Raise a Glass to Gallipoli

In the first of a series on the great wines of Turkey and its ancient dominions, Kevin Gould visits Gallipoli. A land of heroes from Homeric times to the First World War, the peninsula has also for 3,000 years prided itself on its wines.

  • Grapes growing in the Sarafin vineyards on the shore of the Dardanelles

The story of Gallipoli is bound up in Turkish history and in the consciousness of Britain, New Zealand and Australia. It plays its part in the Greek myths. Gallipoli is where Xerxes crossed his army into Europe on a bridge of boats, and where Leander swam the Dardanelles to meet Hero in Sestos. It is also where, for nine months in 1915, a campaign was fought that claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of brave young men, among them the flower of Turkish youth, the most promising Australians and the cream of the Kiwis, as well as countless young men from the British Isles and France.

This finger of Turkey, now properly called Gelibolu, is defined by the Aegean on one side and the Dardanelles on the other - one European, the other Asian, yet it feels neither Christian nor Muslim.

At Kilitbahir, the Narrows bring Europe to within 700 metres of Çanakkale, which makes it perhaps the most tantalising stretch of water in the world; whoever commanded the Dardanelles held the key to Europe, Asia, Constantinople and the Black Sea. The geography of this spit makes Gelibolu an international land with a cosmopolitan history.

Homer portrayed these waters as a “wine-dark sea”. His allusion to the grape would have been easily understood by his contemporaries, for the area produced some of the greatest wines of the known world - Odysseus toasted Athena with splendid Callipolis wine at nearby Philadelphi, having won victory over the Thracians. Callipolis wine was drunk in Troy and in Marathon and, later, wherever the civilised cadres of the Ottoman Empire were posted.

The peninsula had been cultivating grapes of character and quality since 3000 BC, but by the end of the nineteenth century, winemaking in Gelibolu was in decline. The last Ottoman emperors cultivated European tastes that favoured French and Italian fashions; wines from those lands, no matter how poorly they travelled, were considered superior to those that were home-grown. There is an irony in an ancient society toasting its sunset years with what would then have been thought of as New World wines.

Early in the First World War, Winston Churchill asserted that taking charge of the Dardanelles would cause Istanbul to “fall like a house of cards”, resulting in the removal of Turkey (an ally of the Prussians) from the war, and affording the Russians a vital ice-free sea supply route. Commonwealth states, in particular Australia, New Zealand and Canada, heeded Kitchener’s call to arms, and were proud to volunteer their most able young men, acts which signalled their coming of nationhood. The Gallipoli campaign made the reputation of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, who exposed the shortcomings of the Allied commanders, and whose charisma and drive were to engineer and inspire the modern Turkish state.

The international Lausanne Agreement of 1919 ensured that the Gelibolu peninsula would become and remain a national park dedicated to the memory of the men whose remains rest there. With infinite care, the Commonwealth Graves Commission maintains numerous beautiful cemeteries, each of them sensitively designed by Sir John Burnet. The French have their own glorious memorial, and at Abide the Turks have built a stunning arched structure to commemorate their fallen.

The atmosphere on the peninsula, however, is not morbid. The songbirds sing (oh, how they sing!), and the ground is fertile, yielding grapes, olives, cotton and delicious sweet almonds. A cemetery surrounded by fields of yellow sunflowers, their heads turning towards the heavens, makes it easy to believe that its inhabitants did not die in vain. A memorial at Anzac Cove glorifies the deeds of a brave generation and bears Atatürk’s words of respect and reconciliation:

‘Those heroes that shed their blood and lost their lives, you are now lying in the soil of a friendly country, therefore rest in peace. There is no difference between the Johnnies and the Mehmets to us where they lie side by side here in this country of ours. To the mothers who sent their sons from faraway countries, wipe away your tears: your sons are now lying in our bosom and are at peace. After having lost their lives on this land, they have become our sons as well.’

