With the recent decline of tourism in Turkey, wine producers must either figure out how to boost export sales effectively, or else face a languishing home market in a country where people really don’t drink wine.

By Henry Jeffreys
Updated May 24, 2017

It doesn't seem too long ago that Turkey looked like the future. It had a booming economy and, moreover, a popular government that seemed to be able to combine Islam with tolerance, democracy and a broadly liberal outlook. It looked like only a matter of time before Turkey joined the European Union. At London’s Wines of Turkey tasting last autumn, the mood was buoyant.

A lot has changed over the course of the last year, thanks in large part to events in Turkey that have created a charged political atmosphere there: Last July, a terrorist attack on Ataturk airport left 41 people dead; there was a failed coup later that summer against Erdogan's Islamist government; and now a government clampdown has resulted in thousands of suspected antigovernment sympathizers being arrested.

Last year, Turkish wine looked to have a bright future. Now, the turbulent political situation means that the industry has reached a critical point. Winemakers need to urgently figure out how to boost export sales effectively, or else face a languishing home market in a country where people really don’t drink wine. It’s a problem, but it is also an opportunity to refocus the industry towards quality.

Turks drink on average one liter of wine per person per year, compared with Italians, who drink around forty. Eighty percent of Turks don't drink alcohol at all—and many of those who do prefer beer or raki.

The wine industry used to have a buoyant, if often rather undiscriminating, tourist market—but, not surprisingly, tourists have become increasingly reluctant to visit Turkey in the wake of the political instability there. This June, numbers were down by 41% compared with last year. According to the World Travel and Tourism Council, it takes thirteen months for tourism levels to return to normal after a terrorist attack. The mood was subdued at July's Turkish wine event in London. "Tourism is like a sandcastle,” Gözdem Gürbüzatik from Kayra winery told me. “When it's gone it's very hard to rebuild."

Meanwhile, Turkish wine producers are expressly forbidden from trying to convert people to the joys of alcohol, thanks to a law passed in June 2013. To comply with it, the country’s top basketball team, Efes Pilsen, had to change its name to Anadolu Efes Spor Kulübü so that it doesn't mention beer (pilsen).

In order not to fall foul of this law, Seyit Karagozoglu from Pasaeli winery told me he does all his promotional activity in English. His website doesn't even work in Turkey. Another producer I spoke to who preferred to remain nameless said that people are now afraid to be seen drinking in public even in Istanbul.

President Erdogan's government may be making things difficult at home, but currently the Ministry of the Economy supports Wines of Turkey, a group set up to promote the country's top 25 wineries internationally. At the moment, Turkey exports only 5% of its production—so they have a long way to go. Turkey produces a lot of grapes, but most are made into raisins. Wine production is small, roughly 68 million liters a year, compared to Portugal's 680 million or Greece's 338 million.

Despite this dilemma, the country has a rich history of winemaking: They've been making wine in Turkey for a long time—probably about 7,000 years—and Greek and Armenian farmers continued this tradition under Ottoman rule. Turkey became a republic in 1923 under Mustafa Kemal, aka Ataturk (father of Turks). A keen drinker himself, though of whiskey rather than wine, he wanted to bring the country into the modern world by encouraging viticulture. This October, the current regime signaled its disapproval of Ataturk’s liberal attitude towards alcohol by removing a portrait of him with a glass of raki from display at the Turkish Parliament.

In Kemalist Turkey, all alcohol production was run by a state company called Tekel. Nowadays there are 31 export-driven producers who make up Wines of Turkey. Tekel itself was privatized in 2004, and the wine division, which operates under the Kayra brand, is now owned by the international drinks conglomerate Diageo. Overseeing wine production is a laconic Californian called Daniel O' Donnell. He started his career with Ravenswood in Sonoma and has since worked in Italy, China, Chile and New Zealand. This August is his ten-year anniversary in Turkey.

When he first arrived at Kayra, quality was not the main priority for the brand: "The old state-run monopoly was in a sense a social welfare system. If a grower brought in grapes they would be bought, no questions asked, with no conditions or quality control," O'Donnell told me. "The wine was underwhelming. I tossed out 16 million liters and closed the five offending wineries." Talk about a new broom.

