Land of ancient vineyards, Urla

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Urla is a quaint coastal town where the tantalizingly turquoise waters of the Aegean Sea hug the shore to converge with the serenity of timeless olive orchards and the felicity of ancient vineyards in blissful harmony. The town is centered on a peninsula bearing the same name. The hammer-shaped Urla peninsula, which brazenly protrudes northwards into the gulf of Izmir, is just a short distance of some 20 miles from Izmir, the third largest Turkish city. The salubrious ebullience of Urla with its fertile soil, its inviting topography, rich with mountains and pine forests, its unique commanding location in the gulf, combined with its moderate Mediterranean climate, has attracted marauders throughout history, until it was finally integrated into the territories of the Ottoman empire at its height in the sixteenth century.  Although he city’s pre-Hellenistic history is still being researched by ongoing excavations, it has been established by historians and archeologists that Urla was one of a dozen Ionian cities, Klazomenai. As such, it had a vibrant commercial presence from very early on. Urla continued to maintain its value as a commercial hub, until Izmir became the more preferred port; the new contender offering a more direct land transportation route for goods from the hinterland destined for Europe.

History of viticulture in Urla is as ancient as the town itself, dating back to the Hellenistic period. Greek merchants, who settled and established the twelve Ionian cities in and around Urla, inherited winemaking practices of the Hittites and the Phrygians – earlier civilizations that had thrived further inland on the Anatolian peninsula. Wine was an integral part of these ancient civilizations, imbibed for enjoyment, as well as used for religious ceremonies. Wine had a commercial value also; historical evidence points to Anatolian wine exports to Italy and France as early as the sixth century BC. While there is no common consensus about the origins of Muscat grapes or the name Muscat, it is argued by some ampelographers that the variety was first propagated and introduced to Europe by the Greeks who lived on the Aegean coast during the period of classical antiquity. The Muscat grape, which has a pronounced sweet floral aroma, is arguably the oldest domesticated varietal and the Turkish grape Misket is a descendent of the same family. The most well-known Misket is Bornova Misketi (a highly aromatic flavorful delight itself) is from Bornova near Urla.  Today, Muscat grapes, known as Moscato in Italy and Moscatel in Spain, exceed two hundred different varieties, and are enjoyed all around the globe with their unique regional nuances – the most notable ones being Muscat Blanc a Petits Grains in France, Moscato Bianco in Italy, Vin de Constance of South Africa (a much valued sweet wine of the European nobility for centuries), Muscat of Alexandria, and the sweet wines made in Rutherglen, Australia, to name just a few.

The arrival of the Turkic tribes and the ensuing Islamification of the Anatolian peninsula did not adversely impact the viticulture of the area; winemaking continued through the Ottoman period, weathering the phylloxera epidemic of the late 1800s, and even the devastation of the First World War. The exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey in the aftermath of the war took a serious toll on the area’s wine industry to be certain, as winemaking was primarily the domain of the Greeks. Even with the departure of the Greek winemakers, the region continued producing wine, albeit of questionable quality.

Turkey’s wine industry started revitalizing – almost reinventing – itself in the late 1980s, just as was occurring in much of the “new world” wine regions. Interestingly, these strides to produce better quality wines corresponds to a changing social attitude towards the drink. Ironically, until relatively recently wine was never a popular alcoholic beverage in Turkey – the land that played such a vital role in the history of viticulture.  Raki (a sweetened, anise flavored drink made from distilled grapes that contains 40-50 percent alcohol abv) has traditionally been the drink on the dinner table – daily enjoyment of some, for celebratory occasions for others. Raki is engrained in the Turkish culture so much so that there are even songs and poems referring to it as panacea for all ailments, including broken hearts over long forgotten loves! A cursory look at most restaurants’ menu twenty to thirty years ago would make the preponderance of raki over wine obvious – a rich raki selection featuring different brands from different regions, followed by a skimpy wine section offering just ‘sec red’ and ‘sec white’ with no reference to the variety or where grapes sourced from.  An amusing anecdote: I once ordered the house red at a restaurant during a previous trip to Turkey some years ago – there was not a selection for wines by the glass.  I was stuck with only one option. I at least wanted to know the variety, so I asked the server what the featured house wine was. His answer was: “It is a great one, it is made with fresh grapes!” With that, I chuckled and quietly submitted to my fate.

Wine’s debut into the Turkish culture as an alternative to raki, accompanying meals or simply as a beverage to be enjoyed socially, can be traced to several factors. Globalization with all that entails – access and exposure to different cultures via the internet; social media in its various forms; growth of the tourism industry in the last several decades, especially wine tourism; baby boomers coming of age with disposable income who seek the finer pleasures of life –all this is against the backdrop of liberalization of the Turkish economy in the 1980s, which facilitated the access to foreign goods, including wine.

Urla and the wider wine region of the Aegean coast has not been immune to these strong social and economic forces. Winemaking, starting in the late 1990s, took on a new and exciting path, reigniting its glorious distant past. Today, the region produces more than half of the country’s wine output and new wineries are springing up throughout the area. “Young Turks” of this new wine scene are typically of the baby boom generation (baby boomers, having lived purposeful, productive lives, satisfied with the achievement of their professional goals, ready to escape the hectic pace of the metropolitan areas for bucolic settings, and more importantly, with the financial wherewithal to undertake a project that requires substantial capital.  After all, as the saying goes, one needs a large fortune to make a small one in the wine industry!  What is even more uplifting with this new trend is the conscious effort to improve winemaking operations through wider and deeper wine education. These pacesetting winemakers are investing considerable time and effort to equip themselves with the latest winemaking technologies. Unfortunately, access to wine education is limited in Turkey. There are no oenology programs, given the current government’s conservative leanings. However, this does not seem to deter the new wave vignerons from reaching out to well-known European wine schools in France, Italy, and other countries, as well as on online wine training opportunities, such as the WSET (Wine and Spirit Education Trust) or the Court Master of Sommeliers for their wine education.  Proximity to European training centers certainly helps.

