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Turkish Wine, Keeping Moments Company

Wine. When I watch the sunset in my solitude, when a man I fancy invites me to his home for the first time, when I get together with friends I’ve missed dearly, in sadness and celebrations… Wine has always kept me company in these moments. There is an old saying, “Where there is civilization, there is wine.” Ironic. We live on the lands where civilizations expanded from, yet our relationship to wine is akin to one we have with a distant relative. There is familiarity, but no closeness.

For the past few years, especially after moving back to Istanbul, I’ve been observing a growth in diversity of grapes, vineyards and brands in comparison to the times when I used to visit in college. I’ve been trying to get to know the local wines by listening to advise, allowing coincidences, instinctively approaching the shelves and taking risks.

In order to get to know Turkish wine better, I decided to speak with an expert. I couldn’t think of anyone better than Tulin Bozuyuk, who is the General Manager of  Barbare Wines as well as the co-owner one of my favorite restaurants, Lokanta Armut. Here is our leisurely chat, which I hope you’ll find as fascinating as I did.

Low Consumption... Low Production

Basak (B): It was about 10 years ago, I was longing for Turkey when I walked into a wine shop in New York. Shelves were categorized by country. I searched for my own but no use. I asked the owner where I could find Turkish wine and taking me for an American he replied with an unapologetic ease, “Turkish wine sucks!” I felt hurt. I took offense. On the other hand I wondered, did he have a point?

Tulin (T): 10 years is not a long time, but we did come a long way since then. In fact, the history of Turkish wine goes even way back. After the Republic was formed, although there was significant development with vine-growing with the support of Ataturk, that progress was interrupted rather quickly. Everyone thinks it was due to Islam. Yes, we are a Muslum country. But the other reason for this cut is the fact that we are a nation that went through tremendous hardships.

When the population worked for bread, in need of new roads and better education, leisurely consumptions such as wine got pushed back. Prioritizing these fundamental needs, naturally, delayed the development of wine in Turkey. For instance we export many grape-based products such as raisins or vinegar, but wine is not one of them. When we look at the total area of vineyards, we rank pretty high in the world, and yet we only use 5 percent of our vineyards to make wine.

B: I could have guessed wine production in Turkey was low, but didn’t realize it was that low.

T: It is. Turkish population’s wine consumption is also very low. 1 bottle per person a year. Another reason for this is childhood habits. Every home has a culture. We grow up with rituals we see in our families and they become our own habits. For example my father used to drink double-raki (the unsweetened, anise-flavored alcoholic drink  of choice in Turkey) in summer evenings. Some prefer to drink it in a tall crystal glass, some in short. But wine doesn’t have a past like that here. When I look at my own life, people would begin to experiment with it after their 20s, via travels abroad. Only after entering a more global world, they’d be introduced to the culture of wine.

B: But I believe the industry is being reformed, which is slowly determining the change of consumer habits. I mean just because it got “trendy,” people consumed rosé like it was water these past few summers. I guess it also depends on marketing.

T: Yeah, “like water.” You wouldn’t describe a good wine like that. If it can be consumed like water, then it isn’t good wine. See, if people had wine everyday, then they’d be able to differentiate the good from the bad.

Every country’s locomotive product is table wine. And it’s important that it reaches a certain quality. Yet in Turkish wine-making, they’ve always tried to achieve that as cheaply as possible. This also affects the global image of Turkey.

Investment & Image

T: We (Barbare) produce 100.000 bottles of high quality wine and no matter how hard we work at getting into the foreign market, it is almost impossible. Even if say a restaurant in London includes us in their menu, it is extremely difficult for us to deliver that wine to them. It can’t be done by sending a cart of 12 bottles to a mere 3 to 5 locations.  You need to collaborate with a distributor and have a minimum palette of products available. They need to have a stock there. For good restaurants to get good wines like ours, a market needs to be created first, and that’s very challenging for boutique brands such as ours. A large capital for investment is mandatory.

B: In addition to the capital needed to increase the sales, you also need to take on the task of changing the whole image of Turkish wine.

T: And that’s equally challenging! At a conference where the participants were discussing the image of Turkish wine, I asked, “15-20 million tourists come to Turkey annually. Why don’t any of these tourists purchase a bottle of wine to take home? 70 million bottles get produced. If one tourist puts a bottle in his/her suitcase, that’s the sale of 10 million extra bottles. Why can’t we manage to make this happen?”

Because those tourists look at the image and the cost of that wine. They pay high prices for bad wines and are not able to drink good ones at reasonable prices. Then a foreigner comes and drinks foreign wine in our own country. This is a serious problem that needs to be solved.

