Spirits of Turkey: Raki Reigns & Wine is Very Fine
No matter what the recent headlines say regarding alcohol regulation in Turkey, there is no denying that alcohol consumption is a large part of Turkish culture. The most popular spirit in Turkey is by far Raki, an anise-based liquor also known as the "Turkish national drink” and fondly known as “lion’s milk” (for the milky color it takes on when water is added). Raki is most often consumed with a meal of fresh, simply prepared fish, also in abundance in Turkey.
When it comes to wine, on the other hand, Turks consume relatively little compared to European countries. While Turkey's average annual per capita wine consumption is less than one bottle per person, a typical French wine drinker consumes 65 bottles each year. Upscale restaurants in major cities like Istanbul, Ankara as well as the coastal resort destinations in Western Turkey however are pushing wine instead of Raki these days. At The Secret Garden, in popular summer destination Bodrum, diners are encouraged to select from a menu of over 60 different wines, most of which are from Turkey. "We don't get many raki drinkers, most customers want wine," says chef and owner, Helen Owen. Just 10 wines on The Secret Garden's extensive list are imported from places like France and Chile. Helen's large selection of top-quality Turkish wines are based on the fact that Turkey has many rare, indigenous grapes -- not found in any other part of the world -- ideal for producing high quality wine. "Turkey has a wine gold mine. I only wish more people here would get it," says Helen. Among the most recommended high-end Turkish wine, produced from indigenous grapes, are Doluca's "Kav." Made from selected grapes of the Marmara and Aegean regions, the Kav has a full, strong body and reflects the varietal characteristics of the grapes used. Helen also recommends Doluca's "Karma," a fusion of Turkish indigenous and French grapes.
Private Turkish wine brand Doluca, is located in the western part of the wine region, while Kavaklidere is produced with exclusive local grapes mostly from Anatolia. The Sabanci group also produces Bordeaux-style wines in Thrace under the brand name, "G." Most of the country's grapes are grown in the Marmara, Central Anatolia and the Aegean regions. Turkey is ranked fourth in the world for grape production. However, only two percent of all the grapes grown in Turkey go into the production of wine.
Nevertheless, prior to the Ottoman Empire, a long history of wine culture existed among the many civilizations that flourished in Anatolia. The Ottomans forbid all consumption of alcohol during their 500-year reign. In the meantime, wine culture became more pronounced in Europe, spreading from there to the new worlds and never really returning to where it actually first laid roots.
Today, with wine culture once again blooming in Turkey, ironically, it is European grapes that are all the rage. According to Helen, this could turn tragic for the Turkish wine industry as many spectacular local Turkish grapes are passed over and may be lost forever as the market becomes dominated by imported grapes. The global wine industry is fiercely competitive, but Helen does believe that Turkey can stay competitive if it doesn't "Throw out the baby with the bathwater," as she says. "There are many poor-quality wines produced in Turkey, sellers don't know how to store it, and sadly that's what tourists are served in hotels," says Helen. Hence, Turkey has a very limited reputation for good wine in the rest of the world. "There must be a better understanding of wine if Turkey wants to stay competitive with Europe," she adds. Turkey in fact produces some of the world's best wine from indigenous grapes. They are so rare, however, that the best local wines are produced in very small quantities and therefore cost almost 30 percent more in Turkey than imported wine. A decent Chilean Merlot, for example, may cost 15 YTL, while a Turkish Merlot of equal caliber will cost about 23 YTL. Helen is so convinced that Turkish wine is on par with some of the world's best, however, that she's even started her own company (called "A La Turca") which imports the best Turkish wines - from producers Kavaklidere and Doluca -- to the UK. But, she isn't the first. Turkey already exports some of its best wines to places like France, Finland, Germany, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria, England and Japan.