The intention enshrined in the Lausanne Agreement was to forbid desecration of the historic land. But this discouraged inward investment. The result is a region that, while retaining its due dignity, has also suffered acute population decline, not to mention the loss of local crafts, in particular the winemaking so spurned by the last sultans.

Onto the set of Gelibolu’s recent history step two men: Güven Nil and Ahmet Kutman. In 1926, Kutman’s father, Nihat Bey, was requested by Atatürk himself to revive viniculture around the Dardanelles. Atatürk’s plan, and Nihat Kutman’s work, was to create positive links between the thrusting new state and its vinous traditions, and was a calculated move away from a Muslim orthodoxy that frowned on wine and intoxication. Nihat Bey rejuvenated the ancient vineyards in the area around Mürefte, whose fruits had been extolled in a previous age by Darius the Mede (passing on his way through to fight the Athenians). Kutman set up the Doluca company, whose name today is synonymous with Turkish wine.

Ahmet Kutman, a graduate of Istanbul’s Robert College, returned to Turkey in 1967, having studied oenology and viticulture at the University of California, and set about the modernisation and marketing of Doluca wines. The company now produces 10 million bottles of wine each year. Kutman’s room-mate at Robert College was Güven Nil. This basketball-loving, go-getting dynamo was to become Turkey’s pre-eminent private banker. He was that rare combination: hard businessman and gentle romantic.

His business success fuelled an interest in wines that was informed by visits to France and the Napa Valley, a deep appreciation of fine quality, and a love of good living. Nil was never afraid of thinking big °© his lasting legacy, he decided, was to be the founding of a wine label of international renown, a project that would be difficult, expensive and time-consuming: in essence, his perfect challenge.

In the late 1980s, Nil approached his old room-mate with a plan of his dream, which chimed with Kutman’s desire to venture out of the mass market. The Sarafin label was born. Nil would establish the vineyards and Kutman would assume responsibility for the winemaking.

Güven Nil was deeply attracted to the atmosphere of the Dardanelles: it was a place where great men had gathered to perform important deeds. His business mind was drawn to the possibilities of finding affordable land and a willing, underemployed work force, while his emotions sought to re-energise and redeem the land where once great wines had been made and where, later, men had been sacrificed. Ever the enthusiast, he bought up parcels of land and planted nearly 80 hectares of Old and New World rootstock, as well as 7,000 Ayvalik olive trees and 10,000 sweet almond trees. The Kutman factory at Mürefte was extended and updated to include a boutique winery for Sarafin; in pride of place was a cellar of French Limousin oak barrels.

Nil planted cabernet and merlot, shiraz and cabernet franc, and chardonnay and sauvignon blanc grapes. What he or Kutman could not have expected was the fact that their wines, produced close to where the Gallipoli campaign had been most hard-fought, would not only redeem the land, but also assume a character that is uncannily Antipodean. Those familiar with, say, the award-winning wines of Michael Seresin in Marlborough, New Zealand, will recognise the same nose-note of mimosa and the same long melon finish as in Sarafin’s Sauvignon Blanc. (Seresin has recently planted Tuscan olive trees on his land, which produce the same round fruit and oil with the same depth of flavour as that pressed from Nil’s Ayvalik trees.)

It took a certain peacetime bravery for Güven Nil and Ahmet Kutman to commit time, energy and $10 million to a project with an unknown future and a strong possibility of failure, especially in an economic climate that rewards short-term investment but often penalises long-sighted projects. Their endeavour has achieved its ambition, and in Sarafin, for the first time in living memory, Turkey has a wine label worthy of international recognition.

Güven Nil died on February 18 this year (2001) at the age of 56 while playing his weekly game of basketball. A man of great enthusiasm, dynamism and compassion, he loved to bring people together and did so with charm and panache. As his lasting memorial, Sarafin wine shares with him the qualities of catalyst par excellence.

Sarafin wines can be ordered at www.sarafin.com

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Issue 24, 2001 The Wild East
£8.00 / $10.66 / 41.78 TL
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