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Urla, Anatolian center of wine production for thousands of years

Monday 16 May 2011, by Charlotte Oskay

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Vignobles d’Urla
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A fine boutique winery, Urla Wines, is the realization of a dream owner Can Ortabaş had to cultivate a lanscape inspired by the picturesque Italian region of Tuscany

Ortabaş began investing in his vision 15 years ago when he purchased 200 hectares of agricultural land.

Can Ortabaş is a true “İzmirli” (meaning ‘from İzmir’), a family man born and raised in Karşıyaka, a district of İzmir located on the northern side of the bay. Ortabaş moved to the rural market town of Urla in 1996 in an attempt to realize a dream, to cultivate a landscape around Urla inspired by the picturesque Italian region of Tuscany. Ortabaş has successfully transformed his vision into the realities of Urla Şarapçılık (Urla Wines) – a fine boutique winery, and Uzbaş, an agricultural center that introduces and cultivates extraordinary and unfamiliar plants and trees in Turkey.

Ortabaş began investing in his vision 15 years ago when he purchased 200 hectares of agricultural land between Urla and the southern side of the Karaburun peninsula in western Turkey. His land runs across the forested hillsides, touching the seashore of the west coast and affording some of the most inspiring scenery in the region. The Uzbaş plantation is a sprawling estate of manicured lawns, surrounding an impressive but homely villa, with a handful of aged, lazy guard dogs inappropriately welcoming guests on arrival. The initial idea of creating an agro-tourism facility that could produce a variety of tropical and sub tropical plants for landscaping in both the private and commercial sector in Turkey has very clearly been established. The center employs approximately 180 people, which is a significant number to the Urla region’s economic environment, but more than that, it is slowly changing the country’s scenery due to the importation and cultivation of rare and special plants.

Ortabaş explained how he hopes the center’s continuing development will alter the landscape of Turkey. “We have a huge selection of plants that originate from international shores such as Australia and Chile. And even the Himalayas. Some of these plants are being introduced in Turkey for the first time. It’s not an easy process. We have to be very selective about the species and consider things such as climate, environmental factors and robustness of each particular plant and then we have to graft and grow them to a satisfactory size. We lose between 10 and 15 percent of each trial. For one reason or another, the plant won’t adapt regardless of our investment, but we continue to search for new species to integrate into the Turkish landscape. We introduce plants from the Arizona desert, such as the Blue Yucca, these are very extraordinary plants and require special permission to import. You could say they have their own passports. These plants grow 0.5 centimeters each year and have a superb architectural shape, but the most amazing thing about them is they are fire-proof; they do not catch on fire.”

Taking a walk through the compound at Uzbaş can become distracting. It is easy to forget where you are in the world when wandering among such a variety of trees and plants. Ortabaş said, “We have some of the largest collections of plant species in Europe with over 58 varieties of palms, various types of conifers, cacti, aromatic plants and broad leaved trees. We are the largest producer of cypress in Europe, with four varieties including a cypress native to Monaco that we had to attain special permission from the palace to graft. We’re also currently working with the Scientific and Technological Research Council of Turkey [TÜBİTAK] to re-introduce lost species of Anatolia. We have another three facilities in Antakya, Adana and Ödemiş.”

The Uzbaş plantation also has its own unique plant legacy evident in a number of olive trees that date back 1,000 years. These rare finds are dotted among more modern varieties such as the architectural olive trees imported from Barcelona or the bottle tree from Senegal. Asked whether or not it is difficult to trade with international companies, Ortabaş said, “It’s actually very easy because we share a common language, Latin. All the plants have common names that are used for sales but the original names remain the same and this assists communication during the import or export of plants.”

1,000-year-old vineyard

The Uzbaş center and the Urla winery may not share the same location, but they are joined by the proprietor. Ortabaş claimed the winery was an instinctive decision made after discovering a 1,000-year-old vineyard on another piece of land one kilometer further inland from the Uzbaş plantation. Ortabaş purchased the additional 35 hectares of land and intended to build a boutique hotel that would further support his passion for eco-friendly services and create a facility where he could host a social synergy with like-minded people.

The land slopped gently and was covered in dense brush but during a closer inspection Ortabaş discovered decaying hidden terraces and the remnants of an ancient vineyard. Ortabaş explained, “After uncovering the vineyard I immediately began researching viticulture and oenology. I discovered that this area was an important wine-producing region just before the First World War, producing up to 72 million liters of wine on this peninsula alone. Last year, Turkey in its entirety produced approximately 69 million liters – that’s an incredible difference.”

Further study convinced Ortabaş that the climate and conditions remain favorable for wine production in the Urla region and today Urla has two wineries and another three under construction. Ortabaş has invested a great deal of financial and emotional time in this latest project, but by hiring the right team of people he has removed some of the stress. “There are two French consultants, Edouard Descamps and Gerald Lafant, who work with us here. Descamps lives onsite and Lafant visits every few months, but they are vital to the production of great wine. We also have a team of chemical engineers and food technicians, two of whom train alongside Descamps and study viticulture and oenology.”