Kayra now has two wineries: one in Thrace near the border with Bulgaria, and one in Southeast Anatolia. Turkey can be divided into two parts when it comes to wine. There's the western half, concentrated around the Aegean and in Thrace, where the climate is Mediterranean, warm with mild winters, which tends to make gentler more easy drinking sort of wines. Then there's Anatolia, with vineyards near Ankara in the center, east towards Syria and north near the Black Sea. This has a continental climate, hot summers and cold winters, which produces more powerful wines, higher in both tannin and acidity.

Turkey has a wealth of indigenous grapes, such as Öküzgözü (if you don't like umlauts then Turkish wine probably isn't for you). "When I arrived, what was called Öküzgözü turned out to be about five or six different grapes," O'Donnell said. He's also excited about another variety called Boğazkere. He let me try a hugely impressive (and tannic) example from "an ancient vineyard, the vines are like tree trunks." The process of charting the vines and the land is still embryonic: "Vineyards are a long, slow road. I only have 10 years with the vines and soils of Turkey. I would like to have several hundred more!"

It's not just local grapes. Turkish producers are also very keen to show off their Cabernets and Syrahs. Olga Rai, whose company Vinorai imports Turkish wine into the US, told me: "We started with international and learned quickly that the market doesn't want another Chardonnay from Turkey." She makes an exception with Pasaeli, in the west of the country, which blend French and rare indigenous varieties such as Karasakız into something uniquely Turkish. They're a tiny operation in contrast to Kayra.

Pasaeli currently export about 10% of their production. With the recent decline of tourism, combined with the official disapproval of domestic alcohol consumption, it's vital to Turkish producers that this percentage increases. And there’s no reason it shouldn’t: Turkey has fantastic varieties, vineyards and producers, and wine drinkers worldwide are becoming more adventurous. This should be a golden opportunity for Turkish wines.

"At the moment, the government needs our taxes," Seyit Karagozoglu from Pasaeli told me. He paused and shrugged, the implication being that at some point the government’s attitude might change. “It could be time to start thinking of a plan B,” he added. Let's hope he doesn’t have to.

Daniel O'Donnell, for one, is bullish about the future of Turkish wine: "You cannot imagine how optimistic I am about the future and Turkey's wine quality,” he said. “I can only hope to live another 50 years to see it happen."

5 Turkish grapes:

Öküzgözü (red grape) It makes spicy wine with plenty of acidity and medium tannins. I normally detect notes of cloves, licorice and dense autumn fruits. Reminds me a little of Touriga Nacional from Portugal.

Kalecik Karası (red grape) Grown all over the country, this has floral and red fruit notes and very little tannin—think Pinot Noir but with maraschino cherries and even Turkish delight.

Bogazkere (red grape) The word means "burns your throat" because of its fierce tannins. It can be a bit wild, though capable of elegance when done well. It's often blended with Öküzgözü to tame its ferocity.

Narince (white grape) With its floral notes it reminds me a little of Muscat, but there's also a grassiness to it that's a little like Sauvignon Blanc. According to O'Donnell, it needs to be picked early or it can be a bit flabby. Native to Tokat near the Black Sea.

Emir (white grape) This has lemony fruit with lots of acidity and structure. It's capable of aging. Only grown in Cappadocia in central Anatolia.

4 Turkish wines to try:

Kavaklidere Narince Emir 2011, $16.99 Mister Wright

The nose is floral and grassy. On the palate it has the most delightful, creamy texture. Hard to believe how old this is. It's so fresh.

Pasaeli 6N Karasakız Merlot, $20.31 Your Wine Cellar

You've never had Merlot like it. It's blended with Karasakız, a rare grape native to the Aegean. The color is so pale it's almost a rosé. This is so pretty and fragrant, there's red cherry fruit, just a whisper of tannin and a long finish. Really gorgeous.

Vinkara Kalecik Karasi 2013, $14.99 Toast Wines

This variety often has a candied edge to it. This example smells like Coca-Cola (a good thing!). It's light, ripe and refreshing with just a little firmness and an earthy finish.

Kayra Öküzgözü 2012 $16.65, Wine Library

You can see why Daniel O' Donnell loves this variety so much. This has an earthy, smoky nose with notes of licorice. It's full with lovely ripe tannins and masses of dark savory fruit. Distinctive and good.