The dark market of Turkey

Turkey has an emerging wine industry producing wines that have already proved successful in the international arena. But domestic politics are playing havoc on the home front. Dr Caroline Gilby MW reports.

Cappadocia, Turkey
Cappadocia, Turkey

Turkey is a country of contrasts: Muslim but secular; a huge grower of grapes with a tiny wine production; possibly one of the most ancient wine industries in the world, but also one of the youngest in its current form; and with land split across two continents. 

Wine in Turkey may well date back to domestication of the wild grape around 9,000 years ago, according to DNA and archaeological evidence, though the first modern wineries were founded in the 1920s, including Doluca (celebrating its 88th year) and Kavaklidere. Decades of control over alcohol sales came to an end in 2003 when the state monopoly ‘Tekel’ was privatised, and since then, investments in wine have multiplied. Exact numbers of wine producers are hard to track down, but registered producers of “fermented alcoholic beverages” increased from 47 in 2003 to 157 in 2012, and sources indicate that most of these are wine producers.

The local market

Turkey is the fourth-largest grower of grapes in the world after France, Spain and Italy, with 505,000 ha under vine; in 2011 just 15,385 ha was for wine production, producing 102,847 tonnes, or less than 3% of the total tonnage.

Plantings are a mixture of local and international varieties; it’s the local grape varieties such as Öküzgözü, Boğazkere, Narince and Kalecik Karasi that excite international attention. Emma Dawson, buyer for Marks & Spencer, says, “Having worked sourcing Turkish wines for over three years, I have found the wines that appeal most to our customers are those that ­feature native varietals not international ones. We refreshed our range last year to bring in more wines that focused on their diverse ­varietals like the Öküzgözü for that reason.” Consultant winemaker Daniel O’Donnell says, “The native varieties are truly interesting grapes producing very exciting wines, and have even convinced the Turks to come back and try some wines from their own back yard.” He adds, ­“Another increasing trend we see is rosés and blush style wines, becoming more popular as an ­all-year-round aperitif drink. We have doubled our production volume every year since 2011 and we still run out of stock by October-November.” 

Grape name is an important cue in the domestic market too, with 37% selecting by variety. Öküzgözü (‘ox eye’) is the best-known grape here. Wine in the domestic market had been seeing some positive trends according to 
Gözdem Gürbüzatik of Mey İçki Diageo, leaders in Turkey’s off-trade sector. Wine has been replacing beer at the low-priced end of the market, but there is also double-digit growth in premium­ and imported wines. She says, “The main reason for this is the growing market in Istanbul­ and increasing on-premise crowds.” Isa Bal, Turkish-born sommelier at The Fat Duck, adds that, “Amongst the educated young, wine seems to be the drink with which they would like to most associate themselves.” 

Turkey’s domestic market is therefore key for most wine producers. Recent changes to the law “have been to the disadvantage of producers and consumers,” according to Sibel Kutman Oral at Doluca winery. In June 2013, laws were imposed banning advertising for alcoholic ­beverages. Any type of advertisement, promotion, or activity that encourages alcohol consumption is now forbidden. No trademarks or branding can be displayed and warning labels are obligatory. No consumer tastings or social media communications are permitted and retail sales are banned between 10 pm and 6 am. This law is supposedly about reducing­ harm from alcohol; however, the evidence doesn’t suggest alcohol­ ­misuse is a widespread issue, given that domestic wine consumption is only around 1 L to 1.5 L per head. Beer and raki (the local hard spirit) consumption were already in decline, and only around 15% of the population drink alcohol at all, a drop from 24% in 2011. Kutman Oral says, “We believe that all these new restrictions and impositions on the alcohol industry, although presented as health initiatives, actually stem from the more conservative and religious outlook of the ­present administration.”

The full impact of legislation can’t be measured yet, but it seems likely it will be the smaller,­ newer boutique wineries that will be hardest hit. As Gürbüzatik points out, “It is getting more and more difficult to introduce wines into the market. The small-scale, chateau-like producers, which made investment decisions a decade ago, have just started to release their wines and it is very difficult for them to reach the consumers as the market is dark.” Mustafa Çamlica, owner of Chamlija Wines, concurs, “The new regulations have resulted in around 10% decrease in demand. The industry has become a ‘ghost’ industry. Everything is under a veil now. Even the company cars cannot bear the company name. All sorts of advertisement are banned and wine shops may not display bottles or producers’ names in the window.” 

