In the 17th century Bozcaada was known to produce the finest wines in the world- but then the industry turned to vinegar. Now Resit Soley, a man with little relevant experience but a lot of heart is on a mission: to put Bozcaada’s zesty native grapes back on the world’s viticulture map.
Bozcaada, a slip of an island in the Agean Sea, is steeped in history. Peer over to the Turkish mainland you can spot Mt. Ida, where in Greek mythology Zeus abducted the Trojan prince Ganymede. Turn slightly north and you are now looking at the ancient city of Troy. Beyond that is Gallipoli, a thin neck of land where in 1915 Australian and New Zealand forces fell to the Ottoman Turks in trenches up to five meters apart.
Once known as Tenedos, the island itself has a checkered past. It guards the mouth of the Dardanelles and was fought over by Greeks, Persians, Venetians, Turks and Russians before becoming a part of modern Turkey in 1923. But its Bozcaada’s age-old culinary traditions, specifically those of a boozy nature, that I have come to see.
It’s believed that wine making began on Bozcaada more than 5000 years ago, when this rocky island had links to Mesopotamia, which is credited with inventing the golden drop. Its arid topography and dry, long summers were ideal for growing certain types of grape varieties – white producing Vastlaki and Cavus, red producing Kuntra and Karazahna. It is believed that for many centuries nothing else was grown here. In the 17th century, Ottoman traveler, Evliya Celebi, proclaimed Bozcaada to have the finest wines in the world.
Winemaking back then was under the rule of the local Greek community. The Ottoman’s had an ambiguous relationship to wine: The authorities didn’t approve of Turkish people drinking it, but they also profited too handsomely from its taxes to impose any real restrictions. In 1923 when Bozcaada was ceded to the Turkish Republic, the Greeks started to leave, taking their skills and knowledge with them. Now hoping to rescue Bozcaada’s winemaking traditions, Turkish architect Resit Soley, is putting the little island back on the map.
“Bozcaada had it all, and then lost it all”, says Soley, a garrulous middle aged man with a penchant for fast cars and biodynamic farming methods. “After the Greeks left, Bozcaada fell in to disarray. I just wanted to revive the island. It could have been a cement factory if that’s what was produced here before. Wine is just the mouthpiece”.
Despite his initial inexperience, in six years Soley has transformed the broken down Tekel state wine factory and neglected vines into a state of the art winery. The wine, bottled under the label Corvus, which means crow in Latin, has also been transformed- winning 12 international wine awards this year alone. One magazine recently called him the “cult winemaker” of Turkey’s recent wine revival- a trend which is seeing Turkish winemakers starting to rival the European masters with native grape varieties and organic farming techniques.
It’s the tail end of winter when I visit Bozcaada and the island is moving at the same leisurely pace I imagine it has for centuries. Resident’s tend to olive trees growing on the scrubby slopes, fish in the steal blue waters and every day at noon, gather to drink honey colored tea from curvaceous glasses in the town square. The days are short and lazy for the 2500 population who call the island home. But during the summer months, from July to October, I am told that tourists push the population swells to 6000 and it’s almost impossible to get a table at the local taverns.
Tonight there is only one other table occupied at Yakamoz Restaurant. A stone building facing the harbor and imposing shell of the thousand year old Bozcaada Castle, the restaurant’s plastic sheeting hardly keeps the winter chills at bay. Soley and I warm up on a bottle of Corvus 2004, a musky full bodied red mixed from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz grapes. It perfectly accentuates the spread of local produce before us- fava bean paste, small black olives, capers, raw sea urchins plucked from their shells an hour before, calamari rings with a tangy tartar sauce and thick toasted rye bread. Only this afternoon we found out that the 2005 vintage of this blend won first prize at this year’s Berlin Wine Trophy. Soley is finding it hard to keep up with demand for his wines. Restaurants can’t get enough; “I keep running out, despite the ridiculous prices I charge for it”, reads an email from a fancy Istanbul hotel who asks $280 a bottle. For me, however, the most impressive of Corvus’s 16 labels is the Vasilaki, a punchy, almost salty white made from the same grapes that Bozcaadan viticulturalists started experimenting with thousands of years ago, and Soley has reinvented with his organic farming methods.
They say that grapes pick up characteristics of the environment they are grown in. You often hear sommeliers talk about “overtones” of blackberry, lime, cherry, peach. For me, Soley’s wines tingle of olives and the sea. With every whiff I can literally see the waves crashing on one of the nearby beaches, bodies baking under the sun while calamari sizzles on the barbeque.
The next day Soley takes me to visit Yunatcilar, one of the island’s oldest vineyards; more than a hundred years old, the vines, gangly and skewered, grow in the French style of a goblet, without the aid of a trellis. From here the land plunges down to the beach, where we discover a new plot of vines- haphazardly established and drowning in a puddle of water, but nevertheless, less than two months old.
Ever since Soley and his wines started fetching top dollar around the world, small vine plots have been popping up everywhere. Locals have been converting their backyards into vineyards and Bozcaada’s three original wineries- which just a few years ago produced some of the cheapest and nastiest drops on the market- have changed their focus from quantity to quality. Pensions and guest houses are opening and holiday villas are appearing. Still, there is little chance of Bozcaada becoming over run. There is no airport and landing an aircraft, due to the island’s proximity to Greece, is forbidden. Instead, it’s a six hour road trip from Istanbul, with a ferry crossing from Geyikli.
“Bozcaada is finally awakening,” says Mehmet Gurs, owner of Mikla, arguably Istanbul’s finest restaurant, who is building a beach house on Bozcaada. “Resit really put winemaking – and Bozcaada back on the map”.
For Resit Soley, it’s all just philosophy: “When you don’t have good grapes, you don’t have good wine. And without good wine, there is not good conversation. If there’s no descent conversation then what do we talk about over dinner? The whole of society is ruined!”