Secondly, when one says Italian or French, one can also create an image quite easily. New World wines are also getting quite good at this. But when we say “let’s introduce Turkish wine,” our one and only point of reference is, “We come from the lands where wine was born! Anatolian wines!” These statements in the end don’t really mean anything, and this is another issue that needs to be worked on.

B: If the industry is aware of these issues, what is being done about it?

T: Budgets become the issue yet again. When you look at the evolution of the New World countries, Chile for example in the past 10 years, you notice that their government gives huge support. This support is what allows them to produce and export worldwide.

When it comes to us however, let alone get the support, we are being blocked. The budget that is preserved for the industry is next to none. For instance, when we go to production, we bring barrels and corks from abroad. We can’t find good quality bottles in this country so they are also imported. And we call it local production? Alright, fine. Let’s bring everything from abroad. But in that case, taxes shouldn’t be that astronomical.

B: I see. The cost of production should be reasonable so that the rest of the budget can be used for proper marketing. Clearly an industry that’s being cornered.

T: It really hurts me. We have some really good quality wine in this country. When you look at Turkey and its coordinates on a world map, it’s standing on a land that is extremely suitable for wine-making. And yet countries that are not as geographically blessed are way ahead of us. We improved but… we are moving like a turtle.

Lack of Education

B: As it effects all industries, I’m sure general lack of education in this country also contributes to this challenging predicament.

T: When you look at the increasing number of restaurants in Istanbul,you’d be surprised just how rare it is to find someone who’s gotten the proper education, or even someone who hasn’t maybe studied but dedicated themselves to the profession, or gotten the exams from overseas to become a sommelier. You wouldn’t be able to find even 20 people. In the service industry, it is practically impossible to find well-informed staff.

Restaurant owners are the same. We were speaking of habits earlier. Majority of them have not experienced wine until they were in their 20s or 30s. They may have a handle on the food business, but they don’t know wine and yet, they try to sell wine.

I also see that they don’t have much of a choice. There are no wine professionals they can consult with or wine-conscious staff they can hire. Whatever the manufacturers say, they are bound to oblige. So the restauranteurs are stuck as well.

For instance, it is not a bad decision to offer a Shiraz or a Cabernet with red meat. To serve wine in wrong temperature is much more critical than choosing the incorrect grape type.

Let alone that, there are so many people who can’t even differentiate a wine gone bad. This is another important detail. Everyone is familiar with the ritual. The waiter shows the wine label to the table, takes out the cork, serves a taste and the customer who ordered it confirms and the rest of the bottle is served. The person who tastes the wine doesn’t even know what he is looking for. If he ordered that particular wine, then he is supposed to have a particular expectation from that wine.

B: If supposed professionals are uneducated, just imagine the consumer.

T: We have a particular opportunity in our restaurant (Lokanta Armut). Because I can intervene during service, I can guide the customers to my best knowledge and ability. That way, they also relax and trust our feedback on their wine selection. We also come across a great deal of people, with whom we can chat about wine. They share their experiences. They are curious and eager to learn more about it.

B: I’m sure that makes your job far more enjoyable.

T: Absolutely, because that way we also get feedback. I taste every wine I put on our menu and stand by each and every one of them. But if I notice a particular bottle getting too much reaction, I try to be open about it as well. I accept that some palettes may not be ready for it. But then there can also be someone who’d like to try something different from the usual classics. That’s why I always put a couple of interesting options on the menu…so that I can share that experience with them.

B: Lovely! In the past, the only guidance available used to be “red wine with steak, white wine with fish.”

T: And in fact palettes are far more complicated than that. This harmony between food and wine… Of course there is some truth in the base of that generalization. There is omega in fish, and tannin in red wine. The combination of the two creates a chemical reaction that causes a metalic taste on the buds. And yet your palette may not be as susceptible to it whilst someone else’s may experience it quite sharply. The perception of taste varies. So it is not as mathematical as it seems.

B: Being stuck in the “old rules” of wine is also caused by a lack of education and curiosity, is it not? A certain awareness needs to be raised.

T: We try to do our best in order to achieve that, but again, Turkey’s ban on promotion (of alcoholic merchandise)clog our best efforts.

I mean it is such a big sea! There is no way of knowing all the wines! People don’t have the time or the budget to go to each shelf and say, “this is new, let me try that one.” There are a few websites available for the ones who are truly interested, yet in order to write about Turkish wine, there needs to be relevant listings. When those listings are banned, what is there to follow?

