acreage and wine production. According to their figures, Turkey has the fourth largest area of vines measured by hectares. Only Spain, France and Italy have more grapes under cultivation. In contrast, however, Turkey’s comparative wine production is minuscule, at 75 million litres, ranking it way below even New Zealand, with a fraction of the vine acreage. NZ’s wine exports, incidentally, generated 868 million dollars of income, and clearly Turkey has the potential to surpass that.
The big problem, as I see it, and Gürkan ‘pere et fils’ among others, apparently agree, is the lack of a large and knowledgeable local market. Whatever the sector, economies of scale determine whether an enterprise will succeed or fail. New Zealand has been able to develop its wine exports because locals drank enough of the stuff to get the business up and running. Turkey, with a population approaching eighty million, had a large enough local market to support the establishment of car manufacturing, electronics and whiteware factories, and a large textile industry – which have then been able to move out into more competitive global markets. New Zealand, unfortunately, with its four-and-a-half million people, lacks this major advantage. Clearly what Turkish wine producers need and seem to lack, is an umbrella organisation that will speak for them, arguing the case for government support of the industry, and engaging in general campaigns to raise public awareness.
As one who enjoys a glass of wine, and appreciates the local product, I’m following developments in the sector with interest.

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3 thoughts on “Turkish Wine – Rediscovering an ancient art

  1. Dear Alan,

    It is a very nice article. The picture is also great. You could have given a bit more statistics about consumption and production of Turkey according to years. Thanks.

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