Winemaking in Turkey – the best man for the job is a woman!

Turkey is a country of dichotomies” – so said my academic advisor in graduate school, many years ago.  Each time I traveled to Turkey in subsequent years, I have remembered his perspicacious remark and thought to myself how acute his observation was. His comment seems even more relevant today, considering how the country has evolved socially, economically, and politically since our conversation a few decades ago. The late professor was a specialist of Middle Eastern studies, with an emphasis on Turkish history and politics. He served as the president of Bogazici University, then known as Robert College, and traveled extensively throughout the Anatolian peninsula during the 1960s.  His observation was naturally through the lens of that time, not long after the founding of the modern Turkish Republic.


The early decades of the Republic, founded in 1923 by Kemal Ataturk, were fused with explosive excitement to modernize the newly secularized country.  Turkish women were granted the right to vote and were eligible to be elected to the Government, long before many European countries, such as Italy, Greece, and France.  Women were respected as pillars of the society by the modernists. They became teachers, doctors, engineers in considerable numbers.  In sharp contrast, the Islamic values of the previous six centuries of Ottoman rule were still well entrenched and vehemently against the trend of westernization; a large segment of the population still believed a woman’s place was in the home with the primary duties of being mother and homemaker. Turkey, a Muslim nation, is geographically at the crossroads of the West and the largely Muslim East – a source of palpable tension throughout its recent history.  Such was the dichotomy all too evident to my professor.  The pull between the two forces has become even starker in the last decade, much of which can be attributed to the current administration, in power since 2002, with its religious and conservative leanings on the one hand and the unrestrainable influence of globalization and social media on the other. Nowadays, it is not uncommon to see a group of young ladies walking together in the streets of Istanbul, half in western attire, some might think as scant, and the other half in tesettur, clothing covering their head and chest in conformance with Islamic standards of modesty.  Likewise, in fashionable districts of the city, one would have the choice of dining at a restaurant with a full bar featuring trendy cocktails as well as European and local wines or at an adjacent one where only soft drinks are served.   

History of the Turkish wine industry has been front and center of this tug of war, reflecting the political and social currents that swept the Anatolian peninsula through the centuries. Viticulture and winemaking in Anatolia date back seven thousand years.  According to legend, Noah planted the first vineyard in the far eastern part of modern-day Turkey, after the deluge, which deposited his ark on Mount Ararat was over. Numerous searches have been conducted around Mount Ararat to find his ark, which is said to have carried his family and all the animal species.  To date, no physical evidence has been found, including the vineyard he is said to have pioneered.  Proof of Noah’s vineyard notwithstanding, the fact remains that Anatolian peninsula is endowed with a rich oenological history.

Abundant evidence suggests that wine was the preferred libation of the various civilizations that thrived on this fertile land. Wine was not only an important part of the daily life and cultural practice of these ancient civilizations, but was also crucial for their economies. Winemaking continued to flourish in Anatolia through the arrival of Turkic tribes from Central Asia and later the spreading of Islam. As averse as the Ottoman rulers were to alcohol, winemaking and its consumption were tolerated during the six hundred years of their governance, albeit almost exclusively within the purview of Christians and other non-Muslim minorities. Ottoman rulers practiced leniency when it suited them, especially when the royal coffers needed refurbishing by way of lucrative alcohol taxes.  Despite periods of prohibition, enforced by severe sanctions which could include the death penalty, winemaking continued uninterrupted throughout the Ottoman rule.  Levels of production actually increased towards the end of the Ottoman Empire, partly attributable to European influence and partly to the decimation of European wineries caused by the phylloxera epidemic in the latter half of the 1800s.  The pendulum swung when the new republic was established. Ataturk, the founder and the first president of the country, encouraged and promoted viticulture actively.  So much so, that the country’s first commercial winery was opened in 1925. Certain regions were designated for vine cultivation and grape growers were extended financial and technical support, in addition to the grant of export tax exemption from the new government.

It is small wonder that the Anatolian peninsula has been a cradle for such rich wine culture. The loam composition of the soil in prime wine regions is favorable to some thousand varieties, second only to Italy in terms of diversity of indigenous varietals and the region enjoys the world’s fifth largest vineyard acreage. The modern wine industry, spearheaded by Ataturk in the 1920s, has come a long way since its inception. In the late 1980s, Turkish winemakers joined the ranks of the “new world wine revolutionaries” challenging the “old world.”  Large sums of capital were invested in the latest technologies to improve quality as well as to increase production. Their goal was certainly aided by the deregulation efforts of the new government.  Rising tourism, which increased the demand for wine, was also a propelling factor for the industry’s reenergized growth.

Today, Turkish winemakers are to be saluted for an even more remarkable renaissance. Despite all odds, they are producing wines of high enough quality to compete in international markets, not only with beloved local varieties, such as Kalecik Karasi, Okuzgozu and Narince, but also using well recognized international varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah. There is also a considerable effort to revive some extinct varieties, as well as to discover new ones. All of this is against the backdrop of a highly conservative government, which attempts to discourage local marketing and consumption of wine by the imposition of heavy taxes.  These prohibitively high taxes have not deterred Turkish vignerons from crafting truly delightful wines, neither has the drop in tourism, primarily due to the political turmoil in the Middle East and more recently because of the Corona virus related travel restrictions.  What is even more remarkable about the current wine renaissance is that women winemakers are engaged in large waves and putting their indelible signature on the country’s wine production. Female movers and shakers of the Turkish wine industry are not limited to winemaking; they are also heavily represented in the wine sector at large, occupying critical posts, not to mention women who have earned the prestigious titles of Sommeliers and Master of Wine – traditionally regarded as a male domain.   This brings me back to my earlier recollection of the comment made by my professor: “Turkey is a country of dichotomies.”  It is indeed a dichotomy, not least in noting the contribution of women to an industry which is historically dominated by men in a land where patriarchy is still the order of the day, and in which wine consumption is shunned and persistently rejected by the current conservative government. It is truly remarkable that Turkish women are marking their territory against the odds and defining their role in the wine world.