Despite vast differences in geography and climate, most of Turkey is suitable for viticulture except for the mountainous parts of Eastern Anatolia and the humid eastern Black Sea region, which is more suitable for growing tea. Ever since the domestication of the grapevine that may well have taken place where modern Turkey sits, many different civilisations have been involved in growing grapes and making wine, resulting in a deep-rooted wine culture. During the long Ottoman reign, a balance was kept between pre-Islamic drinking rituals and the strong Muslim influence. Although alcohol was forbidden, concessions were granted to the various non-Muslim communities to produce it and its consumption was tolerated for social and economic reasons. Historical records show that twice as much wine as Turkey produces today was exported from Aegean ports to phylloxera-hit Europe at the end of the 19th century.
The turning point for Turkish winemaking came in the aftermath of the war of independence in 1923 when most ethnic minorities were expelled, leaving behind not only abandoned vineyards and wineries but also centuries-old traditions and expertise. Very few of them were sustained later, despite the efforts of Kemal Atatürk, founder of the secular republic, to restore winemaking activities and in establishing state-run wineries.
For most of the 20th century the Turkish wine industry was driven by a marketing and sales approach lead by big companies Kavaklıdere and Doluca, joined by few others that were mostly acquisitions from former Greek settlers. It was not until the 1990s that the first boutique wineries started a quality-orientated wine culture, with their own vineyards planted with international varieties that would be made into varietally labelled estate wines.
Turkish wine has long been under the influence of this era, with foreign consultants directing viticultural and winemaking activities based on international varieties. Yet today, more and more producers are focusing on Turkey’s wealth of old vineyards and indigenous grape varieties. Even so, Turkey’s relatively few wine producers are hampered by decades of neglect, increasingly burdensome regulations and restrictions and a market limited by per-capita annual wine consumption of less than a litre.
Nonetheless, strong demand for dried grapes and grape-based molasses helped keep most vineyards in good condition. Turkey still has the fifth largest vineyard area in the world with diverse indigenous varieties, even if a mere 2% of these vines produce wine.
The Aegean region is responsible for more than half of Turkey’s wine production. The climate is typically Mediterranean on the coast and inland around Manisa, where Turkey’s most planted variety Sultaniye is grown largely for drying. Bornova Misketi, or Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains, is used for dry and semi-sweet wines. Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc have the potential to make good wine when grown at high-enough elevations, such as those of Sevilen, now run by the third generation. Small-scale producers around the province of Urla initiated the eponymous wine route, with members concentrating mainly on international varieties. The Pendore vineyards of Kavaklıdere in Manisa focus mainly on red-wine varieties under the consultancy of Stéphane Derenoncourt of Bordeaux.
Inland around Güney in Denizli, Pamukkale and Küp are leading producers with the rare experience of more than 50 vintages. The local variety Çalkarası makes refreshing rosés. Among the many international varieties grown, Syrah seems best adapted to the semi-arid continental climate at up to 900 m/2,950 ft.
More than 40% of all wine producers in Turkey are based in Thrace, the area west of İstanbul that is surrounded by three seas; the Black Sea, the Aegean and the Sea of Marmara. The Strandja Massif that lies parallel to the Black Sea shields its southern slopes from rain, and the vineyards at 350 m/1,150 ft are some of the most northerly in Turkey. Thanks to the cool continental climate and its easy access from İstanbul, the region is gaining popularity. Led by Chamlija, various wineries experiment with international varieties around the province of Kırklareli but Papazkarası is the local speciality, giving smooth wines with a distinctly spicy perfume.
In southern Thrace around Tekirdağ the climate is typically Mediterranean and vineyards enjoy southern exposure in the foothills of the Ganos range facing the Sea of Marmara. This is where Turkey’s so-called wine renaissance started early in the 1990s when Gülor initiated Turkey’s first château-style wines.
Further south-west the Gallipoli peninsula stretches out between the Gulf of Saroz and the Dardanelles strait. This area has considerable historical significance and has attracted many ambitious projects due to the mild climate mediated by the surrounding seas and multiple winds that regulate the otherwise humid conditions. Gallipoli is famous for its deep, concentrated reds from Merlot and Cabernet Franc but native white Yapıncak and the black Karasakız are gaining ground thanks to the efforts of the Suvla winery. Doluca, the leading winery of the region, pioneered varietal branding early in the 1990s with their Sarafin label.
Corvus has drawn attention to the tiny island of Bozcaada, which hosts some of the oldest wineries still operating in Turkey. The island’s crop concentrates on native white varieties Çavuş and Vasilaki along with the black Karalahna and Kuntra, the local name for Karasakız.
The Mediterranean region is perhaps more readily associated with scorching heat than with vineyards but the high plateau around the Taurus mountains has long been home to the vine. Inland from Antalya in Elmalı, Likya winery has planted vineyards at 1,100 m/3,600 ft. Their success in reviving the native black grape Acıkara has inspired many other Turkish producers.
In the Black Sea region, vineyards around Tokat are planted with the convincing Narince variety that can yield full-bodied, aromatic whites fit for oak ageing. Diren is the only winery in the region but many producers either own vineyards or source fruit from local growers there.
The vineyards of Central Anatolia follow the course of Turkey’s longest river Kızılırmak. The small town of Kalecik near Ankara is home to Kalecik Karası, a popular variety making soft, fruity reds. Further plantings lie upriver in the south around Kırşehir and Aksaray in vineyards converted at the expense of the white variety Hasandede now being revived by the Vinkara winery in Kalecik.
Cappadocia is in the geographical centre of Turkey, between Kayseri and Nevşehir. Thanks to the other-worldly landscape with its fairy chimneys (see image) and underground cities, it is a major tourist destination. At around 1,000 m/3,280 ft elevation in volcanic tuff are vineyards kept free from phylloxera, since the irregular landscape shields them from harsh winds and continental extremes. This is white-wine country, with old plantings of late-ripening Emir resulting in high-acid mineral wines. Turasan is the leading producer while Kavaklıdere’s Cappadocian operation is branded Côtes d’Avanos. Gelveri ferments Turkey’s first orange wines, in ancient amphorae, from indigenous varieties grown on the foothills of the Hasan mountain in Güzelyurt.
There are sharp differences between Eastern and Southeastern Anatolia in terms of climate, geography and culture but the viticultural sites lie side by side between the basins of the Euphrates and the Tigris rivers, part of the ‘fertile crescent’ where it is thought the grapevine was first domesticated. Vineyards in Eastern Anatolia lie along the course of the Euphrates at elevations above 1,000 m/3,280 ft around the province of Elazığ, benefiting from the regulating effect of the river and the gigantic dams built on its course. The versatile Öküzgözü, which makes juicy reds with aromatic intensity, has been so popular recently that it has become the country’s most widely planted red-wine variety.
Boğazkere, named after its harsh tannins, is the principal grape of Southeastern Anatolia with dry-farmed bush vines scattered around the banks of the Tigris river north-west of Diyarbakır. In the area’s extremely hot conditions, the best grapes come from higher sites around the villages of Çüngüş and Çermik. Its classic blend with Öküzgözü gives balanced reds to match the region’s meat dishes. Long-standing political unrest has discouraged winery development but Kayra operates the former state monopoly facility in Elazığ while the Shiluh winery in Mardin flies the flag of the archaic winemaking traditions of the Syriac Christians.