There used to be international contests organized. The prized wines used to get published. People would be able to read about them and subsequently ask for those particular wines the next time they dined at a restaurant. This way, the restauranteurs would also be able to get a sense of what is being liked and form a more guided menu. Until two years ago, we were able to take great advantage of that.

Similarly, professional events organized in Turkey also decreased significantly. Masters of Wine tastings used to be done each year. In the Thrace region, there is a competition held on September 5th and 6th. An incredibly beautiful event that the City Hall supports. Even if we get positive results, who is going to be informed about them? Now there, personal efforts and responsibilities fall upon us. By sharing it on our personal social media. When even a serious organization such as this gets no publicity, the industry stays weak due to lack of communication.

B: It’s already a small industry, and it remains to be small.

Region Protection System

T: Another thing that is successfully done abroad but does not exist in Turkey is Appellation – a system that protects the geographical indication used to identify where the grapes for a wine are grown. For example, champagne.  It is the name of the sparkling wine made in the Champagne region of France. Even if you produce the exact same wine with the exact same techniques, but in another region of France, you cannot call it “champagne.” It can only be labeled as “sparkling wine.” Because the label “champagne” is protected by this system. Appellation is what makes champagne as we know it so valuable, both in production quality and the retail price.

Don’t get me wrong. This protection is not in place just so the retail prices can go higher. No. What it actually enables is standardization. The manufacturer needs to comply with the specific requirements of that particular region. What does that mean?

Let’s give an example from Turkey. Ezine cheese. Ezine, is the name of the region. Today, any cheese manufacturer can produce ezine cheese at any factory at any location and still label it as “ezine cheese.” As if it’s indicative of the type of cheese, and not the region. They are able to do this because there is no system in place to protect the region.  When you’re shopping for ezine cheese, you actually have no idea from what type of milk it is made from, what herbs the livestock were fed, which aromas that milk captures… You have no choice but to trust a particular brand and make your selection accordingly.

B: If the government had a system in place, it could give its stamp on ezine cheese that is over a certain quality, and this way the consumer could have a healthier judgement on brand vs quality.

T: In winemaking, every country has regulations that dictate the amount of grapes harvested per acre. For instance you can only collect 350-650 kilos of grapes from an acre, because only within those parameters the wine will reach a certain level of quality. There is no regulatory control in Turkey. You can harvest 800-1000 kilos if you wanted to. That’s where the quality drops.

I can say this. Okuzgozu grape from Elazig region, or Bogazkere from Diyarbakir region is quite nice. Yet as long as Appellition is not in place, I can’t guarantee the production quality within every single region.

We continue to struggle on our own. We keep the production below 350 kilos in order to keep our quality high, but there is nothing official that can distinct us from the rest. So I have no choice but to try to market the quality of my wine all on my own. And that is a serious cost for marketing.

B: So we go round and round and come back to budgets and marketing.

Thrace Wine Route

T: In this sense we got together with 12 growers and established Thrace Wine Route. Our mission is to activate the region of Thrace with tourism and viticulture. Via the vineyards, we wanted to steer people towards tourism. Its development will hopefully lead the wines to be better recognized.

We developed a map that provides visitors places they can wander, stay at, dine in and simply rest and enjoy some leisurely time.

Yet it’s still in the crawling phase. Just imagine, only a couple of hours away from Istanbul, in a huge area that covers the region of Thrace, we have only 12 spots. 12 spots might be enough for vineyards. But in order to really support the vineyards, we need an increase of boutique hotels and local restaurants that serve regional wine as well as delicious, authentic food.

When people visit our vineyard, they can have a wonderful time for a day. We opened our boutique hotel that has 20 rooms available. We are fully booked every weekend. But asides from the vineyard, we need to offer visitors other alternatives that can fill up their weekend itinerary. There is paragliding, and we do have the sea, but it’s not enough. One should be able to say, “I heard there is a lady over there who serves amazing breakfast.” Then when they return, they can relax and enjoy a few glasses of wine at the vineyards. Or “Let’s go to the local cheese shop and get some for home.” All these endeavors need to be supported under the umbrella of tourism. On our lonesome, we can only take it so far.

B: Attention wine-loving, dynamic, visionary investors!

Characteristics

B: Well… wine, just like people, vary in personality. With that in mind, how would you characterize Turkish wine?

T: When I first got in the business, I received great mentorship from wine expert Levon Bagis. He was the one who made the following analogy, “French wine is like Audrey Hepburn. American wine is like Pamela Anderson.” The reason why he drew a similarity between French wine and Audrey Hepburn is because although she has make-up, she looks natural. American wine on the other hand, purposefully wears lots of make-up, and it wants you to notice it. The aromas from the barrels are the make-up. American wines are lively and they grab the attention. With french wines however, elegance is the priority. It’s not the immediate reaction it is after, but the lasting impression it has on you as you slowly drink it. This I thought was a great example.

