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Turkey: The Viticultural Power You Don't Know (March 22, 2013)

You have to love a language whose nouns are decorated with a confetti of accents and whose ğ is silent – like a hockey referee separating clashing vowels. I'm talking Turkish here. Take, for instance, one of the country's major indigenous red grape varieties called Öküzgözü (which is pronounced oh-kush-ga-zoo and translates as "ox eye"). Not easy to pronounce; nor is its usual dancing partner Boğazkere (bow-aahz-keh-reh), which also goes solo to make a wine the Turks call Büzbağ (remember the ğ is silent).

The consulting winemaker at Kayra, one of Turkey's most progressive large wineries, is Californian Daniel O'Donnell. He calls Boğazkere "the John Wayne of grapes," which is a very apt description. Buzbağ is a strapping, broad shouldered, tannic red wine grown in the Anatolia region of Eastern Turkey, a region that could well claim to be the very birthplace of wine. (There is a Canadian connection here: Büzbağ is sometimes made in the same fashion as Icewine – the Boğazkere grapes are left to hang on the vine till frozen and then they are crushed and pressed.)

The area where these grapes are grown is around the town of Elazığ by the Euphrates River, near Mount Ararat – the site of Noah's landfall after the flood. According to Genesis (9:20) the first thing Noah did when he set foot on dry land was to plant a vineyard. Given this sense of priorities, I suspect he must have had a well-stocked wine cellar on the ark or how could he have survived one year and ten days afloat with all those animals getting seasick? (If you're thinking his voyage was only forty days and forty nights, that's just how long it rained – it took a lot longer for the water to dry and the ship to land. See Genesis 7:11–12 and 8:13–16.)

I couldn't find any Turkish wines in any of the liquor stores in Toronto, which I suppose is not surprising given that 98 per cent of their production is consumed within their own borders. So my first taste of wines from one of the earliest wine-producing regions in the world was on Turkish Airlines (incidentally, the best food I've had on an aircraft in years). I was flying to a wine bloggers' conference in Izmir and the obliging cabin crew allowed me sample whatever wines they had on board. Here are the notes I scribbled while balancing a tray of food and a ring of glasses: Kavaklıdere Narince-Emir 2011 (Turkey's oldest and largest winery; the wine is reminiscent of a Pinot Grigio – fresh, easy drinking, white peach and pear flavours) and Kavaklıdere Ancyna Cabernet Sauvignon Syrah 2011 (deeply coloured, dry and savoury). Then a steward dressed in a chef's jacket with a soufflé hat brought me two glasses of wine from Business Class. These were, as you can imagine, a step up in quality: Kavaklıdere Prestige Narince (rather like an oaked Chardonnay) and Karma Merlot-Boğazkere 2010 (a rustic, blackcurrant flavour with soft tannins).

This may come as a surprise, but Turkey has the world's fourth largest vineyard surface after Spain, France and Italy, totaling 1.5 million acres. The lion's share of this production goes to table grapes and raisins, especially sultanas, which are Turkey's most widely planted variety. Notwithstanding this imbalance they do have a vibrant and exciting wine industry.

The vineyards of Turkey are said to be home to between 1200 and 1500 indigenous vinifera varieties, but these days less than 60 are grown commercially. For a wine region that can claim biblical roots, the industry itself is a modern creation. Turkey, after all, is basically a Muslim country. The Father of Turkish wine is also its most famous and admired personality, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. In the same year as Turkey's first president passed The Hat Law (1925), the decree that outlawed the wearing of the fez in favour of Western-style hats, he also established the country's first commercial winery.

Today the Turkish wine industry is robust and enterprising while being hemmed in by strange bureaucratic regulations. For instance, it is difficult for wineries to import used barrels. I was told that the wineries can only lease old barrels and then when the lease is up they have to return them. This means winemakers have to rely heavily on new barrels every vintage, which give their wines a lot of oak flavour – a taste that Turkish consumers have now come to expect in their wines (rather like the Greek palate getting accustomed to the flavour of the resin that was originally for the purpose of sealing amphorae).

In addition to the local Turkish varieties you can find here virtually all the wine grapes that you are familiar with in the wines of France, Italy and Spain, although these "international" varieties are mainly planted in the west of the country and are generally blended with autochthonous grapes. The nearer you get to Asia the more the native varieties abound and the vineyards take on a more rustic look as if the vines draw from the soil an ancient memory of having been planted by Noah himself.




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