Tuesday, 17 January 2017

A Ground Report from Istanbul

The first time I visited Istanbul was in the spring of 2008. It was glorious weather – blue and sunny skies, with a crisp breeze blowing as we cruised down the Bosporus. With a fingerhold in Europe, Istanbul represented the meshing of the best of Middle East and European cultures, acting as a beacon of democracy alongside a respect for Islamic values. Visitors were treated to a rich cultural history spanning Greek, Christian and Ottoman rule, and a bounty of exotic foods; raw honeycomb, sweet baklava, moreish hazelnuts. Security was ever-present, but this felt more like reassurance and the dangers seemed no greater than any other European city. Istanbul was truly a Turkish delight.

Many things have changed since then. Tourism has collapsed, no thanks to the many violent attacks the country has suffered. While visiting the ports of Kusadasi and Bodrum last summer I saw shop owners whiling away their time playing with their handphones, the vast hordes of cruise travellers having evaporated. This month, I paid another visit to Istanbul, this time amidst some of the heaviest snows the city had seen in recent years. Did the weather signify the depressed state of the wine industry in Istanbul? In addition to falling visitor numbers, strict anti-alcohol rules have been put in place since 2013, curtailing the ability of winemakers and wine bars to advertise. Taxes have been raised on alcoholic drinks and new rules implemented barring the sale of alcohol by retail outlets after 10pm. These laws are not nearly as draconian as some news agencies have made them out to be. Singapore has similar regulations, as do many other European countries.

To get a feeling of how things stood on the ground, I visited Süleyman Er, owner of a wine bar in the dining and entertainment hub of Beyoglu. The interior of Solera Winery is small but welcoming, with one wall decorated by photographs (the photos rotate frequently to feature the works of different photographers). The wine bar stocks a large variety of international and local wines. Süleyman himself has purchased 35000 square metres of land and is starting to make wine from varieties such as Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. “In the past, Turkish people used to drink high alcohol spirits like raki, but the new generation has travelled around the world; they have money and education. They taste many different wines and food, and when they come back, they ask why our country, one of the best in the world, doesn’t produce good wine? That is why now in Turkey there are nearly 200 companies, boutique and bigger, producing wine.”

One way that Turkey can distinguish itself as a wine producer is by drawing from its bank of unique local varieties. I sampled two of Turkey’s most promising white grapes, Narince (pronounced nah-rin-chay) and Emir. The former is floral with notes of green apple while the latter is more neutral with citrus fruit and pronounced acidity. For the reds, there is the light and aromatic Kalecik Karasi and the structured, full-bodied Boğazkere. Boğazkere is often blended with another local variety, Öküzgözü, which softens out the tannins and adds red fruit flavours. Süleyman explained that while visitors to Turkey are more likely to order wines made from Turkish indigenous varieties, locals are predisposed towards drinking international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, and that they prefer “powerful, masculine wines”. 

I touch on the sensitive topic of the new wine laws. “Many people know many things in Turkey… but they don’t read the rules, they just listen to other people.” He points out that free wine tastings are forbidden, but wine tastings that are charged are still permissible, even if the charge is a token fee. Süleyman voices support for some of the laws, such as the one that forbids the retail sale of alcohol between 10pm and 6am, stating that it fixes the problem of all-night binge drinking and public drunkenness. Of greater concern is the instability within the country and in surrounding neighbours, but Süleyman shows optimism that this state of affairs is temporary and that the country’s rich heritage will still continue to attract visitors. It’s a stoic acceptance I found echoed in conversations with other locals. Life goes on.

Solera Winery
Yeni Çarşı Cd. No:44
34433 Beyoğlu/İstanbul

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