Turkish Island Wines from Bozcaada
Updated: Feb 9
A rocky island where the Marmara Sea empties to the Agean Sea. Here winds never stop blowing and your safe haven is the picturesque coves hidden along the coastline. Locals say they feel like on a sailboat as the island doesn't stay still of the wine. These cooling breezes made the otherwise arid, sunburnt island a perfect place for viticulture. Today one-third of the island is covered with vineyards and one of Turkey's most award-winning wineries comes from here.
Bozcaada has been a centre of viticulture for the last 5000 years. The first winemakers on the island were Mesopotamians, then Greeks and now Turks. The old name of Bozcaada is Tenedos, it's mentioned in Homer's Illiad, and that's where the Greek ships were hiding during the Troyan war (by the way, the ruins of Troy are just a short ferry boat ride away on the mainland).
Another memorable part of the island's history is the Gallipolli Campaign (the Battle of Canakkale) that took place on Gallipolli (Canakkale) peninsula. In Gelibolu town you can visit the country's most important historical landmarks and monuments dedicated to their victory in the Battle of Canakkale.
After 1923 when Bozcaada island became part of the Republic of Turkey the Greek population started to leave. Together with them left the history, culture and expertise in winemaking. Today, after almost a hundred years, we see the island reviving. Some brave men (as it always requires bravery to be a winemaker in Turkey) who moved to the island are bringing it back to its' viticultural roots.
Native Turkish grape varieties on Bozcaada island
Although Turkey as a place where viticulture was present for many thousand years has plenty of native varieties, it's still a rarity to find Turkish wineries that are loyal to their grapes. The Turkish legislation is, to say the least, unfavourable to viticulture. Locally produced wines are heavily taxed, there is a lack of research, nurseries and conservation centres for local grapevines, the country doesn't promote itself as a 'land of wine'.
Many new wineries decide to kickstart with international varieties - ever-popular Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. It's hard to blame them for doing so, as with these varieties it's easier to participate in numerous international wine awards, showcase their technique and skills and win a couple of medals to facilitate exports. As we all know, winemaking is a costly venture that requires full-time cash flow.
On the other hand, Bozcaada is your place if you're after wines made of Turkish native grapes. Even though local wineries include lots of internationals in their blends, they keep producing and thus protecting from extinction their own grape varieties.
White grapevines of Bozcaada
Çavuş (chavush) - a Turkish table grape that became tightly associated with Bozcaada island. All we know about its' origins is a legend, according to which a Turkish sergeant ('sergeant' in Turkish is 'çavuş') brought it to the sultan from somewhere around Mecca.
What we know for sure is that the famous Resit Soley of Corvus winery makes his amazing Teneia white wine from Çavuş kept on lees to avoid oxidation and preserve freshness. It adds a delicate complexity, a creamy body to its' floral-citrus nose.
Vasilaki - a local grape that doesn't occur anywhere else in Turkey but in Bozcaada. It has tiny golden berries and Greeks used to ferment it to both sweet and dry wines. This is another tradition that Corvus winery revives on the island. They make outstanding passito-style wine from Vasilaki and a dry version of it labelled Zeleia.
Acidity is not the strongest point of this variety, so grapes must be harvested really early for Zeleia. On the other hand, the always windy climate of the island helps to dry the grapes for late harvest passito wine.
Red grapevines of Bozcaada
A native Turkish grapevine that produces light-bodied wines, with low alcohol and low tannins. Kuntra is native to Bozcaada and Western Turkey (think of Çanakkale and Tekirdağı), its' 'cousins' (with similar DNAs) are found all around Turkey under the names of Karasakiz, Mavrut, Mavrobilla, Mavrella.
Due to Kuntra's characteristics, this grape is most suitable for rose production, but it's also widely used in blends to lighten some full-bodied local and international varieties.
It's not the most favourable for winemaking grape - as the slightest delay of harvesting means the almost immediate appearance of grey rot on grape bunches. Kuntra was cultivated in high yields for liqueur production. But as wineries are moving to low yields it might turn out to be Turkey's Pinot Noir (why not?) with subtle colour, light tannins but a capacity of showcasing the terroir it comes from.
The most famous blend of Kuntra and Karalahna is perhaps Corvus' Rarum - a medium-bodied wine with soft tannins and a quite decent acidity. As for single varietal Kuntra - try Corvus' Aegea.
