Imagine a hillside full of grapevines that plunge toward the sea. The air is dry, the temperature, mild. As the sun sets and the sky turns pink, the vines take on a golden glow and their leaves become an almost transparent green. What would you say if I told you we were in Turkey? More specifically, in Sarköy, a small village in what was once known as Eastern Thrace, on the edge of the Sea of Marmara.

Cem Cetintas, Lover of Wine

Cem Cetintas is proud of his vineyard. He learned the trade from his father, who learned it from his father before him. For years, Cem used conventional wine-making methods, that included the use of pesticides. But, as his lands became less and less fertile, his wines lost their luster and he turned to organic practices. Not only is organic wine in fashion, but this softer approach is also an homage to tradition. “I’m going back to our roots, “ he says. “This is the way wine is supposed to be made.”

Dawn rising over Melen Winery
Dawn rising over Melen Winery

Instead of pesticides, Cem uses only organic sulfur, that he sprays on his vines and adds to the crushed grapes to keep their juices from turning into vinegar. Cem has also planted all kinds of trees and flowers throughout the vineyard. “I can tell how healthy the vines are by looking at the roses that are on the edge of each row. If the roses and their leaves are sick, the grapevines are suffering, too.” There are also mustard plants, poppies, and mulberry trees.  Cem even refuses to chase the rabbits, foxes, wild boars and other animals that roam among the vines. “A healthy eco-system is key,” he says, for a healthy product and an excellent wine.

Cem’s vineyard stretches over 200 hectares or some 500 acres. He grows Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, and Tempranillo, an Iberian grape. He also grows Ökuzgözü, Kolorko, and Bogazkere – three Turkish grape varieties. Of all the kinds of grapes he grows, Cem has a soft spot for Kolorko, a variety that’s hard to find these days. Its wine is a dark yellow, close to what the French call, le vin jaune. Its aroma is rich and unusual. Few winemakers grow it, but Cem insists on keeping the variety alive. After all, it’s native to this region of the country and can only be found in this part of the world. “It’s very important for us that these varieties are kept alive because they’re part of Turkey’s genetic heritage.”

Outside the cellar where the grapes are turned into wine
Outside the cellar where the grapes are turned into wine

Every year, his wine barrels fill 450,000 bottles of red, white and rosé. His cellar is located on the shores of the Marmara Sea. As soon as they’re packed and ready to go, Cem ships his precious bottles to the four corners of the world.

Turkey’s Ancient Wine Culture

Today, Turkey is a country where more than 99% of the population identifies as Muslim, and Turks on average drink 1.3 liters of alcohol a year, according to 2017 figures from the OECD. But it’s here, in what was once greater Mesopotamia, that winemaking began, some 6,000 years ago. Some 1,500 grape varieties exist in Turkey, and many of them are local and are only grown here. Wine is indistinguishable from the heritage of Anatolia, and the greater region. For generations, men and women of many different cultures cultivated grapes and made what’s referred to as, “the drink of the Gods”.

Putting the wine into bottles
Putting the wine into bottles

Originating in what’s now Georgia and Iran, Eastern Thrace has a deep connection with wine. The Greek god of wine, Dionysos, is said to have grown up on Mount Nysa, that some say is located in Kirlareli, in North-Western Turkey. But, the Greeks aren’t the only one to have passed by this area. “Wine is an important legacy that former civilizations brought to these lands, like the Hittites, the Greeks, and the Armenians. We are a synthesis of all of these cultures,” Cem explains.

New Outside Threats

But, in the last few years, the wine industry has come under attack. Since 2002, the government, led by the Islamist AK Party, has raised taxes on alcohol twice a year, often by double digits. “The restrictions concerning different kinds of alcohol have gotten to the point where the initial goals have been surpassed,” Cem tells us with regret. “There is no other market where a product is taxed eight times more than the others. It’s very difficult for those of us who are directly impacted by these laws.” In the end, Cem believes that the goal of the government is to suffocate the industry to the point where it can no longer survive. “The fact that there is such a high tax in Turkey means that Turkey will become a place where wine will be neither sold nor bought.”

Grapes growing on the vine
Grapes growing on the vine

This ever-rising tax isn’t the only obstacle Cem faces. In the last few years, the government has also banned advertising for alcohol. It’s also been banned from television screens in Turkey – you won’t even find a news segment showing alcohol. It’s impossible to get a liquor license for an establishment less than 100 meters from a mosque or a school. By law, liquor stores must be closed from 10 pm to 6 am – though, in practice, those stores often remain open well into the night.

In addition to mounting pressure from the government, Cem is also subject to online harassment. “I receive threatening emails from anonymous accounts, with demands to leave the sector. We’re already hampered because of these taxes and we’ve got fewer and fewer outlets to sell our wine. If you add these emails, you can see there’s a real attempt to discourage us.”

Turks’ Love for Wine and Spirits

Turks may not be big drinkers today, but paradoxically there’s a real drinking culture here. Not only is there an active wine-making industry, but several beer labels also exist, as well. And, of course, there’s the unofficial national drink: raki. This aniseed-flavored alcohol is close to its Greek cousin, ouzo (that’s also similar to pastis, in France). Raki was famously the favorite drink of Turkey’s modern founder, Mustafa Kemal, or Ataturk. He died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1938.

The vast majority of the alcohol produced in Turkey is destined for the local market. Just 2% of the wines produced here are exported abroad. “I believe wine should be accessible to all, everyone should be able to buy wine,” Cem says as he walks us through his vineyard. “But, the more time goes by, the more wine is becoming an elitist product. It shouldn’t be that way. Maybe, the government is trying to make access to wine more difficult, maybe that’s one of their goals.”

The Fight for the Future

Cem is fighting back against the growing restrictions on his industry by selling more of his production abroad. “We used to sell 10% of our wine outside Turkey,” well above the national average. “Now, international sales have gone up to 40% of our production.”  But, Cem doesn’t just want to make money, he also wants to promote wine culture to tourists and most importantly, he wants support from the Turkish government. “In this green landscape, tourism is on the rise, and the vines are growing. It could be a beautiful showcase for tourism,” Cem laments. “So, these measures aren’t right.”

The ruins of the St Ioannis Monastry among the vines
The ruins of the St Ioannis Monastry among the vines

Cem has one last card up his sleeve: an old Greek monastery on his property, sitting peacefully among the vines. The St. Ioannis monastery was built in the mid 19th century, and its ruins add even more romanticism to this lyrical place. Cem hopes to rebuild it, using traditional methods to draw tourists who could enjoy a meal or spend the night. In what once a one-room schoolhouse, Cem wants to teach seminars and workshops to tourists and wine lovers from around the world. “Wine culture was born here, but we have to keep it alive,” Cem says as he looks into the distance over the Sea of Marmara. “Maybe, that is our ultimate mission today.”

About the author(s)

Bhattacharyya is a freelance journalist living and working in Istanbul, Turkey, after working as an anchor and reporter in Paris for 11 years. She grew up mostly in the US, born to French and Indian parents. Her passions include traveling, textiles, and music, and she tries to do her pilates routine every morning.