The Sip: Turkish delights

A recent trip to Istanbul yields new wine discoveries.

Photo by Sam Decker

You can’t blame my wife for her optimism, however naive. She’d expected our vacation to Istanbul to be a non-wine trip. The blame, if there is any, would certainly be mine; for plotting and scheming to turn it into one. You see, I’m willing to do almost anything to drink wine abroad — the chance to walk the vineyards in a foreign land or to hear vine-trellising methods explained to me in an exotic tongue. So yes, the blame is mine.

Google “wine and Turkey” and you mainly get cartoons of turkeys buzzed on Chianti, toasting semi-full glasses of wine in their strange winged hands. What you don’t see are regional maps of the Republic of Turkey, photos of wine bottles, picturesque vineyard shots. Therefore my wife failed to notice that Turkey is one of the oldest wine-producing regions in the world. Wine itself is thought to have been invented along the border it shares with Armenia, Georgia, and Iran. It’s ranked fourth on the globe for vineyard acreage, and contains hundreds of indigenous grape varieties not found anywhere else.

Luck veered my way at dinner on the second night, when an innocuous-seeming glass of red wine made from the native Öküzgözü (pronounced oh-cooz-goe-zue) grape appeared at our table. Its flavors were dazzling and original — figs, lilacs, rosemary, chocolate. The wine itself fell short of profound, yet it triggered an epiphany. Everything I’d seen, smelled, and touched in the bazaars and markets of the country was there, translated into the shimmering code of wine.

Here lies wine’s true gift. With silence and modesty, it shows you the secrets of a place.

The next afternoon was devoted to visiting all the wine bars in the city, an ambitious undertaking with Istanbul’s population of 14 million people (almost twice the size of New York City) and a geography that straddles Europe, Asia and two seas. By some magic my wife seemed more excited about the project than I did. Clearly, this was the magic of illusion, and she is a saint and I love her. What we discovered was an industry of great potential, yet one still dominated by a handful of large companies that produce millions of bottles each. Heavy oak treatment and quality are seen as synonymous (a misguided conviction that the U.S. remains in the throes of as well), and there is an over-reliance on the homogenizing influence of international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon. Its true genius is the land itself, best expressed through the cultivation of grapes indigenous to the region. Unfortunately, its genius is being underutilized, but the future looks bright.

We drank Vasilaki, a white grape from the ancient Aegean island of Bozcaada, with fresh-caught fried calamari; Bogazkere from Ankara with grilled lamb kabobs; Emir from Cappadocia with grilled black bass; and Ökugözü, still my favorite grape of them all, from Eastern Anatolia, with everything else.

But wine has a vast transportive power. You don’t have to visit Turkey to find its essence. And Turkey is certainly not the only county with a long wine-producing history that is emerging onto the global market. Other notable regions include Croatia, Hungary, and parts of southern Italy like Calabria, Puglia, and Basilicata, which offer characterful wines and incredible value.

So why should you care about emerging wine regions when you have a hard enough time remembering the difference between Burgundy and Bordeaux? Because one day you’re going to grow tired of drinking Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon and you’ll find yourself oddly curious as to what else is out there. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.

You could start by going to Our Market in Oak Bluffs and asking Jamie (hopefully he won’t be upset with me for including him in this article, and withdraw his generous offer of taking me to Burgundy) to fill a case for you of wines made with grapes you’ve never heard of from places you’ve never been. Decide on a budget. $200 dollars for 12 bottles is a good target, as it puts you in that value-dominated range of $15 to $20 per bottle. Enjoy the wines with meals over the course of the next few weeks, jotting down the names of the ones you like, perhaps even a few tasting notes. Go back for more. Simple, right?

Fantastic places like Istanbul are waiting to be discovered as the next great wine destination, but until then we can enjoy their efforts inexpensively and with a sense of adventure from the comfort of home.