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A tale of three Turkish wineries


Urlice Muscat (Misket)

An epic journey through the picturesque Aegean landscape of the Izmir surroundings, with views on both mountains and the sea, was scheduled on the third day of the EWBC 2012. I was very excited when I booked the trip, because it promised (besides the change to get out of the hotel after two busy days) to deliver visits to local wineries, tastings, opportunities to speak to owners and winemakers, a visit to archaeological site, and more. And the journey on the filed not only was up to the promises, for me at least it was the highlight of my entire stay in Izmir.

Apart from the tours in a local restaurant and an archaeological site with an ancient olive oil press, the visit schedule was prepared to comprise three wineries located at various distances around Izmir. Whether coincidence or not, they sites were of different sizes, with different wines and business models, and we started the tour incrementally, from the smallest to the largest.

Ulrice Winery is located nearby the center of the small and stylish town of Urla, a posh suburb for the wealthy of Izmir, but with a certain charm and solitude. The landscape is dotted with small vegetable farms and glasshouses, intermingled with residential areas and connected by a network of narrow tree-lined roads. The winery has only 4 hectares of vine plantation, grouped in two farms located on the outskirts of Urla township. It is a family owned business, with a very interesting story. It is fully owned and operated on all aspects by the  hospitable middle aged couple who returned to Turkey to become entrepreneurs after spending many years in the US. They settled in Urla in 2004 and bought a small property with a house and a vineyard, and their firs wines were released in 2008. The vineyard being completely manual operated, they have full control over the grape cultivation and processing. Regarding grape varieties, the best represented are red grapes -Cabernet, Merlot, Shiraz, Cabernet Franc, as well as Chardonnay and Muscat (Misket in Turkish, actually being a local variation of Muscat aux petit grains).

In every aspect of the business, they are oriented towards sustainability. They practice organic farming (although don’t advertise

tasting at Urlice

it), employ local labor when needed, minimize the energy consumption by reducing and condensing the processing area, etc.The production facilities are located inside the cottage-size farmhouse. Literally, behind the kitchen, where the pantry is normally located, they have the fermentation tanks for red wines, while in the basement there are the vats for white wines and for maturation. Behind the basement there is a small extension dug in the chalky soil that serves as an ageing cellar, narrow and crammed, enough to hold about eight barrels and a few thousand bottles. As all their red wines are aged for 12 month or more in oak, space-saving is essential, so the barrels are reused as much as four times, and bottling is done only when needed. No more that ten people cat enter at the same time in the production area.

Their wines are constantly under experimentation, each vintage having a different proportion and ageing period. Having very young vines and little experience with the local climate, all the attention is needed, and flexibility is important when deciding the blends. For example, the 2008 blend is Shiraz with Cabernet Sauvignon, while the 2009 has reversed proportions and a different ageing period, resulting in a wine with different character. Generally, their reds are well structured, with rounded tannins, and an interesting salty note. The rose is also a different blend every year, changing from a pale Provence style wine to a powerful Clairet.

Most of the distribution is done either directly at the vineyard, or through selected restaurants in the area. Restaurant culture is rising in Turkey, especially in touristic areas like Izmir, so it becomes increasingly important to be present on the wine lists. Also, visiting tours are an important activity (with groups like ours for example), consisting of various packages of visits and wine tastings. Being part of the Slow Food movement, it is natural for them to blend some local food into the tastings. Even so, the activity is far yet from breaking even.  It would be fair to say that it’s a typical example of an artisanal winery.

Mozaik Winery

The following winery that we visited is comparatively four times larges in size, and with a different business model, still with a striking similarity: it is also a family operated business, the founding couple returning to Turkey after working many years abroad (it seems it’s a trend, that turks are returning home and investing). From the entrance, the view is a little puzzling, as the first things a visitor would see are horses running in the manicured paddock, well groomed and friendly, with a ranch-style building compound in the back. The entire view looks almost like an English countryside theme park, with white picked fences running along for kilometers, green grass and red rooftops. The founder of the family’s main business is horses, and wine making is his daughter’s passion.

