Wine's chequered past and present in Turkey

Wine's chequered past and present in Turkey

Nik DarlingtonJune 21, 2021

In 2013, then prime minister (now president) of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, prohibited the sale and serving of alcohol between 10pm and 6am, part of a package of authoritarian reforms depicted then and ever since as a creeping ‘Islamisation’ of the public sphere.

The consumption of alcoholic beverages has a chequered and not altogether clear-cut place in Islamic tradition. The Quran variously extols and condemns wine. And throughout history the prohibition of alcohol by Islamic leaders was often as much about social control than piety - particularly for the lower classes rather than the elites. It should be said that coffee houses, with their sociable reputation for political gossip and sedition, often would cause caffeine to be lumped together with alcohol as a troublesome intoxicant.

So, for whatever reason, for centuries alcohol was either prohibited or cracked down on in places such as the Ottoman Empire. In extremis, Sultan Murat IV (1623-1640) even imposed the death penalty.

That’s not to say alcohol in what is now modern-day Turkey was always unavailable, because prohibitions typically only were imposed on Muslims. Istanbul’s taverns were mostly run by Greeks and Armenians.

And yet it was not till the secularisation during the latter years of the nineteenth century that the consumption of wine and other alcoholic beverages was liberalised as a means of becoming more ‘European’. Although the most popular drink was raki rather than wine.

When Ataturk established the Turkish Republic in 1923, the new liberal, secular establishment attained a supremacy – underpinned by the military – over conservative religious opposition that maintained till President Erdogan’s consolidation of power in recent years.

Seyit Karagozoglu started Pasaeli in 2000 and he has witnessed the shift in attitudes since. As well as a winemaker who exports Turkish wine around the world, Seyit is a wine importer of many famous brands into Turkey, such as Joseph Drouhin, Antinori, and the Altos las Hormigas wines you find here at Pip.

And Turkish wine has surged in quality and interest in recent years, only to see progress stymied by the government. At first, big strides were made by wealthy investors wanting to create a slice of Bordeaux or Burgundy in Turkey, turning out copy-cat wines made from French grape varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. But now a light is rightfully being shone on Turkey’s indigenous grapes, with Pasaeli in the vanguard.

Sidalan is one such rare variety, likely first grown off the west coast of Turkey in Bozcaada, but Seyit grows his around the village of Gedik, close to the Kaz Daglari national park and just a short distance from the location of the ancient city of Troy. There is hardly any Sidalan planted in Turkey but Seyit has spent years tracking down endangered grapes such as this and reviving them. He began increasing his Sidalan acreage last year.

He is one of the few winemakers to make a varietal (i.e. 100%) Sidalan too. Grown at 300 metres above sea level (so important in moderating the intense summer heat), from 25-year-old vines, it is fermented only in temperature-controlled steel tanks to capture the vital fruit characteristics, while three months on the lees (the extant yeast sediment post-fermentation) adds complexity and a richer mouthfeel.

Julia Harding, a Master of Wine who writes for Jancis Robinson’s tastings archive, has long been a fan of Seyit’s wines and rates the 2018 Sidalan highly:

“Tangy sour-citrus grapefruit aroma but with a very slight creaminess that makes it more inviting. Crushed rocks and even a hint of wild grasses. An elegant but untamed wine. Bone dry, light-bodied but so refreshing, with that stony character dominating the citrus fruit. Light, almost chalky on the finish. Great delicacy and a salty aftertaste.”

There are some excellent wines being made from international varieties in Turkey. Indeed, Pasaeli’s K2 has been rated one of the world’s best Bordeaux blends by Decanter.

Yet it is on the back of wines like Seyit's Sidalan, or 6N red, that the modern Turkish wine industry’s reputation must be built.

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