Karalahna is just the opposite of Kuntra - thick-skinned, deep coloured, with high tannins and lots of spices. You usually find it in blends with Kuntra or international grapes. This variety doesn't normally achieve higher than 12% abv, which might be quite positive in terms of global warming.
Karalahna is very productive and one vine can yield 27-30 kg of grapes. Obviously, this vigorous nature must be tamed if we want to see the real potential of this native to Bozcaada grape.
Corvus winery makes a monovarietal Karalhna labelled as Vinium (be prepared for strong tannins and black fruit notes), as well as a Merlot-Karalahna blend.
Other Turkish grape varieties cultivated on Bozcaada:
Öküzgözü, Boğazkere, Kalecik Karasi, Emir, Bornova Misket.
Other International grape varieties cultivated on Bozcaada:
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Malbec, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc.
Wineries on Bozcaada Island
Turkey's wine progress is severely blocked by country laws. The newest disaster happened in 2013 when any promotion and advertisement of alcoholic drinks were prohibited by law. Under this fell all winery websites, winery tours, visits, free tastings etc. You may see that many winery's websites are blocked due to this law and many wineries will not be able to offer you a tour to their production facilities. Mostly (from my experience) it impacted the Turkish Thrace wine route where wineries are in the closest proximity to Istanbul, just 2-3h drive.
However, creative people always find solutions. All the wineries on Bozcaada island opened wine tasting cafes either next door to their wine cellar or Bozcaada downtown. This way I visited two producers - Corvus and Talay.
Resit Soley an architect from Istanbul moves to Bozcaada intending to revive the winemaking tradition on the island. He bought the old state winery Tekel and transformed it into a modern state-of-art winery. The goal was to bring back to life the varieties native to the island and also perfect the wine cultivation and production techniques. His vineyards are organically farmed. New plots of vineyards and wine hotels started popping up around the island ever since Corvus started bringing home dozens of medals from international competitions.
You can taste their wines at the cafe opened right next to the cellar door - Wine & Bite Corvus or in the centre of Bozcaada town at their wine boutique. Be ready, their staff is not so welcoming (I hope it's going to improve :)
What to pick at a winetasting in Corvus winery:
Local Bozcaada white wines:
Karga (Vasilaki and Çavuş blend), Teneia (Çavuş),
Bornova Misket (the grape is native to another Turkish region),
Passito (sweet late harvest wine from Vasilaki).
Red & Rose wines:
Karga (Kuntra & Cabernet Sauvignon) and Karga Blush,
Rarum (Kuntra & Karalahna),
Öküzgözü & Boğazkere blend (a blend of native Turkish grape varieties, though native to Anatolia, not Bozcaada),
Aeolis (Cabernet Sauvignon & Öküzgözü & Syrah).
In their wine tasting menu, I recommend going for the Ada Tadim option - this is a mix of white and red wines made of grapes indigenous to Bozcaada.
The largest wine producer on the island and perhaps the oldest family-run winery here. They started in 1948 with bulk wine and switched to bottling in 1953. You can't visit the winery's facilities but they do have a very cosy wine tasting room and boutique in the centre of Bozcaada called 1948 Wine House Talay Şarap Evi.
You'll find here various tasting options and all the four native varieties - Çavuş, Vasilaki, Kuntra and Karalahna plus the ever-popular internationals - Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Shiraz, Tempranillo, Malbec.
The atmosphere is just above and beyond here - knowing how Turkish viticulture struggles due to the very restrictive regulations and at the same time ending up on a narrow Mediterranean street with grapevines covering the walls of the houses, barrels transformed to tables, beautifully served wine flights was one of the best experiences on Bozcaada island.
However, if I was to judge the quality of Talay's wines I'd say that there are lots and lots to change and develop in the vineyard and cellar. I bet lowering yields significantly, switching to terroir-friendly organic and biodynamic farming to get the island's Mediterranean imprint in the taste. Probably the cellar needs to be modernized too because tasting the same varieties made by Corvus and Talay, the later is just not exciting after comparison.
For an ultimate wine experience (and maybe a glimpse on those vineyards and a meeting the owners) try staying at their vineyard hotel.
I often fall in love during my wine trips with the destinations, as wine culture and hills covered with vineyards were the reason I got into wine in the first place. But with Bozcaada, it went even beyond the normal range - from day one I was dreaming and planning to move here once and start my own winery with proper biodynamic farming, local varieties and massal selection. Well, perhaps, perhaps, perhaps :))
Though not only wine popularity, but also land prices skyrocketed after Resit Soley revived this winemaking island.