I sat down to dinner the other night at Turkish Kitchen in New York City with Ardiç Gürsel, a hotel business professional who in 2003 opened the now-million-bottle-a-year Vinkara winery in the mountains northeast of Ankara, the Turkish capital. Along with her winery manager, Sicilian-born Ennio Gugliotta (the winemaker, another Italian, Marco Monchiero, was back in Turkey) — and over a savory meal that ranged from okra in tomato sauce and homemade yogurt with minced cucumber and herbs to grilled whole striped bass with romaine salad and thin-sliced marinated lamb over yogurt and chopped pita bread — I tasted four wines that Vinkara hopes to find an appreciative audience for in the United States.
First, some background: The Caucasus region, approximately bordered by the eastern Mediterranean, the Black Sea, and the Caspian Sea, is one of the oldest winemaking regions in the world, perhaps dating back to Biblical times. As a Muslim empire under the Ottomans, who held power in what is now Turkey (and far beyond) for more than six centuries, until 1923, alcohol was officially (if not always in practice) banned — but vineyards, mostly for table grapes, flourished. Today, Turkey is the fourth largest grower of grapes in the world, and there are said to be as many as 1,200 indigenous varieties, though only about 60 of them are cultivated commercially, roughly 25 of those for wine.
As in any place where wine is made today, all the famous international varieties are grown in Turkey — chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, riesling, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, pinot noir, shiraz (syrah), and so on. When I was in the country last year, though, I tried to avoid these and found a number of very good, slightly unusual wines made from Turkish varieties with exotic, often hard-to-pronounce names like narince, kabarcık, dökülgen, kalecik karası, boğazkere, and (my favorite name) öküzgözü — a lightish red variety whose name sounds something like "ukk-cuz-go-zoo" and means ox's eye.
The modern-day Turkish wine industry was founded by the same man who founded modern-day Turkey, Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. As a part of his program of westernization, he established the Doluca winery — still in business — near Istanbul in 1925. Liberalized laws governing alcoholic beverages in the 1990s encouraged a new crop of small wineries, and today Turkey is the 35th largest producer of wine in the world, after Slovakia, Morocco, and the Czech Republic.
Unfortunately, as I learned when I visited Turkey last year, the president of Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, is a teetotaller, and apparently wishes that the Turkish wine industry would just go away. "Eat grapes, don't drink wine," he likes to say. New laws issued in 2013 prohibit the advertisement of wine — or Turkey's emblematic spirit, rakı, or any other alcohol — and impose draconian licensing laws, as well as requiring images of drinking on TV or in the movies to be pixelated or blurred. Winery websites are even blocked to users in Turkey. "Sorry!" reads a message on the Vinkara site when someone in that country tries to access it. "Unfortunately, we are unable to allow you access to Vinkara website due to restrictions on the marketing of alcohol beverages in the country of access." (U.S. users can access the whole site.)
It's hardly any wonder that Vinkara, like other Turkish producers who have any volume to sell, are looking to export markets — the United States included.
Though we were dining at a Turkish restaurant, Gürsel stressed that her goal wasn't merely to have her wines sold in such establishments, but to find a place for them on wines lists at restaurants of all kinds, on the basis of their admirable qualities.
They might well have a chance. The wines I tasted were well-made, food-friendly, and fairly priced. The Narince 2013 ($15) was fragrant and bright, with a richness of fruit that almost suggested a touch of oak (though there is none here). The wine's older sibling, the Narince Reserve 2012 ($25), did have a bit of oak (20 percent of the wine spent 13 months in new oak casks), but it was nicely balanced out on the palate by the rich, citrusy fruit and left a long, elegant aftertaste.
The reds were Kalecik Karası 2013 ($15), light in color and tart but fruity in the mouth, in something of a Beaujolais style; and its older counterpart, Kalecik Karası Reserve 2011 ($25). This was similar in color to the 2013 — just as light, just as young-looking — but had more going on. The nose was fresh and grapey; the flavor suggested summer berries with a hint of peppery spice and a faint earthiness that made me think of dolcetto from Italy's Piedmont region. Its characteristics were subtle — lovers of big, extracted, aggressively tannic reds would hate it — but I found myself returning to the glass again and again, savoring the wine's low-key charms.