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Sunday, May 8, 2016

Tarhun Returns: The Resurgence of Turkish Wine

The Middle East was the origin of civilization, science and viticulture. The people here were once the leaders in human advancement and technology.

A Brief History of Wine in Turkey
But as monotheism took control of the Middle East and Europe, many of these achievements stood still or regressed in the name of religion. Although one thing that improved through Christianity was wine, alcohol was prohibited in Islam. Places that had been making wine longer than anywhere else didn't have the chance to become the famous wine regions they deserved to be.

Once controlled by the wine-guzzling Romans and Byzantines before the alcohol abstinent Ottomans, Turkey held on to its relationship with the vine through table grapes and raisins. It's a transcontinental country with its Thrace portion in Europe and Anatolia in Asia. Even though Turkey is often called the most liberal Muslim state, it's hasn't officially been a Muslim state in a very long time and it's really not liberal at all in comparison to the west. But Turkish wine is making a comeback on the actual market for you to buy, and it's making some noise.

It's safe to say that Turkey is the origin of wine itself, and not because the Genesis story has Noah planting a vineyard near Mount Ararat. We're talking about evidence going as far back as eight thousand years ago. In a more modern sense of winemaking and viticulture, there's plenty of archaeological finds from the Hittites four thousand years later, four thousand years ago today, on the Anatolia portion of Turkey. Wine cups and art that features wine made by the Hittites can be seen in the Museum of Anatolian Civilizations, in the capital city of Ankara.

The Hittites also had a god of wine that puts all the other gods of wine to shame.

This is Tarhun, originally known as Teshub to the Hurrians and probably the inspiration for Zeus of the Greeks. His father Kumarbi was going through some power struggles with his own father Anu and overthrew him. When Anu tried to escape, Kumarbi bit off Anu's genitals and swallowed them. You thought your family had drama, right? Anu told Kumarbi that he was now somehow pregnant, so Kumarbi went and purged his daddy's junk back up. The impregnated vomit spawned two children... but Kumarbi had to be cut open to deliver Tarhun. And then, of course, Anu and Tarhun joined forces to overthrow Kumarbi.

Tarhun became the king of the gods, and the god of wine and weather. Armed with bolts of lightning, an axe, sacred bulls Seri and Hurri, and clusters of grapes, he had two things on his mind: drinking wine and pummeling posteriors. The dude balled hard. He defeated several mystical enemies such as stone monsters, but in his most famous story he battled a serpent named Illuyanka. After being defeated at first, he had his own daughter seduce Illuyanka and get him drunk so he could sneak up and slay him. It was the perfect plan and it worked. Confusingly, Illuyanka later comes back to life and takes Tarhun's heart and eyes. Just as our hero plans his revenge, we're left guessing what happens next because of damage to the texts. So this battle is still raging on today! Kick his ass, Storm God! No mercy!

The Phrygians, after the Hittites, introduced wine to the nearby early Greeks. Through Neo-Hittite, Assyrian, Neo-Ayssrian, Sythian,  and Greek rule, Anatolia and Thrace grew grapes and made wine like a boss. When the Phocaeans had to flee their home in Turkey around 540 BCE, they brought the Aglianico grape to Campania, where the grape has flourished ever since. And of course the Romans had their turn ruling Anatolia and Thrace too, and part of the payment of soldiers was their ration of wine, so wine production remained strong.

When the Roman Empire fell in 330 CE, the land that is now Turkey became the headquarters of the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines were Orthodox Christian so amidst their oppression they encouraged wine consumption. As an essential part of worship, wherever Christianity went throughout history the local wine improved and vineyards popped up in places that didn't make wine before. Just, ya know, all other pleasures in life were destroyed.

The 11th century brought the Seljuk Turks who began to spread the Turkish language and Islam. Out of their ashes rose the Ottoman Empire, who spent 200 years pecking away at the Byzantine land and finally conquered the capital city of Constantinople (now Istanbul) in 1453.

Under Muslim rule it wasn't complete radio darkness for wine. Now and then it was banished, but for the most part the Ottoman's allowed wine bars in Christian neighborhoods for the tax money. Still, the amount of wine this totaled was miniscule. In the late 1800's alcohol restrictions were lifted as the Ottomans loosened their control over things. This, by coincidence or not, happened as phylloxera hit the vineyards of the traditional winemaking countries. So wine production and export sales soared out of desperation from wine shortages, but that died out when phylloxera was solved. The Sultanate was abolished in 1922 from the Turkish War of Independence, after the Ottoman Empire crumbled in the wake of the first World War. The Republic of Turkey was born, and its first commercial winery was established in 1925.

Islam remained with the people as 98% of the population today identify themselves as Muslim, while the remaining 2% claim no religion at all. But it's been a "secular country that practices freedom of religion and conscience" since the 1928 amendment removed the Islamic state part from their constitution. In reality, though... it's secular officially and in theory but not always in practice. Especially lately.

Still, only 28% of the country doesn't drink for religious reasons. So the country drinks, it's just that most of its citizens prefer beer or raki over wine. The wine drinkers make up only 16% of the population.

