Heritage grapes, old vines and cultural landscapes

Heritage grapes, old vines and cultural landscapes

Heritage grapes, old vines and cultural landscapes

Turkey might not be considered a leading wine producing country, ranking just 31st in the world, but paradoxically, it is one of the foremost countries when it comes to the area of vineyards, being the fifth largest in the world, and the sixth in grape production. The numbers may seem to be contradictory, but the reason is that less than 3 percent of the grapes are used for winemaking.

Turkey is a country that has a particularly unique relationship with grapes. First of all, grapes are the favorite fruit for many, enjoyed out of hand, when in season, they adorn the summer tables with grace. Some varieties can keep for a long time, especially when kept hung in cellars or cool places. Especially in old times, the art of keeping grape bunches fresh for winter months involved many innovative methods, some unfortunately no longer practiced. Turkey must be the biggest consumer of grapes as a fruit, but not necessarily only in the fresh form, if not eaten fresh, most grapes are either dried or turned into other grape products such as grape molasses (pekmez), fruit leathers (pestil) and various forms of sweetmeats made from grape must. Raisins and sultanas produced in Turkey are sold worldwide, but certain dried grape varieties remain as well-kept local secrets, from the tiniest to plump prune-sized ones, from amber colored to almost black purplish ones.

The reality is that most of the grapes grown in the country end up on tables, not in bottles. Apart from the grapes that are consumed as food, there is still a good portion that goes into bottles, but not in the form of wine. The so-called national spirit rakı, is primarily a grape distillation, and for the non-alcoholic section, grape juice production is also big in Turkey, not to mention the other fermented grape products such as the traditional drink şıra, a vaguely alcoholic sort of grape cooler, and of course grape vinegar, which is much used in Turkish cooking.

We are talking about a land that is home to viticulture, but not only confined to winemaking. Together with Georgia, Armenia and Iran, Anatolia is where viticulture was already well-developed as early as the Bronze Age. The great Anatolian civilization, Hittites, had laws on vineyards, perhaps the only of their kind in history back in 2000 BC. The Neo-Hittite İvriz stone engravings depict gods and kings holding bunches of grapes. Since these early times of Anatolian civilizations, vineyards remained a continuous agricultural practice in both Thrace and Anatolia, the viticulture passing on to ancient Greek and Roman cultures, and eventually to the Byzantine times.

The Seljuk and Ottoman cultures did not break the chain. Despite the prohibition of wine under Islamic law, the production of wine was sustained by the non-Muslim communities in the Ottoman Empire, as well as with all the grape products already mentioned, the vineyards provided a valued source of sustenance for peasants. But wine alone, had a great commercial value, a large quantity of the Ottoman wine was exported to Eastern and Central Europe. Especially when phylloxera hit the vineyards in Europe in the late 19th century, wiping out the whole production. Wine from Ottoman lands came to the rescue, Ottoman ports of the Aegean and the Black Sea were busy exporting wine, in such huge amounts that outnumbers the total production of wine today.

Then came the abrupt change with wars, the vineyards were left unkempt during the 1st World War and the Turkish War of Independence, and then the accumulated knowledge and tradition of wine making was mostly gone with the forced migrations and population exchanges of the non-Muslim communities. However, during the early years of the modern secular Republic of Turkey, dire efforts were made to revive viticulture, with serious constructive studies with academic research and the guidance of foreign consultants. In 1925, the first state-run winery was established by Kemal Atatürk, the founder of the young republic, aiming to revive and modernize winemaking. This is also the time when international grape varieties were introduced to the country. In parallel to the efforts of the state, private companies also had their own initiatives, especially in the Thrace region, the Aegean and the vicinities of the capital Ankara. The 1990s welcomed another twist, the emergence of small boutique wineries that started to diversify the wine sector.

With such deep-rooted viticulture, needless to say, the country is home to numerous indigenous grape varieties, unfortunately, many are on the verge of extinction, or only known locally, and not applied to winemaking anymore. The Turkish wine industry has been making huge leaps forward over the past few decades, and the good news is that there is an ever-increasing interest in reviving the local grapes, now also with the added interest in safeguarding old vines.

Old vines especially deserve a special attention as assets of cultural heritage. In recent years, the definition of cultural landscape is an increasingly accepted term used for combined works of nature and humankind, featuring a long and intimate relationship between communities and their natural environment. Many vineyard regions in the world have been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage Lists as assets of cultural landscape.

With this background, today more and more people are interested and involved in various aspects of viticulture and winemaking, especially in unearthing the past knowledge, rediscovering indigenous grapes and reviving old vines in Turkey. Every single year many new wineries pop up, mostly working with their regional local grapes, bringing exciting bottles to the table. Yet, there are very few events that bring wine people together, apart from judging panels and walk around tastings. What is mostly needed is to share ideas, experiences and projects. This is the idea behind the “Root Origin Soil” conference to take place this weekend in Istanbul, the brainchild of Sabiha Apaydın Gönenli, a wine consultant and sommelier, former general manager of Mikla restaurant in Istanbul. The first edition of the conference was held in June 2019, focusing first on local grape varieties. After the two-year-long break, the conference is held for the time edition, bringing together experts, wine makers, academics and winery owners, to share their experiences and expertise, and especially their exciting projects and research, all focusing to safeguard the valuable cultural landscape of the country.

Note: Program and details can be found on https://www.kokkokentoprak.com/en/

Aylin Öney Tan,