Mardin and Tekirdag, Turkey – As Gabriel Oktay Cili works in his small, paneled silverware shop in the heart of the southeastern Turkish city of Mardin, several people drop off damaged jewelry, which he repairs with a decades-old blowtorch. But most visitors come to order and pick up his sweet and spicy house wine.
Over the past two decades, many wineries have sprung up all over Turkey, competing in a thriving wine industry. Some owners strive to bring European wine-making practices to Turkey, while others, like Cili, strive to revive the ancient wine-making traditions of the region.
Cili, 43, is Assyrian, a member of the ancient Christian community that has lived around Mardin for thousands of years. He has been making his family’s wine with grapes from local vineyards since the early 2000s and today produces at least 1,000 bottles a year.
However, he is one of many small wine producers in Turkey now struggling to survive in the face of growing environmental and economic crises, made worse by what he says are political pressures.
Eastern Turkey, like much of the country, is experiencing historic drought. Mardin was particularly hard hit, recording a 54 percent drop in precipitation last year. Most of the region’s wineries are particularly vulnerable to drought as they do not use irrigation, but rather rely on natural rain and snowfall, as this gives the wine a deeper flavor and color.
The less precipitation, the less grapes the winegrowers can harvest – Cili has already had to supplement his grape supply with grapes from outside the region, which he says makes quality control difficult.
Meanwhile, prospects for the next decade in Turkey look grim, as the country is expected to be hit even harder by drought, floods and wildfires.
Cili says that, combined with Turkey’s struggling economy and state pressure on alcohol producers, threatens his business.
He says the industry needs support to adapt: “The government’s position on wine has to change. “
Turkey’s wine tradition
The Mesopotamian plains where Cili makes his wine have been the homeland of Armenian and Assyrian winegrowers for thousands of years, including during the Ottoman period.
After the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the Tekel state monopoly was established to oversee tobacco and alcohol sales in Turkey. Tekel was privatized in 2003 by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) government as part of a loan deal with the International Monetary Fund, which spurred a renaissance for small Turkish winemakers.
In 2004, there were less than 50 licensed wine producers in Turkey – there are now 184. National wine production has grown from just over 28 million liters in 2004 to over 66 million liters. last year, with 97 percent of wine produced in Turkey now. consumed in the country.
Although the market is overwhelmingly dominated by a handful of large producers – Doluca and Kavaklidere together produce more than 50 percent of Turkey’s wine – small producers have mushroomed.
Can Topsakal, the founder of the Barbarian Vineyards, lived in France for years before returning to Turkey two decades ago. In 2000, he found land in Tekirdag, in the Thrace region in northwestern Turkey, where he hoped to be able to produce wines similar to those he loved in France.
They planted the first vines, imported from France, in 2001. Their first harvest dates from 2007, and their first vintage came out in 2013.
But that same year, the ruling AK Party banned advertising of alcohol products – one of many measures, according to Topsakal, undermined his business and reflected the government’s increasingly hostile stance towards the industry.
The AK Party has also banned the sale of alcohol by retailers within 100 yards of a mosque and after 10 p.m., and it has steadily increased alcohol taxes during its nearly two-decade tenure. The special consumption tax on alcohol and tobacco increased by 17% in January 2021.
In 2020, the government collected 12% of its tax revenue, or 20 billion lire ($ 1.5 billion), from alcohol.
The AK-led government justified its restrictions on alcohol and tobacco as public health measures and compared the measures to similar laws in France and the United States.
“There is no way to defend alcohol consumption as a way of life which has no benefit for society, but on the contrary hurts it,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech in 2013 .
Topsakal says that while the biggest producers were household names when the advertising ban was introduced, Barbarian and other boutique wineries struggled as they were just starting to establish their names.
Despite these pressures, Barbare was able to forge individual relationships with consumers who bought their wine in bulk and they transformed the family home on the vineyard into a hotel.
“It’s all word of mouth now,” said Deniz Topsakal, Can Topsakal’s daughter and now Barbarian’s general manager. “People come to the hotel and restaurant, they do wine tastings, they buy the wine and send it to their friends. This is how we make ourselves known.
But now, many wineries are struggling more amid a faltering currency, rampant inflation and a cost-of-living crisis in Turkey.
Boutique winemakers depend on many imported materials, which has driven up production costs and eroded profits as the value of the lira plummeted.
Most of the materials needed to make good wine – right down to corks and boxes – are billed in euros. Oak barrels can cost up to 1,500 euros ($ 1,700) each and can be used a maximum of two times. When Can Topsakal started producing wine in Barbarian, the euro stood at just over 1.50 per lira. The rate has climbed above 20 in recent weeks.
The vineyard relies on hotel revenues to fight against the deleterious effects of economic and, increasingly, climatic disasters. The family says they just broke even.
“We would lose money if there was no hotel,” Deniz Topsakal said. “Last year we lost 25 percent of our harvest due to heavy rains. “
“We play here”
Prof. Elman Bahar, who studies viniculture and winemaking at Tekirdag University, says wineries need to adopt “smart farming” practices, adjusting their harvest and fermentation schedules to accommodate the increasingly weather conditions. more unpredictable due to climate change.
“Rain comes when you don’t need it, and doesn’t come when you need it,” Bahar said, adding that precipitation in the region varied from an annual average of 550-600mm ago. a few years, at 700 mm. in 2018, and 280 mm in 2020.
“We used to develop annual strategies. Now we have to strategize weekly, ”he said.
Hikmet Ataman, the chief winemaker of Arcadia Vineyards in Kirklareli, northwestern Turkey, also said that the wine industry in Turkey must be data driven in order to survive in an unpredictable and rapidly changing climate. .
He said this is particularly difficult because the State Meteorological Directorate (MGM) does not publish detailed weather data to the public; rainfall, drought and ground temperature are only published on monthly and annual averages at national and regional levels.
“We’re playing here,” Ataman said, “We don’t know what the wine will look like in five years. If the climate warms by five degrees, everything will die.
Arcadia Vineyards has set up weather stations and keeps detailed records of soil quality, rainfall, grape production, and harvests. This, according to Ataman, allows them to tailor their harvest and fermentation schedules. If some grapes are wiped out by colder winters and hotter summers, they will shift their production to different grape varieties.
However, there is still not enough data, he said.
“If the government freed [more detailed] climate data, there would be entrepreneurs. People would invest and enter the industry, ”Ataman said.
Meanwhile, other wineries are also saying they would benefit from a change in government policies. Lower taxes would allow them to lower their prices; If the advertising ban were lifted or if they were allowed to sell online, they could reach more customers.
“Wine is culture,” said Cili, the Mardin-based winemaker. “But some people don’t see it that way. To survive, we need support.