Every Turkish winery and brand has different characteristics they put forth. We as Barbare, we want to make the Turkish wine that ages gracefully. We produce less because we are thinking ahead into 20 years. This in particular is the major characteristic of our winery that we emphasize.

But again, every winery has a different style. Some may be inspired by the new world wines. Some may prefer to highlight the aromas like American wines because some can truly enjoy these strong aromas on a daily consumption. Not everyone buys a bottle of wine to keep for 5-10 years. There is no good or bad, all of them needs to be out there.

B: So it’s an issue of supply and demand.

T: Of course. There aren’t many wines that age well in Turkey and that is directly related to the consumer. When the production cost increases, so does the retail price. This doesn’t necessarily mean quickly consumable wines are low-quality. You can also produce quality young wine. But if you to need to sell your product quicker, then you need to harvest accordingly.

B: It’s a different strategy.

T: We preferred to make wine that gains value over time. Is it challenging, yes. Barbare was established in 2000, and that’s when the planting began. In 2007, we had our first production. In 2011, they reached retailers. 4 years of waiting time is a serious cost, which directly effects the shelf price, and your consumer profile changes accordingly.

B: I assume your consumer profile is quite small and specific.

T: As we were saying in the beginning of our chat, the development of wine industry in any country depends on other sub-segment products. High-segment wines, on top of the pyramid, are the wines that are least produced. What is crucial here is to increase the quality of everyday wine that is consumed fast. Because production cost is lower, it can be sold at a low price point, but the quality shouldn’t be compromised entirely. There is no aging wine in Turkey, but it is not because it can’t be done. It is all about Cost / Quality performance.

T: Wines made for fast turn-overs need to be consumed when they are young. That’s why you should pick the youngest bottle. Now we are coming into the 2015 harvest so the young wines of 2014 should be consumed. You know in the past, the bottles didn’t even write the years on them.

B: Now there! There needs to be some guidance available to the consumer. Because for the inexperienced, the only base for a decision is the price. While they question why a particular bottle is 60 TL, they may gravitate towards another, but not even check the year.

B: So as consumers, when we are looking at the shelves, what should we pay attention to?

T: Wines made for fast turn-overs need to be consumed when they are young. That’s why you should pick the youngest bottle. Now we are coming into the 2015 harvest so the young wines of 2014 should be consumed. You know in the past, the bottles didn’t even write the years on them.

B: Now there! There needs to be some guidance available to the consumer. Because for the inexperienced, the only base for a decision is the price. While they question why a particular bottle is 60 TL, they may gravitate towards another, but not even check the year.

T: Here comes another great example from abroad. There are vintage charts available on the internet. It provides a table that shows, say, every region in France that produces wine. In addition to ranking them, it also shows their buyability. For example, it says “get it but open fast. Or “get it and store.” It helps navigate.

By contrast, if a tourist in Turkey would like to get a bottle of wine which ages well, the only option he/she has is to try to find a wine boutique. Even if they find one, they have no choice but to trust the salesman to guide them.

B: And they are so few – trustworthy wine shops that are not solely decorative, but are actually enthusiastic and informative. I suppose that’s also a case of supply & demand. Perhaps it’s because we are a culture who keeps the good wine only for guests and special occasions, rather than enjoying them for own pure leisure in our daily lives.

T: In fact, you don’t necessarily have to open a great bottle just because it’s a special day. You don’t have to say, “I’ll wait for something special to happen so I’ll open it.” There are some wine… just by drinking them… they make an ordinary day, extraordinary.

Recommendations

Istanbul Wine Boutiques:

La Cave: Sıra Selviler Cad. No:109 Cihangir, İstanbul * Tel: 0212 243 24 05 / 0532 414 1584

Kav Şarap Butiği: Teşvikiye Cad. Atiye Sok. No: 21/1 Şişli, İstanbul * Tel:0212 234 91 20

Online Mahzen: For all locations and contact details, just click here.

Red Wine:

Barbare Prestige, 2009

Kavaklıdere Egeo, 2011

Urla Vourla, 2010

White Wine:

Sarafin Sauvignon Blanc, 2012

Corvus Blend Bianco, 2010

Umurbey Sauvignon Blanc, 2012

Rosé:

Doluca Verano Blush, 2012

Prodom Rose Syrah-Merlot 2012

Suvla Blush Cabernet Sauvignon 2012