They have about 14 hectares on a low lying hill, very close to the seaside. The Mozaik Winery was founded in 2008, and 2010 was their first grape harvest turned into wine. Significant investments were made, not sparing any money, both in the vineyard and in the production area: brand-new shiny rows of steel tanks, tens on new oak barrels, and an Italian team of winemakers. The choice for Italian winemaker was made both considering the potential grape varieties suited for the land, and the owners’ affection for Tuscany and Tuscan wines.

All the grapes planted are red varieties, imported from Italy and France.  Due to the proximity of the sea and the low altitude, white

wines from Ekigaina and Rebo

varieties were thought to perform poorly, as well as Turkish varieties.  Besides ubiquitous varieties like Cabernet, Shiraz, Petit Verdot, Montepulciano and Sangiovese, I was very excited to hear lesser-known grape names such as Marselan and Tannat, and totally puzzled when I heard the names of Ekigaina and Rebo. Not only are the owners passionate about wine and winemaking, they are also up to date with recent research. Therefore, under the supervision of Italian agronomist and oenologist, two very interesting grapes were planted here: Rebo is a recent artificial hybrid between Merlot and Teroldego, being sparsely planted in Italy mostly for experimental purposes; Ekigaina is an even more exciting grape, a crossing between Cabernet Sauvignon and Tannat, with the only existing commercial plantation located at Mosaik Winery. According to the owners, both varieties have settled perfectly in the gravel and limestone soils nearby the Aegean sea, to such extent that the grapes are made into wine –Ekigaina being present not only in blends but also bottled by itself.

We tasted a wide selection of bottled wines from the 2010 vintage, as well as some very exiting barrel samples from the 2011 wines. As a general feature, the young age of the vines is still visible in the bitterness of the tannins and unstable structure. Apart from this, they are very drinkable wines, some with a good ageing potential. My attention was drawn to the powerful Tannat, discovering a well balanced wine, with surprisingly ripe and fruity flavors and rounded tannins, much like a young Syrah. The young Syrah in turn has restrained its spiciness and pungency in favor of more subtle, woody flavors. Ekigaina is a very exciting grape, with and identity of its own, visible comparing the 2010 and 2011 vintages. To my taste, it has something Spanish to it, resembling a young Tempranillo, fruity and coarse at the same time –I noticed notes of fern, moss and tree bark. The rose unfortunately (Syrah, Sangiovese and Petit Verdot), in spite of its bright color, was under the influence of the recent bottling, so not very expressive.

Mozaik Winery

Overall, I would say that they strive to make balanced wines, ready to drink, great to associate with flavorful foods (think Emilia-Romagna cuisine), and with some ageing potential. I would like to see again these wines after another two or three vintages, when the vines will gain more maturity.

The afternoon was already fading, but we had another winery to visit by the end of the trip, and perhaps it was better saved for last, because tit was the crowning of the evening. Like in a crescendo tune, we started from a little artisanal farm, switched to an ambitious mid-sized business based on export, and finally reached to a full scale enterprise, with style and class evident in every aspect. Let’s start with the winery building itself, since that is the first impression of the visitor. Built in a sleek, postmodern and minimalistic style, Urla Winery resembles more a corporate retreat than a production facility. And yet, it hold everything it needs to turn into wine 40 hectares’ worth of grapes every year, with an almost compulsive attention to order and details. The building is eco-friendly, using natural materials and all sorts of trick in order to be more efficient and stylish at the same time. Surprising details are everywhere, and the visitor will “ahaa” and “wooow” every minute: the barrels chamber is located underneath a pool, with water flowing over a transparent window located in the ceiling over the barrels, thus flooding the cellar with waves of light. One of the tasting rooms also has a view through a hidden window over the endless rows of barrels. The second tasting room, privately located on the top floor, with a view over the vineyard, has two apartments fully furnished, opening to a terrace covered in natural grass. It is a place truly cozy, inspiring and inviting to wine tasting.

Speaking of wine, the production cycle is located on the same premises, using gravitationalprinciple, technology being present in

Urla WInery

all corners: a central panel displays the temperatures, pressure and other indicators for the 30 or so tanks (also a phone app will notify immediately of critical changes), located behind sliding doors. A machine to wash the harvested grapes with a fine mist was made to order, on the specifications provided by the winery; also a special “observation” tank, fitted with a thick glass window to monitor the fermentation.

