Kayra: To understand Turkish wine you must ignore existing winemaking conventions

Admitting that when he joined Kayra he was “a major Californian asshole”, winemaker Daniel O’Donnell believes that to truly understand Turkish wine one must “throw out any pre-existing ideas about winemaking conventions and put things in a Turkish context”.

‘Adjust your viewpoint or you just won’t get it’ is the advice from head winemaker at Kayra Wines, Daniel O’Donnell. A California-born winemaking consultant, O’Donnell was initially hired by the Texas Pacific Group (TPG) which had bought what was to become Kayra after the government privatised its winemaking monopoly in 2004. He was given three months to find out if the business was viable after reported losses of $6 million a year.

Closing down five wineries to leave two (in Elazig and Sarköy) and throwing away 16 million litres of wine stored at the winery’s vast concrete tanks, it has been a steep learning curve and journey of discovery for the American.

“There’s zero background information on winemaking in Turkey”

Following the declaration of the Republic of Turkey in 1923, alcohol was controlled by a government monopoly. However, in 1935, leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk launched a research programme into Turkish wine, giving two French viticulturists, M. Bouffart and Marcel Biron, the task of studying Turkey’s indigenous grapes and wine regions and establishing which grapes were suited to which areas.

This prompted the creation of 28 wineries across the country, including Kayra’s facility in Elazig which began production in 1944.

“The wineries were built for mass production. I wanted to change focus from quantity to quality, so we threw away 16 million litres of wine when I arrived and sent the rest to Russia,” O’Donnell told members of the press as well as a number of UK retailers on a trip to Turkey last week.

As the previous winemakers were not actually tasting their wines, O’Donnell recalled that “they were having to leave 65 grams of residual sugar in each litre of wine to make it palatable – to Russians! We’re now using 40% of the capacity of the winery at Elazig”.

After starting afresh, O’Donnell admitted that in his first year he was “a major Californian asshole” and tried to impose Western practices on what was a very different country and industry.

“I realised I needed to step back,” he said, describing today’s winemaking style at Kayra as using “some western methods and some classic”.

The difficulty, however, has been the absence of a written rulebook and winemaking records, despite traces of viticulture in Anatolia dating back nearly 7,000 years.

“There’s zero background information on winemaking in Turkey,” said O’Donnell. “Historically people haven’t collaborated, but it is starting to open up now,” he said, adding that Turkish wineries are not traditionally open to the public.

As a result the winery has adopted a trial and error approach, recording its findings in what is becoming a vast body of research. Having standardised production practices, the team are only just discovering the ageing potential of Turkish grapes, given the lack of back vintages kept by wineries in the country.

“Library wines were not a big thing in Turkey,” added O’Donnell. “People historically didn’t believe that wines from Turkey could age”.

Storing and ageing Kayra’s wines has thus been one of O’Donnell’s top priorities, together with experimentation.

Visiting Kayra’s Alpagut vineyard, planted with indigenous grapes Öküzgözü and Bogazkere, O’Donnell told his guests that out of the 20 acres planted, five acres are regularly used to produce wines while the rest are reserved for experimentation.

“We still f*** up far more wine than we’re successful with,” joked O’Donnell who also went on to state that he saw the 2010 vintage, the year that he began to age a proportion of his reds in American oak, as the “balancing point” for the winery.

Culture and Religion

With Islam being the largest single religion in Turkey, and one that traditionally shuns alcohol, it is important to consider the Turkish wine industry in this context.

“We have to be culturally sensitive,” said O’Donnell. “We don’t want to put someone in a position where they’re questioning themselves or their beliefs”.

Fellow winemaker at Kayra, Murat Üner, said that he’d had experience with grape growers who wouldn’t sell him their grapes as they knew that they would be made into alcohol.

“I’d say around 80% of our workers don’t drink or taste the wine,” said O’Donnell, adding that despite this, those who worked at Kayra were obviously happy to work with and handle the product, meaning that the cultural differences were not as pronounced as you might expect.

Each visitor on the trip to Kayra was given a traditional Gakkos hat – a octagonal shaped cap with each corner representing a characteristic of the Elazig people including bravery, generosity, hospitality, modesty, diligence, honesty, patriotism and fearlessness – qualities valued the world over.

