I have a fascination with maps. When my parents took us on our first trip to America’s West coast back in the 80’s, my brother and I spent weeks pouring over the Rand McNally road atlas we bought beforehand, working out the most exciting route for our month long adventure. Then I got into wine and remember buying my first wine book back in 1988. It was an old edition of The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and to this day, many editions later, it is still my favourite wine book. Maps provide a context for me and allow me to fill in the images for myself. Maps create a familiarity to a place I’ve never been. And for those places I have been, the maps take me back to the memories, recreating travels and adventures, better than any picture can.
Earlier this week I did a brief talk on the history of wine at the Christmas dinner for the Scottish Women in Business. Here is the story I shared. Details of the Greek and Turkish wines we tasted can be found at the bottom of the article.
On a recent trip to Turkey I went in search of the “Source of Wine”. Turkey was playing host to the annual digital wine communications conference (EWBC) and one session in particular gave a unique insight in the journey wine has taken from its first wild roots.
The Roman Empire
Most people’s association with history and wine is likely to be related to the spread of the Roman Empire. And it would be true to say this is a crucial time for the modern, cultivated or domesticated vine. There is plenty of evidence showing the spread of the wine regions with Rome as its starting point. One of the most important natural historians of his time was Pliny the Elder, who became famous for his encyclopaedic work ‘Naturalis Historia’, which included a large section devoted to vines and wines. He was possibly even more famous for the manner of his death in the aftermath of the eruption of Vesuvius in AD79 and gave his name to what we describe today as a “Plinean eruption”.
The Ancient Greeks
Yet this is not where wine was born. You would have to go quite a bit further back. The Ancient Greeks used wine in ancient ceremonies, often drunk as a grog, mixed with spices, honey and water in some cases seawater. The wine “Retsina” to this day is flavoured with pine resin. The Greeks even had a God of wine, Dionysus, whom the Romans later adopted as Bacchus. The wines from ancient Greece were highly praised by its poets but some of the adulteration of it would suggest they perhaps weren’t so great after all.
Clearly modern winemaking owes more to the Romans, but we honour the Ancient Greeks by tasting a modern Greek wine which comes from Drama in the north of mainland Greece bordered by Bulgaria and Turkey. Assyrtiko is regarded as one of Greece’s best indigenous white grape varieties. We’re giving a nod to modern wine with the addition of Sauvignon Blanc. Assyrtiko originated on the island of Santorini and thrives in volcanic soils. It’s ability to withstand high summer temperatures and still retain freshness and is the secret of its success. The grape variety produces a very dry, mineral wine with almost earthy qualities, particularly when grown on the volcanic soils of Santorini. Elsewhere, such as here in Drama it produces a somewhat milder, fruitier style of wine.
So far we’ve traced wine’s first steps back from the Roman Empire down to the Ancient Greeks. But we haven’t even covered half of it. Following the traces from Greece we move 2000 years further down the line to Ancient Egypt. The Pharaohs were great imbibers of wine and even kept detailed records of what they drunk which included many vintage dated, single vineyard wines.
But it doesn’t stop there either. From Egypt our journey moves North-East and into Mesopotamia and ultimately ends up in current day Eastern Turkey, or Anatolia to be more precise, and countries like Georgia and Armenia. It is now believed the earliest known wines originated here. The archeological evidence was found not far from Mount Arrarat, where Noah is said to have landed his ark and planted the first vineyard.
Some of the evidence discovered in 1957 was of a tomb in Gordion, the capital of Phrygia in what is modern day Turkey. Dated to roughly 700-750BC it was named the Midas Tumulus. The hermetically sealed tomb was covered in earth. It proved a spectacular tomb belonging to what some believe is the king of Phrygia, King Midas.
