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One of my favorite things about wine is how it so often interacts with culture, art, politics, history. In addition to the beautiful spread of mezze and interesting wines, these topics were at the forefront of a wine dinner at Agora I attended with Vinkara wines.
Wine consumption in Turkey is small, averaging just one liter per person a year. In fact, 80 percent of Turks do not drink alcohol at all and advertising within the country is currently forbidden, making the export business critically important to the success of wineries. However, the grapes are often ancient indigenous varieties which can be difficult for foreigners to pronounce. To say that winemakers are up against some particularly tough odds is an understatement.
It is a tumultuous time in Turkey, particularly for the nation’s wine industry. Current laws and custom stand in stark contrast to an ancient history of viticulture. Anatolia is said to be the birthplace of winemaking- scientific studies note the existence of winemaking in the region for 15,000 years. The vines have remained through millennia of turmoil and good fortune, war and peace.
It is often said that the best wines come from vines that struggle. In many parts of the world vines are partially deprived of water so that they seek deeper soil, adding strength and character to the plant and its prodigy. Just as vines that have grown more complex and resilient through struggle, the wines produced in Turkey are wonderfully complex, in spite of, and perhaps because of, the very struggles that they face.
The good news is, Vinkara has an incredibly passionate winemaker, Ardiç Gürsel, who is focused on revitalizing many of Turkey’s indigenous grapes with an eye on producing quality wines. She makes beautiful and complex wines at accessible price points- just $18 to $40.
Below, a few of my favorite wines from the beautiful mezze dinner with pairing suggestions. The overall quality was outstanding for the price, and while the names of these wines don’t exactly roll off the tongue, they are a pleasure to consume.
If you’re new to Turkish wine, here’s where I recommend you start! Kalecik Karasi is an ancient variety that is related to pinot noir. It’s all gorgeous red fruit, herbes de provence, and earthy minerality. Light bodied, immensely approachable, and a great pairing with a variety of foods. Average Price: $21.
This wine has a slightly more intense body style. I got a lot of raspberry, cherry notes, coffee, and baking spices. Medium tannin, medium acidity. Pair with meat or heavier pasta dishes. Average Price: $18.
This reserve wine was the most full bodied of the night, with brooding tannins. Chocolate, dark fruit, and licorice on the palate. It deserved some time to decant and open properly to reveal beautifully integrated fruit and a voluptuous body. Pair with rich stews and red meat. Average Price: $24
Have you ever tried Turkish Wine?
There comes a time of reckoning for everyone in the food and wine business. The search for balance between hedonism and health is a fine line, and one that is finally being discussed in an industry where consuming 5 course meals and entire bottle(s) of wine in an evening is not so uncommon.
Over the past several months I’ve made some changes to my lifestyle in terms of what I consume. Don’t get me wrong, I still LOVE wine and won’t ever be giving up cheese, bacon, or even bread. But months of too many Taco Tuesdays had my closet silently admonishing me; I decided to make some lifestyle changes.
But how do we achieve balance in a culture that often glorifies busy and trivializes authenticity and quality?
Now, I’m either eating right or I’m really indulging- there’s not much of a middle ground for me. It’s either green smoothies and salads, or the cheese plate and vintage port, please!
I’ve also dedicated days and weeks without alcohol- shocking, I know, but I find that these resets are particularly helpful after an indulgent vacation. I also make it a point to get to the gym and train with a trainer- Andrew Schneiderman of Balance Gym. Not only does he keep me laughing while I sweat it out, but those appointments keep me accountable to my fitness in a way that a simple membership just doesn’t.
One of the interesting aspects of this change has been how much more conscientious I am when I do indulge. I try not to drink mediocre wine and if I’m going to have something like tacos, they’re no longer of the Chipotle variety. Not only has this created a healthier balance, it’s made me far more conscientious about my indulgences and I really do feel healthier overall.
I have found that the products I’m consuming have a focus on authenticity and quality; typically, they’re also better for both the environment and my health.
If you’re a food and wine lover how do you achieve balance?
I would be remiss to not address my absence from writing. Several years ago I went to wine school and switched my hobby and my career- wine for politics. Like many, I have had a hard time writing about wine and lifestyle during a time when things seem dire. I’ve even considered dusting off my political resumé and getting back in the game to work on issues I care most about. Living in the middle of the nation’s capital can be both exciting and exhausting when tensions are this high. Dear friends and family members are estranged by ideologies in a way that I’ve never seen before.
Many wine and lifestyle writers are wondering if our duties perhaps lie elsewhere. And for some, they may. However, I have been reminded many times that the world needs all sorts, particularly during times of great stress. Our society and our lives would be rather bleak indeed without art, music, travel, the joy of sharing a great meal and great conversation.
And let’s be honest, more than a few of us have been reaching for wine bottles to soothe frayed nerves, regardless of how we feel about world affairs or where one lies on the political spectrum.
I was reminded recently of a lesson I learned over a decade ago in Greece while studying political philosophy and conflict resolution with The Fund for American Studies. I’ve written briefly about my time there. It wasn’t in air conditioned classrooms where I learned the most, but rather over hearty debates with a glass of local wine in under grape vined trellises, on breathtaking beaches over frosty glasses of Mythos, and on terraces watching the sun rise over Chania after staying out all night. There were myriad religions represented that summer. 19 countries. Countless opinions. At first glance there was far more to divide us than unite us- and yet, that’s what happened. I am reminded once again what we were taught that summer. The questions unite us and the answers divide us, which has perhaps never rung truer.
During a recent social media debate over a political issue things got rather heated, as they are wont to do. At long last, once the parties had agreed to disagree, I made a wine recommendation based on something I knew the other person would love. And then the strangest thing happened; I received an apology for something that had offended me in the dialogue. No Greek island required.
