If Turkish cuisine of which we still get to hear now and then is dramatically underrated then what can be said about Turkish wines? Turkish what? Yes, Turks do drink alcohol and grow crazy amount of grapes being in top5 of the world’s grape producers. That’s true that most of it goes into the making of pekmez, raisins and rakı – alcohol beverage many Turks swear by – rather than wine, but you get a sense of the potential. That’s also true that Turkish wine is expensive and often times easily forgettable. But there are many world class Turkish wines. And the world needs to know about them.
There are a few opportunities in Istanbul to get up and personal with some of the most interesting Turkish wines as well as wine makers and experts, and one of my favorites is the Friday wine tastings at Four Seasons Sultanahmet. In the intimate setting of the hotel’s lobby bar filled with the sounds of live piano you get to taste 4 wines from the same producer, region or grape and pair them with picks from the exuberant buffet of top-notch Turkish and imported cheeses, jams, fruit and olives.
Last Friday Tomurcukbağ winemakers presented 5 of its wines including signature Kalecik Karası (literally, “the black of Kalecik”); one of the most renown indigenous Turkish grapes often called Turkish Pinot Noir. The grape is local to the area of Kalecik by the Kızılırmak river, 70 km away from Ankara.
Kalecik Karası grape believed to go back to the Roman empire era started to extinct in 1960s because of the insects damaging the grape. Sabit Ağaoğlu devoted 47 years of his life to studying the grape first in Ankara University and later at Geilweilerhof Grape Breeding Research Institute, Germany, and it is him and his colleagues who have rescued Kalecik Karası grape from extinction. The nourished child grew up and started bringing returns: Sabit Ağaoğlu embraced wine making. Together with his wife Gülcihan they bought a vineyard in Kalecik and in 2009 started making wines from the indigenous grape for personal consumption – as they first thought.
At the wine tasting at Four Seasons Sultanahmet I chatted with Gülcihan Ağaoğlu about Tomurcukbağ wines. We instantly found a common ground – Gülcihan Hanım’s parents are coming from Crimea, Black Sea region of Ukraine (I sigh – this beautiful piece of land used to be Russian) also known for its wine: a nuclear engineer by education herself Gülcihan Ağaoğlu shares her husband’s passion for wine making.
At Tomurcukbağ they practice artisanal wine making and aspire to revive Anatolian wine making tradition. Producing 500-600 bottles a year they do only single-origin wines without mixing wines of different years and vineyards. Ağaoğlu family also does not use yeast, sugar and other additives that do not belong to the harvested grape.
In fact, Tomurcukbağ wines are only in Turkey made using spontaneous fermentation when no yeast is added, and crushed grapes along with skins and seeds are left to ferment on their own as the reaction between yeast and sugar that contained in the grape skins and winery air is taking place. “Spontaneous or wild yeast fermentation is a much riskier way to make wine,” – explains Gülcihan Ağaoğlu. “Unlike the cultured yeast fermentation it does not yield predictable results: if something went wrong the whole crop is gone”.
It sounds a lot like making bread with commercial yeast versus sourdough: wine made with wild year or sourdough bread take its flavor from the original material – flour or grape – used in making and hence results in a more versatile product with sometimes unpredictable qualities. Wine fermented with its own/wild yeast has a unique and more complex flavor specific to the particular vineyard while in the wines made with cultured yeast these characteristics are muted.
The difference between the two approaches is also apparent in the wine smell: spontaneously fermented wines smell less pleasant than wines with cultured yeast. Tomurcukbağ Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 smells fried onion and leather tanneries in Fez. It may not sound so attractive, but the taste is heavenly: little leather indeed but also smoke and red berries. When you chew a bit of Parmesan and sip Tomurcukbağ Cabernet Sauvignon and swallow them together you feel a little explosion in your mouth – the two flavors combined create another, the third one.
My favorite one of all, however, was Trajan Reserve Kalecik Karası 2010: it is the perfect time to taste it as the grape reveals its full flavor 3 years after it was made. “2010 was very hot”, explains Gülcihan Ağaoğlu. “The grapes did not ripen yet but already started to dry. Here is the outcome: slightly bitter, caramel and spicy wine with 15% alcohol. This one is my favorite too”.
Wine tastings at Four Seasons Sultanahmet: March, 31 is the last wine tasting this year; events to resume in October. Wine flight and cheese buffet 45 TL. Reservation required. Phone: (212) 402 3156. Address: Tevkifhane Sokak No. 1 Sultanahmet
Tomurcukbağ wines available at the major Istanbul wine bars as well as selected Istanbul restaurants and hotels. Recommendation: Kalecik Karası Rezerv 2010.