Turkish wines risk drying up as economic and climate crises grow

Mardin and Tekirdag, Turkey – As Gabriel Oktay Cili works in his small wood-panelled silver shop in the heart of the southeastern Turkish city of Mardin, several people drop off damaged jewellery, which he repairs with a decades-old blowtorch. But most visitors come to order and pick up his sweet, spicy homemade wine.

In the past two decades, numerous boutique wineries have cropped up across Turkey, competing in a burgeoning wine industry. Some proprietors are working to bring European winemaking practices to Turkey, while others – like Cili – are striving to revive the region’s ancient winemaking traditions.

Cili, 43, is Assyrian, a member of the ancient Christian community that has lived in the area around Mardin for thousands of years. He has been making his family’s wine with grapes sourced from local vineyards since the early 2000s and now 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, compounded by what he says are political pressures.

Eastern Turkey, like much of the country, is experiencing a historic drought. Mardin has been especially hard-hit, recording a 54 percent decrease in rainfall in the last year. Most boutique winemakers in the region are especially vulnerable to drought because they do not use irrigation, relying instead on natural rain and snowfall as this gives the wine a deeper flavour and colour.

The less rainfall there is, the fewer grapes winemakers are able to harvest – Cili has already had to supplement his grape supply with some from outside the region, which he says makes it hard for him to control quality.

Meanwhile, the outlook over the next decade in Turkey looks bleak as the country is set to be hit even harder by drought, floods, and wildfires.

Cili says this, combined with Turkey’s ailing economy and state pressure on alcohol producers, threatens his business.

He says the industry needs support to adapt: “The state’s position on wine needs to change.”

Turkey’s winemaking tradition

The Mesopotamian plains where Cili makes his wine have been home to Armenian and Assyrian winemakers for thousands of years, including during the Ottoman period.

After the founding of the Turkish Republic in 1923, the state-owned monopoly Tekel was created to oversee tobacco and alcohol sales in Turkey. Tekel was privatised in 2003 by the Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government as part of a loan agreement with the International Monetary Fund and this spurred a renaissance for small Turkish winemakers.

In 2004, there were fewer than 50 licensed wine producers in Turkey – there are now 184. Domestic production of wine increased from just over 28 million litres in 2004 to more than 66 million litres last year, with 97 percent of Turkish-produced wine now consumed domestically.

Although the market is overwhelmingly dominated by a handful of large producers -Doluca and Kavaklidere produce more than 50 percent of Turkey’s wine between them – boutique producers have burgeoned.

Can Topsakal, the founder of Barbare vineyards, lived in France for years before returning to Turkey two decades ago. In 2000, he found a plot of land in Tekirdag, in the Thrace region of northwest Turkey, where he hoped he could make wines similar to those he loved in France.

They planted the first vines, imported from France, in 2001. Their first harvest was in 2007, and their first vintage was released in 2013.

But the same year, the ruling AK Party issued a ban on the advertisement of alcohol products – one of several measures Topsakal says has undermined his business and reflects the government’s increasingly hostile stance towards the industry.

The AK Party has also banned the sale of alcohol by retailers within 100 metres of a mosque and after 10pm, and it has regularly hiked taxes on alcohol during its near-two-decade tenure. The special consumption tax on alcohol and tobacco rose by 17 percent in January 2021.

In 2020, the government collected 12 percent of its tax revenue, or 20 billion lira ($1.5bn), from alcohol.

The AK Party-led government has justified its restrictions on alcohol and tobacco as public health measures and has compared the measures to similar laws in France and the United States.

“There is no way you can defend as a lifestyle the consumption of alcohol which has no benefit to society, but on the contrary inflicts harm,” President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said in a speech in 2013.

Topsakal says that while the larger producers were household names when the advertisement ban was introduced, Barbare and other boutique vineyards have struggled as they were just beginning to establish their names.

Despite these pressures, Barbare were able to forge individual relationships with consumers who purchased their wine in bulk and they turned the family home on the vineyard into a hotel.

“It’s now all word of mouth,” said Deniz Topsakal, Can Topsakal’s daughter and now the general manager of Barbare. “People come to the hotel and restaurant, they do wine tastings, and they would buy the wine and send it to their friends. That’s how we get known.”

But now many vineyards are struggling further amid a faltering currency, soaring inflation and a cost-of-living crisis in Turkey.

Boutique winemakers rely on many imported materials, which has pushed up the cost of production and eroded profits as the lira has plummeted in value.

Many of the materials required to make fine wine – down to the corks and boxes – are priced in euros. Oak barrels can cost as much as 1,500 euros ($1,700) each and can be used a maximum of two times. When Can Topsakal began making wine at Barbare, the euro stood at just over 1.50 to the lira. The rate has skyrocketed to above 20 in recent weeks.

The vineyard relies on hotel revenues to combat the deleterious effects of economic and, increasingly, climate disaster. The family says they now just break even.

“We would lose money if there was no hotel,” Deniz Topsakal said. “Last year, we lost 25 percent of our crop due to heavy rain.”

Barbare’s vineyards in Tekirdag [Erin O’Brien/Al Jazeera]

‘We’re gambling here’

Professor Elman Bahar, who studies viniculture and winemaking at Tekirdag University, says vineyards need to adopt “smart agriculture” practices, adjusting their harvest and fermentation schedules according to increasingly unpredictable weather patterns driven by climate change.

“The rain comes when you don’t need it, and doesn’t come when you do,” Bahar said, adding that rainfall in the region has varied from a yearly average of 550-600 mm a few years ago, to 700 mm in 2018, and 280mm in 2020.

“We used to make yearly strategies. Now we have to make weekly strategies,” he said.

Hikmet Ataman, the head winemaker at Arcadia vineyards in Kirklareli, northwest Turkey, also says the wine industry in Turkey needs to be data-driven in order to survive in a fast-changing and unpredictable climate.

He said this is particularly challenging as the state’s Meteorological Directorate (MGM) does not release detailed weather data to the public; rain, drought, and soil temperature are only released in monthly and yearly averages nationally and regionally.

“We’re gambling here,” said Ataman, “We don’t know what the wine will be like in five years. If the climate heats up 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 adapt their harvest and fermentation schedules. If certain grapes are wiped out by colder winters and hotter summers, they will shift their production to different varietals.

However, there is still not enough data, he said.

“If the government released [more detailed] climate data, there would be entrepreneurs. People would invest and enter the industry,” Ataman said.

Meanwhile, other winemakers also say they would benefit from a shift in government policies. Lower taxes would allow them to lower their prices; if the advertising ban was lifted or they were allowed to sell online, they could reach more customers.

“Wine is a culture,” Cili, the Mardin-based winemaker, said. “But some people don’t see it like that. In order to survive, we need support.”