The story behind grape cultivation in Thrace is the story of the people behind it. Legendary for its quality of grapevines since ancient times, the region is blessed with a prime environment and known as the birthplace of the Old World’s greatest winemakers. Here, we discover the contemporary incarnations of some centuries-old traditions.
Words by Marzena Romanowska
Photos by Merve Göral
The ancient region of Thrace extends across the borders of today’s Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Birthplace of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, the area was praised for its unique winemaking qualities by the brightest minds of the historical era, including Herodotus, Aristotle and Homeros. Thracians were the ones who introduced the tradition of wine tasting before drinking their ambrosial creations. Taking advantage of the unique terroir of the land they lived in, they made Thracian wine a brand before even the term “brand” was invented.
However, grapevine cultivation in Thrace faced a temporary decline after the population exchange of the 1920s when the winemaking Greek minority was resettled, and took their skills and know-how with them. Local, family-owned productions either disappeared as well or, due to lack of consumers within a Muslim majority, switched to a different type of product.
No one tells the history of winemaking in Thrace better than Cem Çetintaş, the mind behind Melen winery. His natural interest in local tradition is understandable. The Çetintaş family was one of the first Turkish families to settle in Hoşköy, and has been producing grapes since before the Republic was founded. Çetintaş’s grandfather, together with his Greek neighbor, were in the ouzo-making business, though the venture came to an end in 1923. “Our family was the only one left in the village,” says Çetintaş, commenting on the population exchange.
His grandfather’s vineyard then began to operate as a subsidiary producing for the state-owned manufacturer, Tekel. Çetintaş jokes that it was as easy as the work could have gotten: “You plant the grapes and after one and a half to two months, when the harvest is over, you can go fishing.” However, when the next generation (meaning Cem Çetintaş himself) took over, the business took its first step towards what Melen is today. The company began to bottle its own product with the help of benevolent people met along the way. Their first wine filtering machine was a gift from a generous person who saw the potential behind Çetintaş’s idea. When modernizing his production site a few years later, Çetintaş passed the good deed along, donating the original equipment to another person who would put it to good use.
Cem Çetintaş’s wife Funda says that Melen wines are a reflection of her husband’s spirits. “When we first started going out, all his wines turned to vinegar,” she laughs. “I was based in Istanbul, so he was traveling back and forth. Things weren’t looking good for the wine, so seven months later we decided to get married.” Their daughter was named Shiraz, after the dark-skinned grape believed to have origins in Persia.
Laying the vines
In the Turkish part of Thrace, direct exposure to winds from the three surrounding seas, high-temperature fluctuations between daytime and night, as well as varied types of soil, are what attracted a new-generation of vintners to revive the old traditions in the area. “We’re on the land that the first wine, first manufacturer and first drinker came from,” says Adnan Erem, General Manager of Gülor. This company opened a new chapter in contemporary winemaking history as Turkey’s first boutique winemaker to introduce international grape varieties to the country. Its story dates back to 1993, but another five years of extensive research followed the company’s founding before any wine was made.
In time, Gülor’s blends of local and foreign grapes, such as öküzgözü-malbec, became the company’s signatures. “There are still only a few people who know öküzgözü well, so turning it into a blend with another popular grape, for example with cabernet, makes the new aroma more familiar,” explains Erem. Gülor is also responsible for the Turkish premiere of Italian varieties, such as sangiovese and montepulciano, or petit verdot, a Bordeaux-style variety. A striking dark red, nearly black color, it makes its debut this year as Turkey’s first petit verdot mono cépage.
At the Arcadia vineyard, cultivating techniques come from years of theoretical research conducted by its founders, Zeynep Arca Salliel and her father Özcan. These are the first fields in Turkey to employ the V-trellis training system for their vines to separate the branches, providing them with better access to sunlight. For the vintners, this method also makes it easier to assess whether something is going wrong with the vines. For a vineyard that uses no chemicals, taking early action in the face of disease or other problems is crucial.