Ancient Ales, Wines and Extreme Beverages
Inside the archaeologists uncovered the remains of a 60-65 year old male, as well as the largest iron age drinking set ever discovered. It consisted of 160 bronze vessels. More recent chemical research by chemist and archaeologist Patrick McGovern, who in the popular vernacular is known as the “Indiana Jones of Ancient Ales, Wines, and Extreme Beverages”, revealed not only the remains of what turned out to be some funerary feast of barbecued lamb and goat’s meat with lentils, but provided some detailed insight in what was drunk too.
The identification of tartaric acid points to grapes or grape product. Now this could have just been grape juice, however the juice would more than likely have fermented naturally considering the high ambient temperature and the fact that yeast is naturally present on the grape skins. Beeswax was also found which points towards something along the lines of honey mead. Finally beerstone (Calcium Oxalate) was discovered, a substance which is commonly associated with the production of Barley beer.
These findings led to a bit of experimental archaeology with the help of the Kavaklidere winery. They recreated the drink albeit not in a commercial sense. It was later produced in the US as the “Midas Touch Golden Elixir” and is made using Barley, honey and muscat grapes. Saffron was added as a bitter agent and would have given it a lush golden colour. A drink fit for a King.
Modern Day Turkey
Unadulterated by barley, honey or saffron our second wine comes from Turkey and is made by the same winery, Kavaklidere. Here the indigenous variety Kalecik Karasi is blended with Syrah to make a wine not unlike a French Cotes-du-Rhone. The Kalecik Karasi is named after the Kalecik district close to Ankara although it is now fairly widely grown in Turkey. It can produce a variety of wine styles, from soft, easy drinking to more complex. In character it sits somewhere between Gamay, Dolcetto and Pinot Noir.
Much earlier evidence of grape cultivation and winemaking were found in this same area and genetic research, conducted by the Swiss grape geneticist Jose Vouillamoz (one of the authors of the most authoritative book on grapes to date, Wine Grapes), has helped pin down some of the earliest evidence of grape domestication, which is now accepted as having been instrumental in the spread of the beverage. Grape domestication favoured the self-pollinating plant, where in the wild the vast majority of vines would be either male or female, with only the female bearing fruit. The hermaphroditic vine dispensed with this need and made grape growing much more efficient and with fruit readily available the drink was only a short fermentation away.
So can we trace this all the way back to the earliest glass of wine. Unlikely, according to Jose Vouillamoz, as that was probably a simple case of “serendipitous inebriation”.
We tasted two wines on the night which were kindly supplied by Direct Wines (Laithwaites), the first of the mainstream retailers to add a Turkish wine to their range. They promised me there are more to come very soon!
Greece: Thema Assyrtiko/Sauvignon Blanc – Ktima Pavlidis – Drama 2011 (£11.49)
Turkey: Vinart Kalecik Karasi/Syrah – Kavaklidere – Aegean 2010 (£10.99)
According to Wikipedia, Serendipity means a ‘happy accident’ or ‘pleasant surprise’. I think it’s about being in the right place at the right time or under the right circumstances and good things will come to you. Wine can be a pleasant surprise and I’m sure there are plenty of winemakers who have stories about a wine that turned out to be a happy accident. Prior to visiting Turkey for the EWBC I had already tasted a few Turkish wines and realised they could make some pretty decent stuff. But having been immersed (not quite literally) in the wines of Turkey for a few days the country has proven itself to be a very pleasant surprise.
After a few intense days of workshops, speeches and tasting countless wines, many with unpronounceable names, we were let off our leashes and released into the wilds of Izmir’s countryside. It was refreshing to feel the wind in your hair and the first winery we visited gave me an instant holiday feel. It is a small, but perfectly formed boutique winery and the owners couldn’t have been more welcoming. It’s the kind of place you feel at home immediately. Reha and Bilge Bengisu Öğünlü are a Turkish couple who lived in America for a while before deciding to settle back in Turkey and make wine. Reha’s twitter bio reads “wine, vineyards, guitars, windsurfing, cooking, slowfood, travelling” and he comes across as thoughtful and well-travelled. The kind of guy Billy Connolly would call ‘windswept and interesting’.
