Cappadocia; A magical mystery tour of food and wine

View across Pigeon Valley
View across Pigeon Valley

Last month I traveled to an exotic land full of jaw dropping vistas, unusual grape varieties and delicious cuisine, Cappadocia, in central Anatolia, Turkey. This magical place is full of visions that can only be described as a Vulcan mind meld of the American Southwest and outer space. I was instantly in awe by the rugged, alien beauty present at every turn. Famous for its fairy chimneys, cave hotels and underground cities it also has a lot to offer for adventurist food and wine lovers. Sips of wine aged in tuff ( volcanic ash formations), meals prepared in clay vessels and deliciously pungent Tulum cheese where indeed highlights of my journey into the culture of this distant land.

Indigenous Grapes

Turkey has approximately 7,000 years of grape growing history, many think it may even be the source of the vine. Turkey is home to between 600 to 1,200 indigenous varieties with 60 or so being used in Turkish wine production. Sadly many producers shared with me that international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are more in demand in the local market. I much prefered the foreign and unique flavors coaxed from the vines and soils of the native land. It may take a bit of practice to pronounce them but wines made from the following grapes are a taste of the heart and soul of Turkish wine production.

Cappadocian bush vines
Cappadocian bush vines

Kalecik Karasi– A thin-skinned, blueish black grape that was overlooked, almost forgotten, for many years but still cultivated in small quantities in Ankara’s Kalecik district. Research and development by the Ankara Faculty of Agriculture and Kavaklıdere Winery brought it back to the place it deserved in wine production. Filled with notes of cherry, red berry and a tinge of earth this is one grape I hope to see more of.

Boğazkere– One of the best native grapes grown in Anatolia. Higher tannin, structure and fuller bodied with potential to age.  Translating to throat burner it’s often blended with other grapes to add depth and body.

Öküzgözü– Meaning bull’s eye the round plump grapes are full of flavors of fresh red fruits and floral aromas with medium body and tannin. Pairs well with much of the local cuisine.

Narince– A wonderful, complex, medium bodied white that often receives a bit of oak treatment. Its young leaves are highly prized for the best dolma which has sadly reduced production a bit. Translating to ‘delicately’ notes of yellow tree fruit, quince and acia honey are common aromas.

Tour and tasting

Kocabag Winery
Kocabag Winery

Kocabag Winery, one of three wineries in Cappadocia is a must for any winelover. This third generation family owned winery, in the Nevsehir, Yesilyurt district is easy to spot among the carved huts made from tuff you will encounter on the road there. Although from the outside it doesn’t look much different from many wineries I’ve visited the inside has an interesting story to tell. Fermentation and storage tanks housing Kocabag’s wines are made from  tuff (carved by the Erdogan family founder in 1972) something unique to the region and quite possibly the world.

Tanks carved of ancient tuff
Tanks carved of ancient tuff

The 12 tanks carved into the rock are thought-provoking , imagine the fermenting juice communicating with the ancient volcanic material to create an expression of terroir unlike any other. Our guide Mehmet Erogan ( the 3rd generation of the Erogan family to run the winery) explained to our group that the tanks can however be a bit limiting, a thick lining of tartrate crystals have formed throughout the years causing less volume and they can be difficult to navigate. A new facility that will include a bit of steel and oak aging  has been built across the street from the original cave cellars but Mehmet assured us the tuff tanks will be continued to used to produce their signature wines. Kocabag’s wines are available in Cappadocia’s finest restaurants and in several of their own tasting rooms located nearby.In an effort to increase wine tourism Kavaklıdere (the largest winery in the region) has taken Kocabag under its wing. As both wineries have extended their reach outside of the Turkish market it surely wont be long till they become a destination for visiting wine enthusiasts.

Local Specialties

Sword at the ready for Testi Kabob
Sword at the ready for Testi Kabob

At Han Ciragan Restaurant I was treated to a dish prepared in a sealed clay vessel, slow cooked to bring out only the natural juices with no additional cooking liquid added. Named Testi Kabob , a part of the enjoyment of this Anatolian stew is the presentation. Normally I don’t welcome the sight of waiters arriving at the table carrying a sword, but, the traditional method of serving this dish requires tapping the clay vessel gently with a sharp knife to sever it evenly around the curve without introducing pieces of it into the finished dish. The succulent juices steeped out of the meat (caused by steam created from pre-soaking the clay) are an authentic treat, served with bread to sop up any remaining sauce it was a dramatic taste of Turkish dinner theatre. In an attempt to recreate this dish I’ve purchased a sand pot, no sword needed!Cooking jugs filled with tasty stew

Another stand out was the local cheese of which there are at least 16 different variations. Often served as part of the Raki table, or as meze before the main meal, the cheeses in Cappadocia where more pungent and intense than other versions I’d experienced in Izmir or Istanbul. Aged in a goat skin the Tulum style of Turkish cheese is by far my favorite, especially when served with dried figs and walnut. Cheese is served with almost every meal and always present for breakfast, a pleasant sight for this caseophile.

Cappadocia is a magical mystery tour of food, wine and culture filled with friendly hosts ready to help you experience all it has to offer. I can only urge you to visit but its something everyone should have on their list.

Special thanks to Wines of Turkey and the great minds behind the EWBC for hosting this trip.


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