Ortabaş explained that viticulture and oenology are not subjects that can be studied in great depth at university in Turkey. “Cansu is one of our apprentices currently working with Descamps. Cansu completed as much educational training as possible at university but the studies aren’t specific to winemaking. There are so many variables during the wine-making process and that’s why gaining first-hand experience from international experts is essential.”

Descamps arrived in Turkey during the summer of 2010, initially for a short period of time to oversee harvesting and production but 10 months later he’s living in a stone cottage among the vineyard and working daily to help produce some of the best wine in Turkey. Descamps explained: “I’m originally from France but I’ve worked abroad before in both viticulture – the growing and harvesting of vines, and also oenology - the production of wine. There’s so much knowledge to apply to wine producing that someone has to be involved on a daily basis. Variables such as weather conditions, soil state and disease all effect production. Today I climbed the hillside to check the merlot vines, which are young and need protecting with a biological formula. However I’ve been unable to treat the vines because of the weather conditions; it’s been too windy. The wind and rain also affect growth by fungal disease and other plant illnesses. So, it’s important to watch the conditions daily and maintain when the weather allows.”

Ortabaş agreed that the entire process was time-consuming due to the delicate nature of the work. “Urla Winery is in its first year of operation and has produced 10 different types of wine including red, rose and white wines from various grapes, including some locally discovered varieties. But it has taken 10 years of preparation to produce the first wines. The winery has been visited by nine international associations who have tested the wines and graded them individually.”

“Two of our wines have won a Gold standard certificate at the Master of Wines festival in Istanbul. These are the Nero d’Avola 2009, a blend of four grapes including a local Urla grape and the Urla Boğazkere 2009 produced from another grape of this region. Another wine was deemed slightly too young but we hope to achieve a Gold certificate for it next year.”

Barrels sold after four years

Ortabaş explained that the elapsing time between bottling the wine and drinking the wine also varies. “The answer to the most frequently asked question, ‘How long should a wine wait?’ is complicated. We produce different wines that require different lengths of time to rest. The Boğazkere wine improves with age and could rest for eight years while rose can be drunk as soon as five months after production. We have 15 bottles of wine produced from a recently rediscovered grape called Sultanye, which is a dry grape with a thin skin, perfect for winemaking. We found three vines of Sultanye on this peninsula and cultivated these for our vineyard, calling the wine Gaydura. It’s not quite ready but when it is, it will be a very special wine.”

Ortabaş insisted that part of the success of Urla Wines can be attributed to unique technology that was used during the production phase. The boutique winery employs approximately 20 staff, one of whom is Nurcan Barış. She is the customer relations manager and an integral part of the Urla Wines team, handling everything from guest tours and wine tasting to personally assisting Ortabaş and Descamps.

Barış knows much about the complex production stage that Ortabaş refers to. “We use several techniques which aide the quality of the wine: The first is the eco-friendly system of using gravity during production. Two thousand of the 4,000-square-meter complex is below ground. This is so the grapes can be harvested and deposited in the depot on the first floor where they are cleaned and prepared for production. Afterward they filter down to the basement level – using gravity instead of the harsh pumping systems which some wineries use. This protects the quality of the grape juice and is overall better for the wine. We also have a high-tech computerized system, one of only three of its kind in the world, with a vineyard in France and Chile also using this technology. It works by stabilizing the temperature and can be adjusted remotely online. This is a very important part of oenology – the temperature and condition in which the final product is stored is vital. All wine requires similar conditions. The optimum temperature is 14 degrees with 90 percent relative humidity – this is to protect the health of the barrels, which ultimately affects the wine.”

Barış said the barrels were a significant part of the production too. “The barrels are cleaned with sulphur between production but this cycle only lasts around four years after which the barrels are sold to Whiskey or Sherry producers.”

The Urla Winery was designed in such a way that it incorporates the region’s history with the ecologically friendly minimalist modern architecture. The left wing of the winery is constructed out of reclaimed stone that was discovered during the reconditioning of the land. This feature was designed to recognize the historical roots of the vineyard, while the right wing incorporates a modern minimalist design that represents Ortabaş’s new vision for the future of the region’s viticulture. Urla Wines is classed as a boutique winery and Ortabaş is quite selective about where the product is sold. Today, only a handful of local restaurants and an exclusive supermarket chain located in Istanbul called Macro sell the Urla brand wines, yet the winery has gained a fair amount of international attention and is currently breaking into the high-end Japanese market along with handling enquiries from Spain, Kazakhstan and the United States. However, the growing interest has not dissuaded Ortabaş from his original plan and there is no desire to turn the boutique business into a huge commercial enterprise.

Barış confirmed that quite often people drive through this part of the countryside in a bid to find an undiscovered coastal spot or a quaint place to enjoy a Turkish breakfast, but instead they discover an imposing building perched ceremoniously upon a hillside surrounded by vineyards and they decide to investigate further. Two of their most recent visitors did exactly that: Dr. Imren Markes with her husband was driving through the Urla countryside one afternoon.