Wine style: The Turks love their tannins

It is also vital to bear in mind the traditional Turkish palate and how this influences the taste of their wine.

“The Turks love their tannins,” said O’Donnell, citing the country’s preference for strong, bitter coffee, rich meat and tea that has been brewed for several hours.

The wines, therefore, pair particularly well with Turkey’s spiced meat dishes which help to soften the high tannins in Öküzgözü and particularly in Bogazkere.

Indigenous grapes

Establishing Turkey’s native grape varieties has to be the single element for which Kayra is most well known, promoting red grapes including the lighter Kalecik Karasi and heavy-weights Öküzgözü and Bogazkere as well as white grapes Narince and Emir.

Öküzgözü, its name translating as ‘bull’s eye’ referencing its appearance, is according to O’Donnell – although he dislikes such comparison – most similar to a Barbera.

“There are very few, if any, pure Öküzgözü vineyards,” he said, explaining that in most sites that claim to be planted with the variety, there are in fact several different grapes present. Kayra’s vineyards are thought to be the only such sites in the region, if not the country.

Bogazkere meanwhile, which translates as ‘throat-burner’, is a more tannic “grumpy, mean and hungover wine” that requires proper handling in order to soften its naturally astringent tannins.

“In four vintages I’ve noticed a strong mint and eucalyptus characteristic. It must come from the grape but we haven’t yet worked out what causes the flavour to develop as it doesn’t happen every year. It shits on the theory that you need eucalyptus to grow in the area in order to achieve the aroma and flavour in the wine – no eucalyptus grows here!”

While trying to increase the number of indigenous vines, Kayra is simultaneously fighting a battle with phylloxera which has hit its bush vines, causing it to begin a replanting project.

The Kayra winemaking team.

Regulations

It would be impossible to discuss Turkish wine without referencing the strict regulations that govern the sale, advertising and even consumption of alcohol in the country.

In 2013, regulations imposed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development Party banned alcohol advertising, off-trade sales after 10pm, shop-window promotion of alcohol sales and free alcohol tastings. This combined with the country’s recent troubles has made wine production and sales far from easy.

That said, while alcohol is restricted within Turkey, the government has supported the export of its wines.

In 2016, the export value of Turkish wine exceeded US$10 million dollars, while the quantity of wine exported was almost 2.9 million litres, compared to total wine production of 60-70 million litres (2015 figures). The top market for Turkish wine is Belgium, followed by the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, the UK, Germany and the US. Turkey is actually the sixth largest producer of grapes in the world yet only a small percentage of its production is made into wine.

“We’re only scratching the surface in terms of exports,” stated O’Donnell, adding that it is the country’s mid-level wines that have the most potential abroad.

His reforms, research and dedication are certainly being recognised in a wider context. Now a key subsidiary of raki spirit producer Mey Icki, bought from TGP in 2011 by Diageo, Kayra was taken on by UK importers Hallgarten and Novum in 2016 who say that the wines’ popularity has in part been driven by the popularity of eastern Mediterranean cuisine in Britain, dubbed the ‘Ottolenghi effect’.

Kayra has also achieved success with its rosés, its pale pink 2017 Kayra Beyaz Kalecik Karasi bursting with lemon sherbet and raspberry, showing particularly well on our visit.

One Response to “Kayra: To understand Turkish wine you must ignore existing winemaking conventions”

  1. I had the fortune of visiting Turkey in 2013, and fell in love with the country, its people, and its wines. (That led me to presenting a seminar for the Society of Wine Educators conference in 2015 on Turkish wines — the producers were so ecstatic that trade professionals wanted to learn more, they sent me THIRTEEN wines — typically we do 6-8 in a seminar!) Turkey has more of a battle than other countries vying for international recognition — not only are the grapes pretty hard to pronounce, but their own country, as this article mentioned, can provide large obstacles. I truly hope for a good future of the Turkish wine industry, as the quality of these indigenous varieties when made with care is outstanding. And I strongly encourage other trade professionals to seek out Turkish wines. Thank you for keeping them in the news! Cheers.

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