And I realized anew that perhaps it’s not just the questions that can unite us, but a shared bottle of a 2012 Brunello. Or a 2008 Champagne. Or a beautiful vintage tawny port.
When I travel there are invariably a few experiences where time seems to stand still and I almost wait for a movie director to jump out from behind a pillar and yell “CUT!”.
On a recent trip to Lisbon, I had just such an evening. I met up with a friend of a friend at his favorite wine bar- Garrafaia Alfaia– a place that would quickly become my own preferred spot to grab a glass of wine or bite to eat. By the end of three days, I had visited as many times, warmly greeted by the affable owner, Pedro, each time with a kiss to each cheek.
Owner, Pedro, opening up for the evening
There are only 6 tables where Pedro has curated an outstanding collection of Portuguese wines and serves delicious small plates. It’s difficult to find, but worth each wrong turn inevitably made along the bright, tile covered streets of Lisbon.
Inside the tiny but mighty wine bar
I was new to town, new to Portugal, jet lagged, a friend of a friend, but André graciously agreed to meet me over a glass of wine. We’re both members of the #winelover community and he was happy to share his travel tips and favorite sips. The #winelover community is all about connection, travel, wine, and something less tangible that is greater than the sum of these disparate parts. I like to say that its founder, Luiz Alberto, is a connector- but really he’s more of a collector; of great stories, experiences, wines, but mostly of people who share these same passions.
André and a local wine journalist set up an impromptu tasting of three Portuguese dessert wines. Viscous amber and liquid gold glistened in stemware as I was told we would have a blind tasting. “A tasting?”, I asked, “or a testing?”. Andre’s eyes glittered briefly, mischievously, and it was then that I knew I was in for a bit of both.
A proper assessment of my #winelover status could only be made over the country’s greatest liquid treasures with three Masters of Port. We chatted, sipped, and assessed some of Portugal’s finest as the hours passed by.
The tenor of the evening changed abruptly when two gentlemen from out of town entered to a raucous and familiar greeting. One pulled a guitar from the wall, kept there for impromptu serenades at his favorite watering hole. As a professional musician Pierre Aderne travels the world, but Lisbon is one of his home bases- Garrafaia Alfaia a stop he never misses. The cozy establishment is the Portuguese version of “Cheers” where friends gather from around to world to lose themselves over a glass of wine and reconnect with old friends.
As Pierre began to play I was transfixed. In Portugal there is a style of music called “Fado”- it was described to me many times as “music that touches your soul.” The wine, incidentally, was also described this way. Portuguese culture is as passionate, intense, and distinctive as its signature music and wines.
An older gentleman from Brazil took the seat next to mine, utilizing the shared wooden bench as a percussive instrument to accompany the guitar. The effect was spellbinding- I could both hear and feel the accompaniment to the soulful renditions as bottle after bottle of wine appeared on the table.
As our tasting turned into a reunion, English switched to Portuguese. I sat in the corner of it all as the group of old friends, wine lovers, and travelers came together in a way that only seems to happen on the most serendipitous of evenings.
It’s a night I won’t soon forget and certainly the night I fell in love with Portugal- the country whose music, wine, and people touched my soul.
I’m often asked why I’ve decided to make a career in wine and the answer, like many, is a circuitous one. Not many people start their careers in wine, but almost everyone you ask will be able to point to one or two seminal experiences in their lives that changed the game, pointing them towards their eventual career.
My Dad introduced us to great food at an early age and we were permitted to enjoy a small glass of wine on special occasions. His favored tipple was- and remains- heavily oaked American chardonnay, and so that was my reference point for all wine from a young age.
My family has always believed in spending money on travel over material things- we’ve all got a serious case of wanderlust, and it’s often when I’m furthest from home that I feel the most myself.
When I was 16 we took a trip to Paris and the Loire Valley over Thanksgiving break. There were as many Griswold type gaffes as there were outstanding moments on that trip.
My Dad isn’t the most patient of travelers, and teenage girls aren’t known for traveling light. At one point the four of us were separated, jet lagged on three different metro cars on the way to our hotel. We eventually all made it in one piece, exhausted, angry and overburdened by our stuffed suitcases ill suited for the myriad stairs and cobblestones of Paris. My father was enjoying his second glass of wine in the lobby bar as if nothing was amiss by the time my sisters and I huffed in.
There was Thanksgiving dinner at Le Jules Verne, where I learned that turkey is highly over rated on that most American of holidays.
There was the car wreck in a torrential downpour set against the splendor of a brooding Chambord, beautiful and desolate in the slanted rain and fading light.
And there was my wine epiphany, in a wine cave somewhere in the Loire.
I don’t remember it being a planned stop, but pretty much everyone was ready to get out of the rental when we saw a sign advertising “Wine Tasting” on the side of the road.
It was cool and damp in the small, dimly lit cave. As the host graciously poured us all a sample of chardonnay he described the wine, “pomme, poire…” trademarks of great Loire chardonnay, but it was the pear that jumped out to me. I had no idea up until that moment that Chardonnay could taste of anything other than vanilla, buttered popcorn and oak. But PEAR?! It was revolutionary, and I started my love affair with old world wine and French chardonnay then and there.
My dad bought a full case of the wine and each evening before dinner we would all gather to enjoy a glass. I’m not sure how much ended up making it back home, but that no name wine changed the game for me.
I called my Dad to see if he could remember anything else and at first he didn’t recall the wine at all. Jules Verne, yes….the car wreck at Chambord, yes. As I described the wine it clicked. “Yes, I do remember buying a case of wine somewhere. It was definitely chardonnay, but I don’t remember anything about pear?”.
What wine changed the game for you?