The changing grape-scape of Thrace

The changing grape-scape of Thrace

Now in its fourth year, Thrace Wine Competition signals a change. Both wine lovers and wine producers should be following this small signal, there might be a big potential in the understated neglected good old grape varieties of the region.

This year the winners were definitely two young ladies. First it was Gülçin Akçay, the winemaker of Saranta winery. She had 6 bottles in the competition grabbing three golds and three silvers. Second was another young lady, Özge Kaymaz from Kayra winery, with four of her wines winning gold medals. Needless to say all the winning wines were great, but one single bottle stood out as the potential trigger of change in the region. It was a delicious Semillion, a long forgotten grape of Thrace region.

The Fourth Thrace Wine Competition was held last Friday in Süleymanpaşa, Tekirdağ. The completion brings together most of the notable vineyards in Thrace region. All the wines competing must be totally made with grapes grown within the Thrace boundaries. The idea of making such a competition was the idea of Ekrem Eşkinat, mayor of Süleymanpaşa, the central county of Tekirdağ province.

One day he was enjoying his wine with his friend Can Topsakal, owner of Barbare wines, and he suddenly said “What would it be like if we had a wine competition? That was the trigger question, the answer came swift, Can said, “I know a crazy girl that can make it happen”. In a matter of minutes they were on the phone with Burçak Desombre discussing how to proceed, and with unbelievable speed they were ready to give start in a month’s time with two MW judges already secured, Tim Atkin and Peter McCombie, soon the trio would be complete with Master Sommelier Ronan Sayburn.

Burçak Desombre, founder of Vinipedia Wine Consultancy, is a vivacious young woman; she is one of a kind, who does not blink a moment to jump into such challenging projects.

Every year there are three judges, Peter Mc Combie became the regular judge, attending to all four competitions. MS Andreas Larsson joined the team on the second year, and stayed as a regular, they now know Thracian wineries quite well, and have already became experts of the region. The third judge keeps changing, bringing dynamism, the second year it was MW Christy Canterbury, the third year it was MW Roger Bohmrich, and this year it was MW Kenichi Ohashi from Japan.

Coincidentally, I was lucky enough to be the sole embedded journalist following the competition from the first year, sniffing, swirling, sipping and savoring wines alongside with producers and judges, and observing its progress over the years. I must note that the competition is close to the public and local media but I have the privilege of writing to international press.

This year was a benchmark. First, it was the impressive 11 gold medals, compared to 9 of previous year, 4 the second, and 5 the first. Second, the first ever pure Semillion bottle that was produced after the closing down of Tekel, the state monopoly, grabbed a gold. Winemaker Gülçin Akçay, is extremely proud of her wine, and said it was her dream project to come true.

She comes from viticulture, and she was deeply saddened seeing Semillion vineyards neglected and even destroyed to plant more popular varieties. Until recently most Semillion grapes were destined to the rakı factory, the anise infused grape distilled spirit of Turkey. Last year Tekirdağ rakı factory was also closed down, moving its facilities to Aegean region, and the farmers were faced with a crisis. Now, only cheap table wine producers seem to be buying the grape at ridiculously low prices, adding it to their bulk wines. This means that very soon this grape will be almost extinct in the region.

Seeing this decline Akçay kept bugging her boss Murat Türkmen, owner of Saranta winery, and finally persuaded him to work on Semillion grapes. She scoured several regions of Thrace to find a vineyard with ideal conditions that would give the best grapes. Finally last year she found one well-tended steep vineyard in Uçmakdere, Gaziköy, and to her delight her first bottle freshly labeled recived a gold, getting high compliments from Kenichi Ohashi who is luckily very fond of Semillion.

Hopefully the Semillion will make a come back and be valued more. Chateau Nuzun decided to change its oath of never making a white wine, and agreed to add a Semillion to its line on the condition that Gülçin makes it. The quest for reviving old favorites is also a passion Mustafa Çamlıca, owner of Chamlija winery pursues. They must be by far the leading winery having dozens of little patches of vineyards, experimenting with both international varieties and indigenous regional varieties, now also playing with popular grapes of neighboring countries like Mavrud from Bulgaria and Assyrtiko from Greece.

He is single headedly bringing Papazkarası grape back into fashion; his magical Karasevda wine surely needs another story of its own. Apart from the indigenous grapes, there has been a long tradition of growing international varieties of Gamay, Semillion and Cinsault, initially promoted by big wine producers, but then abandoned in favor of more popular grapes. These three grapes had became almost like local grapes, well adapted to the land, Cinsault was lovingly called Şensu by people, meaning “happy water”.

Hope both this single gold-winning Semillion will spark the light, and revive the old classic wines of Thrace, its impact will be bold and long, just as its full bodied character with a long finish.

Cork of the Week:

This year at the competition, out of 12 producers and 54 bottles there were 11 gold winners.

Here is the gold list: 92 points for Sarafin Cabernet Sauvignon 2015, Doluca; 91 points for the rest; Chateau Murou Semillion 2017, Saranta; Terra Sauvignon Blanc – Chardonnay 2017, Kayra; Vintage Chardonnay 2016, Kayra; Saranta Öküzgözü 2016; Chateau Murou Cabernet Franc 2015, Saranta; Versus Cabernet Franc 2013, Kayra; Vintage Shiraz 2016, Kayra; Premier Mourvedre 2012, Barbare; Elegance 2013, Barbare; Odrysia Gris 2017, Arcadia.