Since 2012 life for winemakers in Turkey has become increasingly difficult with the industry unable to promote or market itself. Muslim staff can refuse to taste the wine, traditional winemaking skills are hard to find and then there is the climate and the challenges of working with indigenous grape varieties. On top of that consultant winemaker Daniel O’Donnell appointed a woman as one of his senior winemakers which, in itself, posed complications with a largely older, male workforce. But, as Justin Keay discovers first hand on a recent visit, many of the wines are now world class.
Indigenous varieties such as Buzbag, Oküzgözü, Bogazkere, Alphagut, Emir, Narince, Kalecik Karasi and Bogazkere make for a fascinating array of wines. Justin Keay picks six of the best.
Jet lag (our plane arrived at 2am), lashing rain and the promise of four days of thunderstorms don’t presage a good start for our visit to the Kayra winery. Nor does the rough night, sleep interrupted (when it finally came) by the 4am call of the muezzin.
Things grow more ominous as we drive through the shabby streets of Elazig, in Eastern Anatolia, past a police block at the winery entrance where our minibus’ underside is checked by an official wielding a huge mirror. The reality of contemporary Turkey during a controversial election campaign where – despite the many posters of Turkey’s autocratic President Reception Tayyip Erdogan – there is still resistance to the governing AKP particularly amongst the Kurdish minority.
Yet things begin to pick up as Kayra consultant winemaker Daniel O’Donnell greets us alongside a table groaning with Kayra wines.
“We are going to try several expressions of Oküzgözü, including my personal favourite, Imperial, and our leading wine from the premium Versus range, Alphagut” he says, the last grown on recently planted Oküzgözü vineyards just outside Elazig.
O’Donnell, a Napa resident, has headed and built up the winemaking team at Kayra “from nothing” in the years since the producer was privatised out of state-owned entity Tekel in 2005, becoming part of the Mey İçki group and the only wine producer in the Diageo group.
O’Donnell admits that some of the wine when he took over tasted like “shit in a bottle” some 16 million litres were either dumped or sold to Russia.
Consolidation took place – in place of seven wineries there are now just two, Kayra Elazig and Kayra Sarkoy in western Turkey, which focuses mainly on international varietals. And many employees were fired, including many at Elazig where some still refuse to taste the wines produced because of religious conviction.
But there’s also been big expansion.
Kayra now produces some 50 wines in the entry, mid-level and premium range, which is a far cry from before 2005 when the company made only one wine, the popular but wildly inconsistent Buzbag, a red blend of native grapes Oküzgözü and Bogazkere (some of which is grown in old bush vineyards near Diyarbakir, in Tukey’s Kurdish south-east). Production capacity is now around 5 million litres, of which around 40% is used.
Today, Buzbag now comes in a number of quality levels including a very drinkable aged reserve and a new entry-level white showcasing two native varieties, Emir and Narince.
Working with native varietals
Kayra has also had great success with two other native varieties: Kalecik Karasi and Bogazkere.
Kalecik Karasi is a medium-bodied, Pinot Noir-style variety originally hailing from the Ankara region which rival producer Kavaklidere rescued from extinction around 20 years ago. Kayra makes this into a red wine and two different styles of pink, one in a delicious south of France Gris-style, the other a much fuller and fruitier darker pink.
And for those who like their wines full bodied, O’Donnell makes a delicious varietal wine from the Bogazkere grape, a dark, very tannic full-bodied variety that translates, literally, as “Throat Grabber” and comes across as a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvedre.
For O’Donnell making wines from these exciting native varieties are what makes his job worthwhile, although the wines he makes from international varieties – notably a delicious oaked Chardonnay and a New World-style Shiraz – are also pretty exciting.
“The truth is you can get these varieties anywhere. Why would you really drink a Turkish Merlot when Turkey has so many varieties that are truly unique?” he says.
Coping with the problems of modern day Turkey
O’Donnell divides his time between Elazig, his native St.Helena in California, where he makes a Zinfandel from pre-phyloxera grapes and Tuscany, where he is chief winemaker at Sting and Trudie Styler’s Il Palagio vineyard.
He admits it hasn’t been an easy ride transforming Kayra. Wineries in Turkey have faced tough constraints on publicity and promotion, as well as relatively high taxes since 2012, and things may get even stricter in the likely event of another Erdogan/AKP victory at the elections. But local antipathy towards wine and alcohol has also made day-to-day operations tricky. O’Donnell had to cast far and wide to find his winemaking team and he says winemaking expertise in Turkey is absent.
“A lot of the traditional winemaking rules just don’t apply here. Before we took over, one of the reasons the wine was so bad was that no one in the winery actually tasted the wine. They also certainly had no viticultural or wine-producing knowledge,” he said.
And in the vineyards there were also problems. In part this reflected the terrain that, as O’Donnell says, is good only if you are a goat or rock, and whose terrain makes it wholly unsuitable for mechanisation.
“If you want to find a place that is perfect for farming rocks, you would have it made here in Elazig,” he laughs.
But the biggest problem is finding good labour because, again, working for a wine producer in what is a deeply pro-AKP/Islamist area is often viewed with deep suspicion.
“We do still find it hard to find good people, and almost no one has any idea what is involved in getting the best from grapes,” admits Murat Uner, chief winemaker. “One picker I found suggested we should do nothing with the vineyard because in the end, God will provide. I said – come on!”
But there have been big success stories too, notably in O’Donnell’s appointment of winemaker Özge Kaymaz, who was originally a food engineer. When she first started at Kayra she remained low key until O’Donnell encouraged her to use her great palate and winemaking skills to great effect.
“If you ask me what has been the most impressive thing about working here, it has been Özge Kaymaz. Not only has she emerged as a skilled winemaker in a Muslim country where such a thing is almost unheard of, but she has managed to exert strong authority over an almost entirely older, male workforce with very traditional views. That is remarkable. I’m very proud of her.”
O’Donnell is confident he has laid firm foundations for Kayra, now that it has become recognised as one of Turkey’s best producers alongside Turkey’s other big producers, Kavaklidere and Doluca, and respected newcomers like Urla and Pasaeli.
“I’m not going to be around forever but this team is truly professional and I’m very confident it will take Kayra onto the next level,” he says.
Six of the best from Kayra.
This entry-level, sub-£10 white, with just 12.3% alcohol, and fruit from Cappadocia-Tokat is wonderfully fresh. A great introduction to Turkey’s white native varieties.
Kayra Beyaz Kalecik Karasi 2017
This pale pink wine with low tannins and wonderful freshness gives Provence a run for its money. Although the residual sugar is quite high at just under 7 g/l, this is a nicely balanced, moreish introduction to central Anatolia’s native grape.
Kayra Kalecik Karasi 2016
This light red, which works well on its own or with a range of foods, is a great interpretation of a variety which some see as Turkey’s answer to Pinot Noir.
I tasted three vintages of this, Kayra’s leading premium red, and the current vintage is the nicest – fruit-forward but with balanced tannins, bracing acidity and great ageing potential.
Kayra Vintage Bogazkere 2009
O’Connell says: “If you like being kicked in the teeth by a horse, you’ll love this”. I admit this is a Marmite sort of wine, this as a hefty full-on interpretation of Turkey’s hardy grape, which feels like a Cabernet Sauvignon/Mourvèdre blend with added bite, it takes some beating. Not currently available in the UK.
Native varieties are their international calling card, but Kayra is no slouch when it comes to the noble varieties. This Chardonnay – oak-aged for just under 10 months, 14% alcohol – is wonderfully balanced, and New World in character.
Kayra wines are imported by Hallgarten Wines.