Talking Turkey: The birthplace of wine makes a comeback

(Last Updated On: 04/18/2011)

Way before America was a blip in Columbus’s sights and even before Jesus proselytized about taxes and everlasting life, people enjoyed the fruits of the vines. We know the Romans partied hearty with fermented grape juice, and their voluminous need established vineyard farming techniques. Or so we thought.

Until recently, archaeologists believed present-day Iran to be the site of the oldest winemaking culture. Earthen jugs crusted with a reddish, wine-like substance were unearthed there several years ago, dated 5,000 B.C. But a different country has claimed the birthplace of winemaking prize: Turkey. American anthropologist Pat McGovern and Swiss grape geneticist Jose Vouillamoz have traced winemaking in eastern Turkey to 6,500 B.C. Excavations during a dam project on the Euphrates River revealed not only terra rossa jars with vinous remnants, but also written descriptions of vineyards growing on hillsides and drawings of people enjoying wine. Apparently, times were good. Using DNA technology, Vouillamoz pinned down the lineage of many well-known grape varieties – including Muscat (Misket) and Thompson Seedless (Sultana) — to eastern Turkey. It’s known from many texts that The Turks (or the Phrygians back then) crafted wine for people living as far away as France, transported via the seas and wine bars thrived in this country populated by both Christians and Muslims during the Ottoman Empire (1299 – 1923).

So, with this kind of drinking history, why aren’t Turkish wines gracing American shelves and bars today? Two words: the government (theirs, not ours, for once). From the late 1920’s until the late 1980’s, a Turkish government monopoly controlled the wine industry and possessed little motivation to create quality wine. But all that changed about 15 years ago once the ban on wine imports was lifted (competition began) and entry into the European Union dawned (opportunity knocked). At that point, the Turkish government and wine producers set out to attract exports, tourists and global competition. And possibly regain their former wine glory.

They started by hiring winemakers from France and California, who upgraded equipment and bought oak barrels for aging. But winemakers inexperienced with this ubiquitous flavoring agent initially created almost “unbearably over-oaked” grogs, according to British wine writer Jancis Robinson.

However, they’re learning fast. I had the opportunity to try about 30 wines from Turkey recently, and was impressed. Although it was my first go-round with them, I tasted mucho oak usage, like making out with Howdy Doody, but not all of the wines desiccated the palate. In fact, the tongue-twisting indigenous grape varieties showed shockingly good promise. Among the best were the history-steeped white grape of pinot-grigio-meets-sauvignon-blanc, Emir (eh MEER); the lovechild of Chardonnay and Viognier, Narinje (NAH rin DJEH); earthy, sangiovese-like Okuzgozu (OH cooz goe ZOO) — a variety which will likely be marketed as “Eye of the Bull” outside Turkey — and the soft, approachable Gamay Beaujolais-esque Kalecik Karasi (KAH-le-DJIC CAR-ah-SER).

If they get the marketing right, wines of Turkey could (and should) be well received, especially in the geeky sommelier realm. Many of England’s esteemed Masters of Wine have embraced their potential, which ideally will catapult them out of obscurity. Although some Turkish wine is already on American shelves, don’t be surprised to see them in a shop near you soon.

Want to know more? Check out the official Wines of Turkey website.

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