Markes explained how they discovered Urla Wines close to their second home in Turkey. “We have owned a home here for many years yet never knew the region was associated with wine until we discovered Urla Şarapçılık. Our home is quite close so we decided to stop at the impressive building and introduce ourselves to our new neighbors. The moment we pulled into the driveway, I knew we had uncovered something quite special and I was right. Even though we didn’t have an appointment we were welcomed by Nurcan and given a full-guided tour. The building’s design is quite unique because there are many observation windows on the ground floor that look into the production area below. After the tour, Nurcan took us into a large reception room where we were invited to taste the various wines. I did purchase a bottle of the Urla Boğazkere, which was a tough decision because we both enjoyed all the wines. I’ve been very impressed by the standards and level of hospitality. You’d usually have to pay for this kind of thing.”

Ortabaş insisted that the area would become something akin to the Tuscan valley one day and it is certainly believable. With both the Uzbaş agricultural center changing the region’s scenery along with the Urla Wines prominent position within the international wine market, it is only a matter of time before his concept of synergizing the region’s wine industry shows lasting results to both the economic and environmental aspects of life around the Urla region.

Wine can no longer be purchased online due to the recent change in Internet regulations; however guests are welcome to visit and purchase direct from the winery. A bottle of White Symposium costs 31 Turkish Liras at Macro in Istanbul.

The terrain dictates the area’s suitability

Urla Wines has successfully reintroduced viticulture and oenology to the Karaburun peninsula and encouraged others to do the same, with the sole intention of providing financial stability and quality wine production to the west coast region.

Viticulture and oenology are the two official terms used to describe the study and practice of growing vines and producing wine respectively. The concept of creating an area similar to other renowned wine regions around the world such as Tuscany or the Maipo Valley is not as far fetched as it may seem. After all, the lineage of the Urla terrain dictates the area’s suitability for such an industry. However, protecting the character of the vineyards and wineries is owner Can Ortabaş’s main concern and the dream of retaining organic and ecologically maintained boutique businesses is a top priority. Ortabaş has a long list of ideas that will incorporate both businesses and firmly put Urla on the worldwide map for not only wine, but as a center for excellence in food and agricultural tourism.

Production dates back to 3000 BC

Urla is a developing market town close to İzmir, Turkey’s third largest city. Urla’s history dates back to 3000 BC, founded by the Ionians as a result of the Dorian and Achaean migrants to the region. The town has been ruled by the Persians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Seljuk and Ottomans respectively. One of the 12 Ionian cities, Clazomenai was founded in the area, just in front of the modern Urla Quay. Clazomenai was later moved to an island near the coast for protection against Persian attacks. Wine production started in Urla in the 4th millennium BC. The people of the city then began to develop olive oil refineries (one of the oldest olive oil workshops was excavated in Urla) and workshops for weaving. They also became masters in mining.Piri Reis, who lived in the 15th and 16th centuries, included the port of Urla in his “Book of the Seas.” He related the indented coves of Urla and the condition of the isles. Turks reached the Aegean Sea and specifically Urla under the command of Çaka Bey in the 1080s. Urla was conquered in 1390 by the Ottomans. (Reconstructed from the Urla Şarapçılık website.)

Urla Şarapçılık wine list :

* Urla Chardonnay 2009

Awarded 84 points at the Master of Wine Weekend in 2010, it is a dry white wine that best compliments fish or seafood, best served between 9-11 degrees.

* Symposium Bornova Misket 2009

A wine best enjoyed with canapes, chocolate or fresh fruit, recommended serving temperature of 8-10 degrees.

* Serendias Rose 2009

A dry rose wine that blends four grapes – cabernet, merlot, Sangiovese and Syrah. Suitable for a variety of light meals and desserts, its premium serving temperature is between 8-9 degrees.

* Urla Boğazkere 2009

A local grape red wine that received 88 points and the prestigious gold award at the Master of Wine 2010. A dry wine best served with meat and spices at a room temperature of around 17-19 degrees.

* Urla Nero d’Avola and Urla Karası 2009

A red wine that successfully blends two grapes, receiving a gold award at the Master of Wine Weekend 2010, its recommended serving temperature is 16-18 degrees.

* Urla Nero d’Avola and Sangiolvese 2008

A full-bodied red wine suitable for any meal, enjoyed best at the temperatures of 15-17 degrees.

* Vourla

A red wine blending four grapes, suitable for most red meats and rich pasta dishes, the optimum serving temperature is 16-18 degrees.

* Urla Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

A prestigious wine awarded 81 points at the Master of Wine 2010. Suitable for steak and pasta dishes, with a recommended serving temperature of 18-20 degrees

* Urla Syrah 2008

A dry red wine that compliments meat casseroles and other hearty dishes, recommended serving temperature of 17-19 degrees

* Urla Merlot 2008

A dry red wine suitable for cheese platters and grilled dishes, recommended serving temperature of 15-17 degrees.

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Source : Hürriyet Daily News, Monday, May 9, 2011

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