Internationally, Turkey is better known for its high quality red grapes, which is reflected in the numerous prestigious medals producers Doluca and Kavaklidere have won for their special red wines. Carignan, for example, is a red grape grown in the mild climate of the Aegean on sandy and graveled soil near Izmir. It is used in the production of Villa Doluca's Red and in Kavaklidere's Yakut and Special Red which were awarded the gold medal in France in 1998.
Still, raki usurps all other alcoholic beverages in Turkey, accounting for a whopping 70 percent of total alcohol consumption, according to government statistics. Beer represents just 12 percent and wine eight percent, despite the fact that raki is a much more recent invention. It tastes just like a cool, refreshing, albeit highly alcoholic, drink of licorice. Most importantly perhaps, it doesn’t seem to produce quite as harsh a hangover the next day as beer or wine does. Some even say it aids digestion. However, raki does have a tendency to “sneak up on you” so there’s a reason most Turks drink it with a meal instead of like a cocktail. Although raki can be consumed as a cocktail, traditionally it is preferred with meze or fish. The bare minimum meze for raki are slices of honeydew melon and creamy feta cheese with freshly baked bread.
The art of raki distillation started in the Arab world when wine producers thought of utilizing the sugar in the residue of wine processing. It is made from different fruits in different regions, but grapes, figs and plums are the main ingredients. The drink quickly spread to neighboring countries and with the addition of anise, raki took on its Turkish characteristic, even giving birth to a number of raki-inspired Turkish proverbs. The flavor of raki is obtained by distilling suma (from grapes) which gives it a slight taste and smell of grapes. The most popular brands of raki are Tekirdag, known as a higher quality label and Yeni Raki, a less expensive brand. Raki is either served straight or with 2/3 spring water and should always be consumed cold.
Best Turkish wines to drink with fish:
- Selection Beyaz has the aroma of citrus fruits, is firm, rich and best with fish served with sauce.
- Narince is mat yellow and greenish, and has an aroma of citrus fruit and is best with any kind of seafood with sauce.
- Special White is a light, and elegant wine that goes best with baked fish.
- Primeur Red has the aroma of pomegranate, banana, and other fruits and is best with baked or grilled fish.
- Muscat which is a young, light and elegant wine goes well with grilled fish.
- Nevsah, prepared from "Emir" grapes, is a rich and fruity dry wine that goes well with all kinds of sea food.
- Kav Red has a full, strong body and goes well with fish served with sauce.
- Kav White is dry, rich and smooth and best with any kind of seafood with sauce.
- Villa Doluca White or Doluca Domisec are light and fruity dry wines, from "Sultanina" and "Semillon" grapes. Both go well with any kind of seafood.
- Doluca White is a dry white wine that goes well with any kind of fish.
Award winning Turkish wines:
Doluca and Kavaklidere, the largest privately owned wine producers in Turkey, have been awarded international medals in the Challenge International du Vin, France; the Vinalies Internationales, France; and the Monde Selection, Bruxelles; among others.
Award winning wines from Doluca include:
Villa Doluca Red '01
Özel Kav Boğazkere-Öküzgözü '01
Doluca Red '01
Özel Kav Boğazkere-Öküzgözü'00
Villa Doluca White'02
Over the past 35 years, Kavaklidere Wines have won 115 international awards. Its gold and silver medal-winning wines include:
Selection Kırmızı '95
Özel Kırmızı '96
Selection Beyaz '97
Altın Köpük '97
Selection Kırmızı '97
Özel Kırmızı '98
Some notes on Raki
• Raki (rah-KUH) is similar to Greek ouzo and French pastis. When mixed with ice and/or water for drinking, it turns milky white. Because of its color and alcoholic punch, Turks call it lion's milk (aslan sütü).
• If you like licorice and anise, you may like raki; if you don't, for sure you won't.
• A clear, straight glass is filled 1/3 or 1/2 with raki, then diluted with water and/or ice to suit the drinker's taste. (Say tamam, tah-MAHM, "okay," when the waiter has poured enough water and/or ice.)
• Raki is sold by the drink (kadeh), in half-bottles and full bottles.