The story behind grape cultivation in Thrace is the story of the people behind it. Legendary for its quality of grapevines since ancient times, the region was blessed with a prime environment and known as the birthplace of the Old World’s greatest winemakers. Here, we discover the contemporary incarnations of some of the best vintners in the world.
The story behind the story:
Writing about wine for Turkish media isn't easy. Anything that might be considered promotion of alcohol can get you in legal trouble, and the article about the wine route in Thrace that we worked on in the summer of 2016 has been edited by several legal experts. When we left on our trip, I was concerned it might not be published at all, but as the journey progressed, it became crystal clear that the text should rather focus on the wonderful people behind the wine, rather than the wine itself. It was the first time that I clearly saw how the personalities of the owners translate into their products, and this knowledge became the grounds for my choice of wines ever since. Slightly rushed, the intensive trip was also a great lesson of travel planning. It taught us to always leave some extra time on the itinerary for the unexpected, but also -- to simply enjoy ourselves. The truth is: if you appreciate good wine, you simply cannot sample it three times a day...
This story was published in The Guide Istanbul (September/October 2016) with photos by Merve Göral. Below are the excerpts from the original article.
The ancient region of Thrace extends across the borders of today’s Bulgaria, Greece and Turkey. Birthplace of the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, the area was praised for its unique winemaking qualities by the brightest minds of the historical era, including Herodotus, Aristotle and Homeros. Thracians were the ones who introduced the tradition of wine tasting before drinking their ambrosial creations. Taking advantage of the unique terroir of the land they lived in, they made Thracian wine a brand before even the term “brand” was invented.
Geographical location is key to the region’s overall agricultural success. However, grapevine cultivation in Thrace faced a temporary decline after the population exchange of the 1920s when the winemaking Greek minority was resettled, taking their skills and know-how with them. Local, family-owned productions either disappeared as well or, due to lack of consumers within a Muslim majority, switched to a different type of product.
No one tells the history of winemaking in Thrace better than Cem Çetintaş, the mind behind Melen Winery. His natural interest in local tradition is understandable. The Çetintaş family was one of the first Turkish families to settle in Melenköy, Şarköy area, and has been producing grapes since before the Republic was founded. Çetintaş’s grandfather, together with his Greek neighbor, were in the ouzo-making business, though the venture came to an end in 1923. “Our family was the only one left in the village,” says Çetintaş, commenting on the population exchange.
“We rely very much on what the lab tells us, but we also rely on our own taste,” said Kadir Bora from Arcadia Vineyards.
“You can eat as many grapes as you want,” says Necdet Uzun while showing us around the Chateau Nuzun property, where he lives and works with his wife Nazan. Following him, we make sure to taste a fruit from every row of vines, but after a short while we begin to feel we’ve had enough. The sweet taste of the fruit is overpowering, and Uzun start to laugh. Apparently, many first time visitors to their vineyard get overly excited by the abundance they see.
Chateau Nuzun is a great example of a sustainable operation. Here, energy is delivered to the facility from solar batteries and wind turbines, no excessive irrigation is used either at the vineyard or in the garden, landscaping has been made with reused wooden blocks, and the organic remains from wine production serve as compost for the fields. “Some people say that, because of all the weeds, our vineyard looks like it isn’t well-maintained,” says Necdet Uzun, “But we like our weeds. Especially ayrık otu (common couch), because it keeps the soil together.”
“To us, harvest is like a celebration,” says Pınar Ellialtı, owner of Suvla. “We have been working with the same people for 13 years. They are happy to see us, and we are happy to see them coming back every season. At the beginning of harvest we organize a big fete so that it’s not only hard work, but also a bit of fun.”
Suvla’s plan from the beginning was to emphasize the importance of local grapes. “This is why we’re here,” says Ellialtı. “We’re trying to promote the local terroir, the town of Eceabat, the Peninsula. This is why we use local names for our blends: Kabatepe [local harbor where ferries to Gokceada depart from], Bigali and Berhamli [villages near Eceabat], and of course Suvla. Our umbrella brand is a name of a bay which, because of history, is very well known in the UK or Australia, but we hope that thanks to us, it will become famous in Turkey as well.”
Although Bulent Kalpaklioglu claims that “winemaking is first of all science, and then art,” his winery in Sarkoy from first sight looks like the order might have been reversed. The impressive modern chateau with a panoramic view of the sea and the vineyards is a true state-of-the-art facility incomparable to other wine producing properties in Thrace. Details were designed by Kalpaklioglu himself, and they say everything about the owner. If there is a way to do things better than others, he must have already found it.
“This is not what I was dreaming of,” he says of the reality exceeding expectations at his winery. “I had a smaller goal and more reasonable budget but then it got out of control.”