Our first taste is of a local version of Muscat. It is fresh, dry and racy and just what we need to wake us up. None of us had much sleep I suspect, as the visit comes hot on the heels of a sumptuous gala dinner and party the previous night. Spittoons are nowhere to be seen so needs must, but it’s no punishment, particularly as the sun is out and we are amongst the vines.
The winery itself is tiny and we cram ourselves in-between the fermentation tanks and into the small barrel cellar. It’s a romantic place, dimly lit, with barely enough room for a dozen or so barrels and lined on either side with bottle bins filled with the maturing wines. I think this is the kind of place most people have in mind when they think about a lifestyle business, a romantic notion of winemaking, away from the stresses and strains of life. The ‘when we win the lottery’ kind of place. The whole production is around 1000 cases with still a little room to grow.
Inside we taste more wines, a range of red wines made from international varieties. Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon in particular. Urlice is a member of the ‘Slow Food’ movement and grape growing techniques hark back to ancient times without recourse to chemicals. Reha’s vineyards are not certified organic though. It isn’t about the marketing for him, he sees it more as a way of life rather than a label to stick on a bottle. The wines are actually very accomplished. They certainly aren’t shy. Structured wines with quite a bit of tannin means they show best with some hearty food and they have put on quite a spread for us. I particularly liked their Cabernet Sauvignon / Syrah Reserve, which has a wonderful richness to it.
Serendipity has another surprise in store for us. Macit, who is our guide for the day, was meant to take a trip out to Ephesus but was moved onto our outing at the last minute. Fortunately he likes wine so he’s quite happy. When we arrive at Urlice, Macit and Reha look at each other stunned as they recognise each other. They were old friends who lived across from one another in Izmir more than 30 years ago and haven’t seen each other in all that time. It was serendipity that brought them together. Or maybe it was the wine.
The journey reminded me of my younger days, when catching an overnight train to save on accommodation was a budgetary necessity. After a short and virtually sleepless flight we arrive in Istanbul in what seems like the middle of the night. It may be 5.30am here but at home it is the middle of the night. We pile onto the local bus that takes us right to the water’s edge on the Asian side of the city. After a brief stop for a cup of tea and some toast we venture onto a ferry, we assume will take us across the Bosphorus and into the European part of this sprawling city. Although the weather is more like a dreich summer’s day in Glasgow, the skyline still manages to be beautiful when it finally reveals itself. How incredible must this look when the sun is just coming up.
I am traveling with Richard Ross from Appetise, who developed the Showmappr app and I’m helping him populate the app with the various sessions at the impending conference we’re both attending.
There is still some work to do so after checking into the hotel and breakfast with plenty of coffee we settle into the cosy hotel bar sofas with our laptops to get the job done. Later in the afternoon the rain is still pouring down and although it’s taking away a little of the magic, it doesn’t stop us from exploring the city some more. So far, no wine has passed our lips, that will have to wait until tomorrow evening, in what is the unofficial starting point of the EWBC, the now infamous (so I’ve been told) BYOB dinner. As this is my first EWBC I’m feeling a mix of curiosity and excitement. Excited about meeting so many winelovers, many of which I may have had a chat with on Twitter and sharing some amazing wines and experiences with them. Curious also about the wines of Turkey. Like most people, I don’t necessarily view Turkey as a serious player in the wine market but that is not to say there isn’t some excitement to get here. Part of this morning’s job was getting a bit of background on some of the wineries involved and there is a real appetite to show off how the country can be different. The fact it now has its own generic trade body shows this quest is taken seriously and indigenous grape varieties seem to be what get a lot winemakers out of bed here. I’m hoping to be convinced these can provide something that truly represents the country. The next few days are about exploring the ‘sources’ and I can’t think of a better place to do that than right here in Turkey, a country that goes right back to wine’s source.