Continuing to keep a culture of viticulture (hehe) for table grapes through Ottoman rule turned out to be a great thing for Turkey. It's been a wonderful trade for them and they've always been near the top of the world in vineyards planted, currently fourth in the world. Over 1,200 indigenous varietals grow there and, being the origin of wine, it's a very neat thing that they're making wine out of them at least 60 of them. But only 5% of the grapes the nation produces are for wine.

Most of what you see above is the Asian land of Anatolia, while way up in the northwest around Istanbul is the southeastern portion of the European land of Thrace. You may remember the Thracians from my article Bulgaria - Part 1: Three-Thousand Years of Wine History.

Thrace is where 40% of Turkish wine is made and the vast majority of its top quality wine, carrying the growing region name of Marmara (for the Sea of Marmara). The climate is Mediterranean but high in humidity. Mostly international varietals come out of there. South of Marmara, on the western coast of Anatolia, is the Aegean where over 50% of Turkish wine is made. The climate here is Mediterranean and they're big on white wines made from Muscat and Sultana. Most of them are for drinking and not tasting, meaning it's not very good, but the quality ones are great and considered the best white wines in the country.

So that leaves the rest of the country producing less than 10% of the nation's wine. Which makes complete sense because Anatolia was always the Muslim stronghold, with the wine drinkers mostly in Thrace. The climate also changes from the Mediterranean western coast into a continental center and east, and the altitude rises drastically.

Kalecik Karasi
There's around sixty indigenous varietals in Anatolia that make quality wine, including the ones I'll be reviewing this month: the white Narince and reds Kalecik Karasi, Öküzgözü and Boǧazkere.

Central Anatolia is the reason why this article was even written! Mid-Northern Anatolia to be precise! There lies the capital city of Ankara, with the town of Kalecik not far away. In Kalecik is a winery named VINKARA, which I'll get to later. Summers are dry and winters are cold in Central Anatolia, as you'd expect from a continental climate, but it's within the range that grapes thrive in.

Out to the Mid-Eastern Anatolia and South East Anatolia the climate presents a big problem. Harsh winters and scorching summers are not the vine's friend. Although there are successes, such as Kayra winery's Buzbaǧ label. They made the country's most popular wines for years and are still going strong.

So has Tarhun really returned? Is Turkish wine really seeing a resurgence? Yeah, it's actually happening. Though severely underfunded, it's the modern equipment, oenology education and exposure to the rest of the wine world that continually makes the quality of Turkish wine better and better. This was all brought forth by the introduction of international varietals to Thrace in the later part of the last century, inspiring grape growers and winemakers to up their game with their native stuff. As word gets out, the sales increase. As sales increase, the industry gets stronger. As the industry gets stronger, word gets out even more. And better wine is made.

The potential for Turkish wine is crazy and if the country could get its goddamn act together it might be one of the top fine wine producing countries in the world! But some people are successfully planning to get the government of Turkey away from being secular and back to being a religious one by 2023. That's right: they have a plan with a timeline. In 2013 they passed laws that increased taxes on booze, banned advertising for anything related to alcohol, and deny restaurants close to mosques from serving it. Still, that's not stopping the wine industry from banging at the door of world recognition.

The movement that the wine industry in Turkey is forming is one that would make it a world class fine wine producer. The movement of religion in its politics is to hold them down. I hope the good guys win.

Let's get back to the previously mentioned VINKARA, the inspiration for this article. They've provided me with seven bottles to dedicate the rest of the month of May to their wines. All of Vinkara's production is estate grown, "green" (but not certified), and some use natural yeast. Their vineyards are near the Kizilirmak River and on soil composed of sand, clay and limestone. The winery was founded in 2003 and focuses on preserving and bringing awareness to the indigenous grapes of Turkey.

So get ready for a month of Turkish wine, starting with an Italian wine made from an ancient grape that traces its origins back to Turkey.

Thursday, May 12th: Vinkara Narince 2013
Sunday, May 15th: Vinkara Kalecik Karasi 2013
Tuesday, May 17th: Vinkara Narince Reserve 2012
Sunday, May 22nd: Vinkara Öküzgözü Winehouse 2013
Thursday, May 26th: Vinkara Yasasin 2013

- Joey Casco CSW/CSS

This article could not have been done without the help of Graham Richardson, my go-to history expert. Thanks again, my friend.

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  1. Fascinating, funny and factual as usual!

  2. " You've never met this woman, you have no clue what she likes, and your boyfriend is equally clueless ("uhhh, I think they met on Hinge or something?). Without hesitation, rosé.

  3. This is a great article! I would like to see more Turkish wines on the market.

    There is just one factual claim that is not correct regarding the origin of wine - it is already undeniable, based on the archaeological evidence, that the cradle of wine is Georgia, a small country bordering Turkey. Georgia has kept a continuous and unchanged technology of winemaking for 8000 years (way earlier since the rise of Hittites) and prides with more than 500 (!) endemic varieties of grape. Wine is almost a religion on its own in Georgia and wine gods and goddesses have been omnipresent and well-alive up until now.

    We invite the author of this blog to taste and post some of Georgian wines!

    Otari (otto@nyu.ed)

  4. You have done a fantastic job. I wil definitely digg it and personally suggest to my friends. this is vey good post. we also provide Small Wine Producers Guide. for more information visit on our website.



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