Great attention has also been given to the choice of land the vines were planted on. “The parcel where we grow cabernet sauvignon hasn’t been penetrated by any other vines before,” explains Kadir Bora, Production Manager at Arcadia, while showing us around. “Layered soil structure and presence of groundwater enables the root to go deep in the ground and feed on a variety of microelements which affect the aroma of the grape,” he says. After tasting the final product, it is impossible to disagree with him that those grapes were used to make some of the highest quality wines in Arcadia’s collection.
The beginning of September is the time of the year that keeps many Thracians incredibly busy. After weeks of sampling the fruits as they ripen, one by one, various grape types begin to display their full, flavor-packed potential. While labs check alcohol and sugar levels in the grapes, the winemakers also conduct their own research, checking on the color of the skin, inside of the grape, as well as condition of the seeds. “We rely very much on what the lab tells us, but we also rely on our own taste,” Bora says.
“You can eat as many grapes as you want,” says Necdet Uzun while showing us around the Chateau Nuzun property, where he lives and works with his wife Nazan. Following him, we make sure to taste a fruit from every row of vines, but after a short while we begin to feel we’ve had enough. The sweet taste of the fruit is overpowering, and Uzun start to laugh. Apparently, many first time visitors to their vineyard get overly excited by the abundance they see.
Chateau Nuzun is a great example of a sustainable operation. Here, energy is delivered to the facility from solar batteries and wind turbines, no excessive irrigation is used either at the vineyard or in the garden, landscaping has been made with reused wooden blocks, and the organic remains from wine production serve as compost for the fields. “Some people say that, because of all the weeds, our vineyard looks like it isn’t well-maintained,” says Necdet Uzun, “But we like our weeds. Especially ayrık otu (common couch), because it keeps the soil together.”
The Uzuns are both engineers and, as Nazan says, they used as much technology as they could in the chateau, including a meteorological station which wirelessly sends collected data to their computers to analyze which date is the best for harvesting.
Similar to other vineyards, harvest starts at dusk when the grapes are still chilled from the night breeze, and continues until noon at the latest. Nazan Uzun helps in the field, which, as she jokes, is the best time to sing songs and catch up on the local gossip. At the same time, Necdet Uzun takes care of the winery, where all the grapes have to get to less than one hour after being picked.
Fruits of labor
“To us, harvest is like a celebration,” says Pınar Ellialtı, owner of Suvla. “We have been working with the same people for 13 years. They are happy to see us, and we are happy to see them coming back every season. At the beginning of harvest we organize a big fete so that it’s not only hard work, but also a bit of fun.”
Pınar and Selim Ellialtı started their Suvla project in 2003 as a form of retirement plan. Since they didn’t have kids at the time, the idea was to make the investment their baby. The research they conducted showed that the Gallipoli Peninsula had the terroir they were looking for to grow excellent grapes and olives, and so the decision was made. Seven years passed before Suvla made its first bottle of wine, and another few before it became the brand with nationwide reach, as it is today. Although the “baby” seems quite grown up right now, the Ellialtıs take great care of it, and the results show. “In terms of brand perception, product portfolio and quality, I think we’re doing just fine,” says Selim Ellialtı. “We penetrated the market and our labels are appreciated. On the other hand, we are facing many challenges and restrictions just as the rest of the winemaking and gastronomic industry are. However, this situation has some advantages: we had to develop our marketing muscles and be very creative. Our consumers are also sensitive to the situation, and supportive. They appreciate what we do even more.”
Suvla’s plan from the beginning was to emphasize the importance of local grapes. “This is why we’re here,” says Ellialtı. “We’re trying to promote the local terroir, the town of Eceabat, the Peninsula. This is why we use local names for our blends: Kabatepe [local harbor where ferries to Gökçeada depart from], Bigalı and Berhamlı [villages near Eceabat], and of course Suvla. Our umbrella brand is a name of a bay which, because of history, is very well known in the UK or Australia, but we hope that thanks to us, it will become famous in Turkey as well.”
There is very little awareness in Turkey of the local grapes that Suvla puts forward. In fact, they were often sold as table grapes, since many didn’t know what else could have been done with them. Trying to show that a quality wine can be made out of indigenous vines, the strategy was to make some excellent classics, such as cabernet or merlot first in order to prove a point later. And so they did. Suvla’s Grand Reserve Karasakız was recognized as an outstanding indigenous grape wine in the Balkans.
