With its ideal climate and historical grape growing credentials, unique grape discoveries across Turkey are pushing wine varietals in an adventurous new direction.
By Aylin Öney Tan
Photos by Merve Göral
Turkey is home to some of the earliest varieties of grapes, sharing a deep-rooted history of viticulture together with Georgia and Armenia. In ancient times, there was an almost continuous geography of grape vines, what I call a grape belt, stretching from the Southern Caucasus all the way down to the Barak plain that reaches to Syria from the Antep plateau. Upper Mesopotamia is considered to be the land where the wild grape has its origins. The very first domestication of the wild Eurasian grape Vitis vinifera in southeastern Anatolia is dated sometime between 8,500 and 5,000 BC.
Swiss botanist and grape DNA researcher Dr. José Vouillamoz has spent nearly a decade studying the world’s grape vines. Together with biomolecular archaeologist Dr. Patrick McGovern from the University of Pennsylvania, they collected samples from Anatolia, Armenia, and Georgia, analyzing the tartaric acid content, concluding that Anatolian wild grapes could be the ones, genetically speaking, linked the closest to modern cultivated varieties.
Turkey has an exciting geography for wine makers, from the Mediterranean climates dominant in the Thrace and Aegean regions, to the high plateaus and continental climate of Central and Eastern Anatolia. Vineyards across Turkey are blessed with abundant sunlight, with the added bonus of great temperature fluctuation between day and night at higher altitudes.
Botanists estimate that there are around 600-1,200 indigenous grape varieties in Turkey, of which only around 60 are cultivated commercially. Turkey is one of the world’s leading countries of grape production, ranking 6th, but most grapes are either eaten fresh as fruit, or dried for both the domestic and international market. With a newfound interest in wine production and some fascinating recent discoveries by adventurous winemakers, it is probable that there are a good number of wine grapes that are yet to be detected in the region. Let’s take a closer look at some of the most popular varieties.
Narince, or “delicately” in Turkish, is a grape native to the Tokat area that is also now grown in other Anatolian regions. When fully ripe, the grape has a lovely amber color, making a wine with straw yellow to greenish-yellow color. Narince creates medium to full bodied wine, full of citrusy and fruity aromas with notes of apricot, pear, ripe apple, and quince, and at times, hints of tropical fruits like white pineapple and lime are on the nose. The wine is usually treated with oak, and the acidity is well balanced. Narince also performs well in sparkling wines, and pairs nicely with seafood like fatty fish, chicken dishes, and olive oil braised vegetables.
Sultaniye, also known as Sultana, or fit for Sultans, are seedless grapes from the Aegean region used to make semi-dry, light-bodied wines. A versatile grape that can be used for raisins, wine, or simply as a popular snack in Turkey, they are mostly dried to be exported. Due to its market value as a dried fruit, it is one of the most widely grown varieties in Turkey. Sultaniye has pleasant peach and pear aromas and is mildly acidic. It makes a good aperitif wine, pairing well with starters and cocktail nibbles, just what you need at sunset.
Bornova Misketi is native to Izmir, Manisa and Menderes (ancient Meandros), and gets its name from the Bornova district in Izmir. Anatolian misket grapes are the ancestors of all Muscat grapes in the world. So, it is likely that Moscato, Muscadet, Muskateller, and Muscat lovers will enjoy Misket wines. The grape produces highly aromatic and easy drinking wines, with rosy notes and bergamot orange flavors. Wonderful as an aperitif wine, it is also great with sweets and fruits, and pairs nicely with blue cheese.
Kalecik Karası is a grape that has risen from the ashes to stardom. Native to the town of Kalecik near Ankara, Kalecik Karası (black from the small castle) was rediscovered by agricultural engineers and viticulture experts from Gazi University in Ankara. Since the rediscovery, it became such a sweet success that now many regions, especially the high plateaus of Denizli and north Thrace, have become major Kalecik Karası growing areas. With its lively, cheerful aroma, it creates medium or light bodied red wines, low in tannin, rich with sour cherry and plum notes, and strawberry and raspberry aromas with a hint of cotton candy on the nose. Served slightly chilled, it makes a wonderful aperitif summer red, yet also pairs exceptionally well with duck, dark chicken meat, turkey, charcuterie, and a variety of dried meats.
Öküzgözü, or “ox eye,” is a large, dark colored, luscious, and delicious grape, native to the Elazığ region. A new favorite across Turkey’s various wine growing regions, it is usually blended with the Boğazkere grape in a happy marriage. With aromas of black mulberry, dark sweet cherry, pomegranate syrup, and sometimes, notes of eucalyptus, a good glass of Öküzgözü pairs perfectly with lamb chops, aged yellow cheeses (especially old Kaşar cheese), grilled meats, and köfte.
Boğazkere means “throat burner,” and rightly so, as the grape is full of deep tannins. Though it makes a wonderful full-bodied red, it is usually paired with the softer, juicier Öküzgözü grape to tame its tannins. Boğazkere grows best in Southeast Turkey, primarily around the Diyarbakır region, as it requires both hot and dry climates. Mature with sunshine, the aroma profile wildly ranges from black olives to figs, while spices like peppers and cloves dance along with a hint of coffee. Needless to say, the full-bodied Boğazkere is an ideal companion for Turkish kebabs, especially with a sprinkling of sumac to balance its tannins.