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Turkish winemakers raise their glasses to ancient Anatolian traditions

 Illustrative image of a vineyard. (photo credit: PXHERE)
Illustrative image of a vineyard.
(photo credit: PXHERE)

Their most significant challenge has come from the long rule of Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdoğan.

The indigenous Kalecik Karasi grape, cultivated in the Anatolia region for four millennia, has gained a fresh look and is winning awards, thanks to a new generation of Turkish boutique wineries, often led by women

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Winemakers from Turkey’s Anatolia region came together in Ankara, the Turkish capital, in August to toast their product’s increased awareness and sales.

Turkish wine is produced from the indigenous black Kalecik Karasi grape, cultivated and fermented since the time of Ankara’s Hittite founders. It was the Hittites who coined the word “vino” for all Indo-European languages at the beginning of the 2nd millennium BCE.

This ancient grape variety is now getting a fresh look due to a new generation of Turkish wineries, often run by female entrepreneurs, with the marketing and strategic guidance of Serhat Narsap, a wine educator, international wine judge, and event organizer.


Narsap promotes Kalecik Karasi under the nickname “KK.”

 SPARKLING WINE is the best choice when you need cooling down.  (credit: Adi Perze)
SPARKLING WINE is the best choice when you need cooling down. (credit: Adi Perze)

“I often introduce this grape to my friends as Pinot Noir’s Turkish cousin,” Narsap said. “The grape’s bunches are tight and the berries are round. Kalecik Karasi’s natural acidity preserves the fruit’s red cherry, raspberry, and mulberry aroma.”

On Aug. 23, “KK Day,” Narsap proudly met with 11 growers exhibiting in Ankara.

The Istanbul-born, London-based entrepreneur reflected on the contemporary challenges and opportunities for Turkish wines.

Significant challenge from Islamists

The most significant of these have come from the long rule of Turkish President Tayyip Recep Erdoğan, whose AK (Justice and Development) party draws on Muslim traditionalists for support.


A decade ago, the Turkish parliament banned alcohol advertising and tightened restrictions on alcohol sales, Narsap said.

However, Narsap said that at the same time, Erdoğan’s government, which “sees itself as pro-business,” pushed bureaucrats to “loosen regulatory thresholds.”

This easing of business restrictions has helped Turkish growers reach “the world of boutique wine-making,” Narsap said.

Ankara has a high concentration of civil servants and academics, so it is no surprise that former biology professors and bureaucrats from the Agriculture Ministry dominate its wine scene.

“My adventure with wine began 56 years ago with doctoral research on the Kalecik Karasi grape,” Ankara University Prof. Yusuf Sabit Ağaoğlu said.

He said that the grape phylloxera, a grapevine insect pest, was then devastating the crop to extinction. While pursuing his doctorate, Ağaoğlu experimented until he found a suitable, pest-resistant American rootstock to graft to the Kalecik Karasi grapevines.

In gratitude for his rescue of Antatolia’s signature grape, Turkey’s first private winery, Kavaklidere, donated land for him to start his own 10-acre vineyard.

Ağaoğlu named his winery Tomurcukbağ and worked there on developing his wine-making talents with his wife, Gulcihan.

Today, the winery has an annual capacity of 30,000 bottles. Cultivation is organic, the fruit is hand-harvested, and nothing is added or extracted during fermentation. Notably, the wines are not aged in oak barrels.

“A sommelier can confidently recommend Yusuf’s Kalecik Karasi Trajan,” Narsap said. “This light, ruby-colored red wine is well-balanced with a complex palate and the subtle flavors of ‘kizilcik,’ the Cornelian berry.”

Narsap said his favorite Tomurcukbağ wine was Gülcihanli Yillar, a “nonvintage KK” blended from grapes grown over several years.

“It is silky and smooth with a long finish and pairs well with many dishes,” he said, adding that the wine is especially good with lamb kebab and hummus made from local chickpeas.

At an adjacent tasting table, Alime Cicerali, co-proprietor of the Tafali vineyard, told a group of visitors from the Canadian Embassy, who were sampling a Kalecik Karasi rosé, that women were often the leaders in Anatolia’s boutique wine scene.

“Wine starts in vineyards, where close attention to detail and touch is required,” Cicerali said. “Women are more careful when it comes to pruning and harvesting, all done by hand in Turkey.”

Cicerali, who started Tafali’s Winery with trained agronomist Fatma Yiğit, said that Turkey has no viticulture university programs. As a result, “graduates from food engineering, agricultural engineering, or chemical engineering” tend to start wineries. Students in those programs are often largely female.

Cicerali and Yiğit’s journey into winemaking began with the encouragement of officials in Ankara.

“They wanted us to cultivate and preserve the Kalecik Karasi grape in the actual location of its origin,” Cicerali said. “I never imagined that 20 years later we would be at a point where we earn awards for our small batch wines.”

Tafali’s rosé and red wines earned medals from a panel of international judges at Narsap’s 2023 Turkish Wine Challenge.

Resting in the shadow of Mount Erciyes, a dormant volcano that towers over Cappadocia, is Oluş Molu’s Vinolus Winery.

The white volcanic soil gives a distinct minerality to wines here. The altitude also offers the desired night-time temperatures for the grapes.

Molu, who has a master’s degree in biology, said that mid-August is the most exciting time to make wine.

“Female harvest workers begin before dawn, before the heat from the sun evaporates the dewdrops off the grapes’ surfaces,” she said.

Two Vinolus wines won gold medals at the Turkish Wine Challenge 2023, Emir 2021, and Kalecik Karasi 2021.

“I’ve been fortunate to have the chance to do this on a farm that has been in my family for generations,” Molu said.

Molu works with Spanish oenologist Jose Hernandez to craft wines that meet the highest international organic and sustainability standards.

“Of course, grapes were grown here before the establishment of the Turkish Republic,” Molu said. But it was only when the state was officially secularized that her grandfather openly distilled raki, a popular Turkish spirit.

“I’m the first to produce wine in Kayseri, an area steeped in traditional culture,” Molu said.

Narsap compared Turkish history to the shifting notes in a glass at a connoisseur’s tasting event.

“The experience of Kalecik Karasi Day is foregrounded by the fact that Anatolia is the birthplace of Vitis vinifera [the common grape vine]. People in Anatolia have made and consumed wine for more than 11,000 years,” he said.

KK Day also reflects the national memory of a tour by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, of the Kalecik orchards, on Aug. 23, 1925. That day is associated in Turkish history with an iconic image of Ataturk exchanging his traditional Turkish fez for a fedora, thus launching the “Hat Revolution,” which brought Turkish men’s headwear into alignment with Western norms.

“That day coincides with the day winemakers and their workforces usually begin to harvest the Kalecik Karasi grape,” Narsap said. “It is rewarding to build an event focused on all these elements and raising awareness of Turkish wineries.”