Less than a month ago, the renowned wine writer, Jancis Robinson visited Turkey and conducted an extensive tasting of Turkish wines in front of a large group of wine professionals and producers. She also visited two producers, Corvus and Kavaklidere, and tasted several wines from their barrels. She then published her tasting notes and overall conclusions both in her website and the FT. Those interested to read her extensive notes should consult them.
My own interest in Ms. Robinson’s views on Turkish wines simply stems from the fact that I am Turkish and that I write twice a week for the Turkish daily Milliyet (Sundays on restaurants and Tuesdays on wine related topics). I also have my own TV show where I visit and evaluate restaurants in Turkey. While eating different dishes, I offer some tips on food-wine matching to the extent allowed by draconian laws in Turkey which discourage wine consumption (The program is called Vedat Milor’la Tadi Damagimda and is aired three times a week on prime time by NTV). I should also add that, while I am known in Turkey primarily for my restaurant reviews, I consider myself first and foremost a wine lover.
I should also admit that I have not grown up drinking Turkish wine. I studied abroad, in the US and France, and had been bitten by the Burgundy bug (thanks to the wine merchant Kermit Lynch who has a shop in Berkeley CA , where I studied) in my early 20s. Since then I developed a strong preference for the wines of the Old Continent over the New World style (but I admit that there are quite a few international style wines in Europe, particularly Spain, and I also find some intriguing wines in the States). When I started to evaluate Turkish wines in early 2000, most of them, specifically the reds, struck me as the lesser examples of the New World style wines.
Since then, I have been involved in a solitary effort to goad Turkish producers to produce terroir driven wines, and I have expressed my scepticism on several occasions about the relative merits of some international varieties in Turkey. This may be why I felt overly appreciative when I saw that Ms. Robinson expressed similar views. I would like to congratulate and thank her for the gargantuan effort she has taken in a short span of time (a three day trip). Below, I outline some of the agreements and disagreements between her conclusions and my own views
1. ENTHUSIASM FOR LOCAL GRAPES
I fully agree with Ms. Robinson about the merits of some local white varieties grown on Turkish soil. These include the minerally EMIR, the delicate NARINCE, and the zesty VASILAKI of Bozcaada (Greek variety). I am also as enthusiastic as she is about the juicy red grape called “bullseye” (in Turkish it is OKUZGOZU), although I am more optimistic than she is about the potential of the tannic and rustic BOGAZKERE grape. The Bogazkere grape reminds me of Nebbiolo, and it may be worth blending with other varieties (normally it is blended with Okuzgozu, but it is worth considering experiments with other combinations). I do not have enough experience with the KARALAHNA produced in Bozcaada (which is Greek Xinomavro and a couple of Xinomavro wine that I drank in Greece struck me as being more elegant than the Bozcaada version), while I think Ms. Robinson is right that KALECIK KARASI can be charming, but nothing more.
2. SKECPTICISM ABOUT INTERNATIONAL GRAPES
Ms Robinson is quite right that most SAUVIGNON BLANCS made in Turkey are hardly average, and many mediocre wines are crafted from this popular varietal. However, I do think that she has underestimated the potential of Capadocia’s volcanic terroir for this grape. Unfortunately she has not tasted the Kavaklidere Cote d’Avanos Sauvignon Blanc 2005. This wine struck me as being elegant and layered (almost Cotat style) when I tasted it twice about eight months ago.
On the other hand, I am much more skeptical than she is about the prospects of CHARDONNAY made on the Aegean coast. All Chardonnays I have tasted from different producers (some aged on the lees) lack the middle palate and are rather hollow. I am also more skeptical than she with respect to the potential of Cabernet Sauvignons coming from the Aegean coast (like Cesme). I was quite taken aback when she called 2005 Buyulubag Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve “Claret….Bordeaux like”. Perhaps the first sip gives that impression (it is a well crafted wine, as she says), but the wine in question lacks minerality and has limited depth.
