The protests that recently erupted in Turkey have many causes but the discontent is tied to concerns that the government is pushing an increasingly conservative social agenda. One of these concerns is the perceived threat to secular society of a law, approved by the President in June, that restricts the sale of alcohol.
Most advertising of alcoholic drinks is now prohibited; retail sales will be banned after 10pm; and no new alcohol licences will be granted for food and drink outlets located within 100 metres of schools and mosques. Between them, there is one virtually on every corner.
Critics see this as part of a move towards an outright ban on alcohol. Although Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Prime Minister, insists that he is simply protecting the young from the harmful effects of alcohol, his disapproval is clear. He has declared that yoghurt should be the national drink of Turkey and recently said he could not understand why people drank wine when they could just eat grapes.
Forget the non-drinker’s incomprehension of the higher pleasures of fermented grape juice. More surprising is the fact that Erdogan is Prime Minister of a country that is one of the biggest producers of wine grapes in the world. Quantity is not quality, of course, but the rise of boutique wineries in Turkey reflects a desire to join the world of fine wine, and this is well under way. But winemakers believe their progress is threatened by the new law, worried about advertising their wines online, hosting public wine tasting events and even recommending food and wine pairings.
What would be lost if the development of Turkey’s fine wine industry were suddenly halted? Possibly the transition of the population from drinkers of alcohol to discerning tasters of interesting wines. In the not so distant past, grapes grown in the east of Turkey from the Marmara region were put in trucks and driven hundreds of miles under the blazing sun to large industrial wineries. Nowadays, careful winemaking happens in new wineries built in the vineyards, and this small-scale local production is paying dividends. Grapes such as Narince (white), and Öküzgözü and Bogazkere (red), produce distinctive wines that are often more interesting than the attempts at international varieties, although some Turkish wineries are trying to produce reds from 100 per cent Petit Verdot, a grape used in Bordeaux mainly for colour. The range of wines from the Serafin winery on the Gallipoli peninsula are impressive, as are the wines from Doluca in Thrace and Kavakldere in Anatolia. The reds are often blends of Bogazkere or Öküzgözü with Syrah, and they produce weighty, structured wines with plum fruit and earthy depth. Interesting, too, are the wines from the volcanic slopes in Cappadocia, including the rosé or blush wines. Try those from the Lal winery.
But it is the whites that are a revelation. The Narince grape is used to make oak-rounded wines with a creamy texture and pleasingly bitter flavour of orange zest, not unlike the dry Furmint wines from Hungary. It’s fair to say that not all of the wines are successful but small producers are making wines of ambition and they need time, and customers, if they are to develop their craft. The prosperous middle classes in Istanbul regularly conduct wine tastings in their homes and wine bars have appeared with young, enthusiastic staff who are keen to educate the palates of discerning drinkers. The Corvus winery has even opened its own restaurant and wine bar in Istanbul where diners can be guided through their range of wines, paired with food. All of this speaks of a growing wine culture in a country keen to develop a serious industry. It is true that alcohol can be both the most humanising and the most dehumanising of drinks, but the civilising culture of wine growing and wine drinking in Europe and elsewhere is something to celebrate and share. Go to Istanbul, experience the wines, and support this growing wine culture. They will be glad to see you.