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Turkish wines risk drying up as economic and climate crises grow | Business and Economy

Mardin and Tekirdag, Turkey – Gabriel Oktay Cili works from his small, wood-panelled, silver shop in Mardin, a southeastern Turkish city. He repairs damaged jewellery with a decades-old blowtorch. Visitors come to pick up his sweet, spicy homemade vino but they are mostly there to order.

Many boutique wineries have sprung up in Turkey over the past 20 years, competing in a growing 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, an Assyrian is a member of the ancient Christian group that has lived in the Mardin area for thousands and 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 just one of many small wine producers in Turkey struggling to survive in the face economic and environmental crises that are growing. He also says that political pressures are making it difficult for them to succeed.

Eastern Turkey, as well as much of the country is suffering from a severe drought. Mardin has been particularly hard-hit, recording a Rainfall has dropped by 54 percentThe last year. Because they don’t use irrigation, most boutique winemakers in the area are vulnerable to drought. They rely instead on natural snowfall and rain to give their wines a deeper flavour.

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.

The outlook for Turkey over the next decade is good. looks bleakAs the country is likely to be even more affected by drought, floods and wildfires.

Cili says this, combined with Turkey’s Anailing economyHis business is at risk due to state pressure on alcohol producers

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

Turkey’s winemaking tradition

Cili’s wine is made on the Mesopotamian plains, which have been home to Armenian winemakers for thousands of year, even during the Ottoman era.

The state-owned Tekel was created in 1923 to oversee the sale of alcohol and tobacco in Turkey. The Justice and Development Party, AK Party privatized Tekel in 2003 as part of a loan arrangement with the International Monetary Fund. This sparked a revival for small Turkish winemakers.

2004 saw the following: Below 50 licensed wine producers in Turkey – there are Now 184. Domestic wine production has increased from just over 28million litres in 2004 up to more than 66million litres last. Domestic consumption now accounts for 97 percent Turkish-produced wine.

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, who founded Barbare vineyards, spent years in France before returning to Turkey twenty-two decades ago. He purchased a plot in Tekirdag (in the Thrace region of northwest Turkey) in 2000 and hoped to make wines similar in style to those he enjoyed in France.

They imported vines from France in 2001 and planted their first vines. Their first harvest took place in 2007, and their first vintage was published 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 retailers from selling alcohol within 100m of a mosque after 10pm. It also has increased taxes on alcohol throughout its nearly two-decade tenure. The January 2021 special consumption tax on alcohol, tobacco, and other beverages climbed by 17 percent.

The government collected 12 per cent of its tax revenue ($20 billion lira) from alcohol in 2020.

The AK Party-led government justifies its restrictions on alcohol consumption and tobacco use as public health measures. It has also compared the measures with similar laws in France or 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 states that while the bigger producers were well-known when the ban on advertising was implemented, Barbare and other boutique wineries have struggled since they were just beginning their own names.

Barbare were able, despite these pressures to forge individual relationships and purchase wine in bulk from consumers. They also turned their family home on a 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.”

Many vineyards are now facing further difficulties due to a weakening currency. Inflation on the riseAnd a Cost-of-living crisisTurkey

Boutique winemakers rely heavily on imported materials, which has increased production costs and eroded profits. The value of the property has dropped in value.

Many of the materials required to make fine wine – down to the corks and boxes – are priced in euros. Oak barrels are expensive at up to 1,500 euros ($1,700). They can only be used twice. The euro was just 1.50 per lira when Can Topsakal started making wine in Barbare. The rate has risen to more than 20 percent in the past few weeks.

To counter the negative effects of climate change and economic disruption, the vineyard relies on hotel revenue. The family claims they have just made it to break even.

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“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 is the head winemaker at Arcadia vineyards, Kirklareli, in northwest Turkey. He also believes that the Turkish wine industry must be data-driven to survive in a volatile and changing 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 installed weather stations that keep detailed records of soil quality and rainfall. Ataman said that this allows them adjust their harvest and fermentation plans. If grapes are affected by colder winters and warmer summers, they may shift their production to other varietals.

He stated that there is not enough data.

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

Other winemakers believe they would also benefit from a shift of government policies. They could lower their prices if they had lower taxes. If the advertising ban was lifted, or they were allowed online sales, they could reach more people.

“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.”

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