3. OVERALL EVALUATION
In her overall evaluations I think Ms. Robinson was overly polite and shied away from being more blunt. Most wines made in Turkey are not wine but “wine products”. Dilution and/or over-extraction, astringency, and underripe phenolics are recurrent problems. There are notable problems of the absence of basic honesty in wine making. Some wineries add water; they over chaptalize and acidify; some do reverse osmosis (with good intention); fermentation is too hot and too short; the use of oak chips and sprays are widespread; there is questionable tinkering with aromatic yeasts, etc. While I am sure that Ms. Robinson should have noticed many of these problems and more, she does not expound on them. It is possible that her status as a guest may have discouraged her from being more critical. She should and could have said that “balance” or “lack thereof” is a recurrent problem in many wines.
4. HER SCORES
Ms. Robinson uses a scoreboard of 1 to 20 to evaluate the wines. While I am not familiar with her other ratings, I had a very hard time understanding them. There are wines she tasted, and she acknowledges that they have no “subtlety.” Yet she ranked them as 16 out of 20. Perhaps due to the fact that I was shaped by the French educational system where 11 out of 20 is a very good grade and 16 means “superb”, I have a hard time understanding the logic of her rankings. For example, she ranks a very mediocre Chardonnay which lacks acidity, complexity and minerality to be worthy of 16 out of 20. If so, what ranking would she give to, say, a 95 Coche Meursault Perrieres or 90 Leflaive Chevalier?
The only way I can interpret the scores is that Ms. Robinson is using a relative scale, evaluating wines out of a potential IN A GIVEN TERROIR. It is a bit like the Zagat Survey; a restaurant which gets 29 out of 30 in, say, Arkansas, may be much less good than one which gets 24 in San Francisco. In Gastromondiale, I use an absolute scale for restaurants and wines (see criteria of evaluation), but she may be adjusting her scale relative to the potential of the country. On the other hand, I agree with her about the order of her scores. Minor disagreements aside, if one deducts 6 points from her evaluations, one should get an idea about what Gastromondiale would have ranked the wines.
5. HER OPTIMISM
All this said, I do share her optimism that the future of wine making in Turkey can be bright. There are already some wines which are delightful and the entry of new quality conscious producers (there are hardly 50 producers in Turkey) and the new dynamism of the three big established producers (Kavaklidere, Doluca, and Mey) are steps in the right direction. Presently the Bozcaada producer, Corvus, may be considered the leading quality conscious boutique winery in Turkey, and its controversial, yet perfectionist, owner Resit Soley should be credited with shaking up the established hierarchies and stimulating the interest of many entrepreneurs who want to invest in wine. Unfortunately, enthusiasm is not always matched by knowhow and good judgment. It is also a good thing that some foreign enologists are now operating in Turkey, though I am quite skeptical about their contribution, because they try to make sure that they don’t make any spoiled wine as opposed to taking risks in order to make great wine. But I think the Turkish soil which is characterized by varying landscapes and micro climates is capable of producing unique wines, and a breakthrough is in sight.
NICK LANDER ON ISTANBUL RESTAURANTS
While his wife evaluated Turkish winemaking, Mr. Lander dined in some Turkish restaurants and wrote a piece in the Financial Times entitled as “Dining with a view in Istanbul” (June 6, 2009). I would like to recommend this piece to Gastromondiale readers. Mr Lander captured well the culture of dining in Istanbul and his remarks are right on target.
His reticence is also revealing. He dined at the leading restaurants for the Turkish elite, like MIKLA (which is not mentioned in the article) and SUNSET (mentioned but not commented on for food), but he prefers to highlight BEBEK BALIKCI (good fish shack) and ECE AKSOY (which I recommend too for lovers of vegetables).
The sad thing is that while Ms. Robinson had a chance to evaluate almost all Turkish wines which are noteworthy, Mr Lander could not get a better picture of the food scene. The truth is that the best food in Istanbul is to be had in "hole in the wall" places or regional restaurants where alcohol is not served and polite Turkish people never take their privileged guests. As we prefer bad Cabernet to good Okuzgozu wine, we think foreigners prefer boring international cuisine or ersatz Italian cuisine to eating offals or real kebab or to devoring whole grilled turbot (like in Etxebarri or Elkano, but with better turbot) using their hands.
This is in general a safe assumption because most people in the world prefer sterile food in beautiful surroundings. But it is also a pity because the very little I know about Lander (article on Turkey and the Per Se piece which came after my review of the French Laundry) reveals that he prefers substance over theater and appearance.