The aggregate of these undertakings is the revival of the old, cultivation of the new and the expression of their unique blend…all shape the Urla Wine route. The wine route lies in Kuscular, a district of Urla just a few miles from town’s center. The existing wineries and the new ones that are being built are all within less than ten-mile radius, which will surely expand as the area is built out. In addition to the wineries, Kuscular features a few trendy restaurants and a wine bar. With its growing reputation, additional restaurants are in the planning, as well as expensive villas, making Kuscular one of the most sought-after postal codes of Urla, with the price of land increasing rapidly. The largest of these wineries is Urla Winery.  Smaller ones include Urlice, Usca, MMG, Cakir, Mozaik and Hus, not necessarily in any particular order. Urla’s boutique wineries are not limited to Kuscular. Limantepe Winery is being built in the Iskele district- where the town was established centuries ago. Relatively newer Perdix Winery is in the Zeytinler neighborhood, while southern shores of the town where pine forests and olive trees garland the area even more generously offer a picturesque setting to Ayda Winery.

Some of these wineries are named cleverly, referencing the natural surroundings of Urla.  Perdix, which means partridge in Greek, is inspired by the abundant partridge population in the region. The owners of the Hus winery decided on the name, because of the gentle sound the wind makes when it brushes the leaves of the olive trees that adorn their vineyards. Other names simply refer to their location, such as Urla and Limantepe, while others are eponymous, such as Cakir and Ayda wineries.

The different microclimates unique to each vineyard notwithstanding, the general climate of the region is Mediterranean – mild temperatures and plentiful rainfall during the grape growing season, hot and arid during summer months. The temperatures can get unbearably high, especially in the months of July and August, exceeding 40 degrees Celsius, but the heat is mitigated by gusty winds (ladies, never mind the hairdo, or else, make sure you have industrial strength hair spray.) The strong winds, characteristic of the region, also help keep fungal diseases at bay naturally, minimizing the need for artificial methods of combatting them. The favorable climate and the soil composition rich, with alluvial sediments, render Urla rightfully as one of the prime viticulture regions of the country.

Today Turkey boasts the world’s fourth largest acreage devoted to vineyard cultivation – over eight thousand square kilometers – after Spain, France, and Italy.  The country holds the sixth place in production with 4 million metric tons annually. Well over half of the output originates from the Aegean coast wineries. Equally noteworthy is the country’s number of indigenous varieties – a rich trove of some thousand grapes. The Aegean coast is home to some precious local grapes – Foca karasi, Karasakiz, Urla Karasi, Calkarasi are the most popular red varieties, while Misket and Sultaniye are the favorites of the whites. Sadly, these wonderful local grapes do not feature widely in the region’s wine production. Turkey’s current production includes only a relatively modest fraction of these indigenous varieties, perhaps 35%, (although a more generous source quotes as high as 60%.). The decline of indigenous grapes is not unique to Turkey. The study by OIV (International Organization of Vine and Wine) on the distribution of the world’s grapevine varieties, indicates the decline of local varietals is a worldwide phenomenon. The study concludes that “of the world’s 10,000 known grapevine varieties, 13 cover more than one-third of the world’s vineyard area and 33 varieties cover 50%.” Grapevines, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Merlot, planted in many different countries are called “international varieties” and they occupy the top shelves globally.  “Cabernet Sauvignon is one of the most widely cultivated varieties, covering 5% of the total world area under wines” according to OIV.

It is apparent that capitalism has a dominant influence on the Aegean coast, as in the rest of the wine world; what sells the most, is planted and produced the most. After all, this is a world in which wine is relentlessly scored – aptly called by some as the “Parkerization of wine”, referring to the controversial wine critique, Robert Parker, and his wine rating system; where wine is manipulated and tweaked to satisfy predetermined flavor profiles, and “flying wine consultants” who frenetically crisscross the globe to ensure the conformity of their clients’ wines with the demands of the international currents. In a world besotted by French romantism, it is not surprising to see the red grapes from Bordeaux (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc) and Burgundy’s Chardonnay given preferential treatment over their local cousins.

It is not all that “doom and gloom”, to quote the lyrics of the Rolling Stones’ tune, however. There is a keen interest and a concerted effort to rescue varieties destined to become extinct. Urla Karasi, which means black of Urla in Turkish, is one such grape that has been saved from disappearing completely and is now being produced, on its own or blended with Nero d’Avola. A three-year research conducted by the Urla Winery, in conjunction with Sabanci University and TUBITAK (Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey), has successfully resuscitated the variety, by first locating it on the Karaburun peninsula – short distance to the west of Urla, and then identifying its DNA. Calkarasi, Karasakiz, Yapincak, Kolorko, Sidalan and Cakal are other examples of rescued varieties. DNA identification of these grapes is also the result of a study headed by a vintner, in collaboration with leading European vitis vinifera experts. The noble effort to revive native grapes is not limited to large wineries only. There are other solo individuals – all from different backgrounds with no financial gain in mind other than keeping the native varieties alive. Such is the story of Kanver, Gaydura, Focakarasi and Merzifonkarasi grapes – kept alive by the efforts of a retired math teacher, a retired navy officer and a journalist, respectively. The dedication of these individuals and others like them to the cause of preserving history is heartwarming… keeping the indigenous varieties alive is indeed exciting, as it is painstaking and arduous, but the level of enthusiasm leaves one with hope…so much to look forward to in the Turkish wine industry!