The vineyard itself is separated into two bodies of land, one located around the winery and the other across the hill, facing the sea. This is the oldest part of the plantation, over ancient terraces where vine has been cultivated for thousands of years. It’s not news anymore to discover amphorae, with traces of wine still visible in the land of those archaic terraces. Cultivation is performed both with machinery for certain tasks, as with laborers employed from the nearby villages. Next to the vineyard there is a natural reservation, protected area, for both plants and wildlife. Also, adjacent to the rows of vitis vinifera is a plant nursery and an arboretum,

private tasting room

Perhaps I should have started the description from this aspect: the owner of Urla Winery is a serial entrepreneur -Can Ortabaş- that initially went into the plant business by opening a nursery and arboretum. They grow and sell many species, from palm trees to cacti, from agave to Cyprus trees, from leanders to olive trees, and many more. Finding the ancient terraces with traces of vine cultivation, he decided to go into the wine business. After years of struggle to put together pieces of land, protect it from the wild boars, obtain building permints for the winery and finalize the construction, in 2009 they released their first commercial vintages. Testimony to the hard work, the wall in the main hallway is tiled with Decanter ans IWC medals, as well as prizes from local wine competitions.

Both red and wihte varieties are grown, but the accent is on the former ones. Their wines are grouped into several product lines, varying both in terms of wine style and price range. The wine consultant is French from the Rhone region, but the wine making team is local, composed among others of two lovely young ladies. The grape varieties are hinting more towards an international selection, the Turkish grapes still being under observation. Cabernet, Shyrah, Merlot, Petit Verdot and Nero d’Avola are turned into powerful and impressive red wines. The surprise of the evening was to find another story of a unique variety, even more exciting: Nero d’Urla, or Urla Karasi, or the Black of Urla. It is a local grape, cultivated as bush vine by local farmers for centuries, but very difficult to find as a pure breed. After years of research and efforts, they managed to find three old plants in an old garden. After genetic and ampelographic research, it turned out that it is a pure variety on its own.

All the red wines are barrel aged, the barrels (new French oak) being used no more that 3 years. We tasted a flight of six wines during

Urla wines

our visit. The Serendias Rose 2010 -Syrah, Merlot, Bogazkere is perhaps the best Turkish rose I’ve tasted so far, wonderfully balanced, and a very understated color. The following four reds were: Nexus 2011 (bottled 1 month ago) of Merlot, Nero d’Avola and Cabernet Franc; Nero d’Avola & Urla Karasi 2010; Tempus 2010 with Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot; Vourla 2009 -Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, Bogazkere. My favourite is Tempus 2010, with a dark fruits profile side by side with addictive espresso and licorice. Also, the price range is very reasonable, the most expensive being around 22 Euro (before VAT).

I should add also that besides the wines, the winery is an attraction onto itself. In 2011, a total of 2000 visitors crossed the front gate; in 2012 their number has already reached 7000. Tasting tours are coning and leaving on a daily basis, as well as private events for well known public figures. Let’s just say that some significant international VIPs have chosen to spend a few days in these beautiful surroundings.

As a conclusion, it was a very interesting view inside the Turkish wine industry. They are struggling with numerous regulatory and fiscal barriers, as well as with a lack of trust from the local consumers. Yet, with significant efforts, wineries proved to be successful ventures, of different sizes and approaches. I particularly appreciated the ambition, the dedication and the patience that radiated from their words. I think it is a good sign for an economy -and for a young emerging wine industry especially- that entrepreneurs of all sizes are ready to invest significant resources in this field.

I will cover the topic of Turkish wines and Turkish wine industry in general in a separate article. Below are the links to my other articles from the series dedicated to the EWBC 2012: the BYOB party, the first day of conferencing with the Turkish tasting, and the second day with the Grand Terroir tasting. I have the feeling that this was not my last visit to Turkey.

5 comments on “A tale of three Turkish wineries

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