Chamlija, with 85 ha in the Strandja ­Mountains near the Bulgarian border, is typical of the new investments, already making an impression after just a couple of harvests with some excellent aromatic whites such as Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling, as well as orange Narince. Other boutique developments include Michel Rolland consulting exclusively to the ambitious 170-ha Vinero project in Gallipoli and Lenz Moser ­working with Kocabag ­Winery in Cappadocia.­

Moser says, “On a trip two years ago, we found out that Turkey comes with state-of-the-art winemaking, very, very talented winemakers who are highly educated, and ideal growing conditions.” He adds, “Amongst European buyers, there is a great willingness to go for Turkish wine. A challenge is for sure to convince the public that Turkey is a first-class wine producer. Turkey, like China, has been rediscovered as a ‘new’ wine destination. Both have a huge vineyard acreage and are highly interested in switching from raisin to wine production as they can earn more.” 

Another newcomer, Chateau Kalpak – owned by former investment banker Bulent Kalpaklioglu­ – has 12 ha in Gallipoli and produces premium reds; it’s picked up medals for all three first release wines. Based on international medals, in fact, there is no doubt many Turkish producers are genuinely making high- quality wines. However, Bal cautions, “I think the issue of where to sell wine has not been studied well by most of those producers who have been established in the last ten years or so. One of the main issues in the local market is that it does not function normally. With ­exclusive deals made by some of the more established wineries for HORECA, dominance of one supermarket, coupled with the restriction on advertising, promoting wines needs to be a bit more than a hobby in my opinion. Some of these producers are having a sensible return but quite a few are not.” Wine writer Christy Canterbury MW adds, “Indeed, much money has been invested and much of it comes from owners’ ‘day jobs’ in other industries. These new owners are serious about production and committed to putting their best foot forward. Most new producers can sell all of their wine in Turkey, as they are quite small. Many newcomers are also investing in wine tourism by building tasting rooms and hotels and providing wedding facilities. As much of the Turkish industry is new, they are probably still at the investing rather than ­returning stage.” 

Growing challenges

Improving viticulture has been a target for many wineries in the last few years. Producers have to deal with an unusual issue with the white variety, Narince, as its leaves are regarded as much the best for stuffed vine leaves – meaning vines are often stripped to the point of being unable to ripen a crop. Larger producers have also invested significantly into vineyards and improving quality through long-term contracts too. Kavaklidere now has over 600 ha, including Narince planted in Anatolia, plus plantings of local Öküzgözü and Boğazkere. At Mey İçki, O’Donnell says, “We own 66 ha of vineyards, and most of our high-end production comes from long-term contract vineyards that we manage. The quality of vineyards are much better in the Thrace and ­Aegean region compared to old wine regions such as Eastern Anatolia.” In Eastern Anatolia, he says, Boğazkere plantations [the only red Vitis vinifera indigenous variety from this area] are in danger. “The vineyards are in bad condition and there is also Phylloxera in this region, so the crop declines each year. Being the closest winery, we are investing in Boğazkere and also Öküzgözü grape varieties on our own vineyards and with our contracted winegrowers.”

Tourism should be a great opportunity to promote Turkish wines, but the significant proportion of all-inclusive tourist deals is an issue. These hotels reportedly account for almost 20% of wine consumption within the country and buy low quality, often going to the growing black market for wines to avoid taxes. O’Donnell says, “Tourists leave with a negative impression of Turkish wines overall, which is not good for anyone.” Gürbüzatik agrees. “This is an issue, we, as winemakers should approach together with the tourism industry to create a strategic plan for adding value to our tourism potential,” she says. 

Given the advertising restrictions, producers have to find other ways to promote their wines. Several small-scale, quality-focused producers have come together to develop a ‘Thrace Vineyard Route’ with the support of a local government agency, and in conjunction with Greece and Bulgaria, with an emphasis on the food and culture, not wine. A quick bit of research shows that wineries such as Suvla have ­Turkish language websites that are very different to their international pages, sticking here to neutral pictures of scenery and food. Chateau Kalpak imaginatively uses the tagline “vineyards and crafted fermented grape juice” on its holding page.

The export market 

Exports accounted for just under 5% of wine production by volume in 2013 and though since 2008 global volume has decreased, export value has increased. Wines of Turkey has been actively promoting awareness internationally since 2008, through wine fairs, press trips and tastings. It was not realistic for producers to expect huge export figures from the beginning, but with the pressure in the domestic market, many producers will now be looking for more solid results. Mustafa Çamlica says, “I think Turkish wineries were not as aggressive as they should have been regarding new markets. Now, everybody wants to export.” He adds, “Wines of Turkey is going through some radical changes.We are still working on a new strategy.” He would like to set up a Turkish Wine Exporters Association, “which could be very aggressive in implementing new marketing strategies. We have to be result-oriented now.”  For Taner Öğütoğlu of Fidelity Consulting, “The only good news is that Wines of Turkey will start to get export support from the Economy Ministry, and the UK and USA seem to be priority markets.” 

Undoubtedly Turkish wine producers have many challenges ahead, but in terms of wine quality and as a source of exciting and distinctive wines, this is a country to watch. 

For full access...

Please log in or register now»               No subscription?  Try out our free 14 day trial»

Latest Articles