However, there is a much bigger picture behind what Suvla does on a daily basis. “Our strategy is to reinvent the historical, agricultural product first. This is why we invested in olives, sesame and tomatoes, which the area used to be famous for,” Selim Ellialtı explains. “In terms of lifestyle, we believe that people should eat well, and Kilye [the company’s sub-brand focusing on production of natural foods] is the brand that represents the tradition of serving pure products, containing no additives and no chemicals, planted from local seeds.”
Although Bulent Kalpaklıoğlu claims that “winemaking is first of all science, and then art,” his winery in Şarköy from first sight looks like the order might have been reversed. The impressive modern chateau with a panoramic view of the sea and the vineyards is a true state-of-the-art facility incomparable to other wine producing properties in Thrace. Details were designed by Kalpaklıoğlu himself, and they say everything about the owner. If there is a way to do things better than others, he must have already found it.
Kalpaklıoğlu’s meticulousness is particularly visible around the winery. While most producers use oak barrels dried 24-months, he goes for 48-months with light toasting, to ensure minimal interference with the natural balance of the aged wine. In his first order, the rim finish wasn’t up to his standards, so he asked the manufacturer to redo the entire order. “If I pay for the perfect barrel, why would I settle for less,” he asks. Every six months the barrels are emptied, cleaned and the whole cellar is set up from zero.
Kalpaklıoğlu’s interest in fine wining and dining developed over 20 years when he worked as an investment banker in the US and France. “This is not what I was dreaming of,” he says of the reality exceeding expectations at his winery. “I had a smaller goal and more reasonable budget but then it got out of control.”
The best example to illustrate what he means might be what happened in 2011. His two signature blends, Chateau Kalpak and BBK sold out in six and nine months respectively. The same year Kalpaklıoğlu made another blend, Twin, which won him a medal at AWC Vienna and a title of the best national producer in Turkey. When he ran out of wine that year, a limited edition of Twin was released as well. All this keeps him extremely busy, but the same place that takes up his time also helps him find balance. “In half hour there will be shade over there,” he points out at a spot on his spacious patio. “I will sit there, kick off my shoes, play some music, and pour a glass of wine.”
In Thrace, the young generation takes great care of grapes and the grapevines. The passion with which they talk about their work is contagious. Gül Kılıçaslan, who has been taking care of Gülor vineyards for more than two years, came to Şarköy after studying and working in Cappadocia. “We are very fortunate to be based here,” she says about her current location. “Whatever we need, the soil gives us plenty more of.”
Time and again, vinters in Thrace compared their grapes to children, the personification revealing the emotional side of the business. “The grape decides on the aromas,” says Kılıçaslan explaining the fruity palate of öküzgözü.
Separated from the water by just olive gardens, Gülor grapevines also have the advantage of being exposed to the sea breezes, and the grape’s flavors change with the natural surroundings. “After starting to work, I became more aware of nature, herbs and fragrances,” says Kılıçaslan about the ability to isolate single aromas.
Cihan Abay, who looks after Barel vineyards, openly admits that he wasn’t a fan of Turkish wines before choosing his university major but the program opened his eyes to a whole new world that had a lot of room for improvement. Involved with Barel since its inception in 2011, he seems very proud of the results they achieved in such a short time. “Every year, we’re making a different wine depending on what the soil gives us,” he says, emphasizing that every year they want to make the wine better than before.
Started by siblings, Barkin and Elif Akın, Barel is a natural continuation of their father Raşid’s wine growing business. Instead of selling the fruit to some of Turkey’s biggest producers, they decided to invest in their own production facility, which currently offers five different red varieties. New to the white ones, Barel will harvest their own sauvignon blanc grapes for the first time this season. When asked about wine culture in modern Turkey, Raşid Akın said its development might also be a recent phenomenon. After all, people could start buying good wines only when they were made available to them, and not before. With the rebirth of the Thracian vineyards, some of the best wines are now at their fingertips.