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Is this fantastic landscape about to become the new hotspot for wine-lovers? In Cornucopia 31 Kevin Gould heads for the oldest vineyards on earth to find out. Photographs by Frits Meyst
Thirty million years ago, volcanic ash and basalt rocks spewed from Mounts Erciyes, Hasan and Melendiz to form Cappadocia. There the basalt boulders laned, they protected the ash beneath, which hardened into porous, workable tufa rock. As the weather eroded the land around the boulders, the tufa beneath them grey into pillars. These ‘fairy chimneys’ are the symbol of Cappadocia. Honeycombed, tunnelled through and burrowed into, the pillars and the tufa rock in the valleys surrounding them have come to resemble Swiss cheese. It has given a fantastical quality to the landscape and architecture of Cappadocia. Rippling rock formations and forests of pillars shaped like morel muchrooms appear from hidden valleys – Gaudi would have loved it, and Tolkien would have peopled it with hobbits and wizards.
Today’s troglodytes tend to be incomers, fascinated with the Middle Earth atmosphere of Cappadocia’s cave houses and gorges, many of the locals having swapped the crumbling uncertainty of tufa ceilings for the double-glazed luxury of breeze-block apartment houses.
Cappadocia’s mushrooming modern cash crop is tourists, to whom are sold variable carpets and miserable plaster-cast representations of fairy chimneys. However, the lasting work and worth of the region is in its vineyards. For at least 3,000 years Cappadocia’s richly mineralised volcanic soil has been cultivated by grape-growers: Hattis, Hittites and Persians, Greeks, Romans, early Christians and Armenians all passed through and practised viniculture here. By the tenth century, refugees fleeing Byzantine church politics had established hundreds of cave churches and grape-growing communities in the triangle bordered by Nevşehir, Avanos and Ürgüp. After the Lausanne Agreement of 1922, the departed Greek communities were replaced by Turks from Thrace and Salonika. Echoes of their Macedonian dialect continue to be heard in vineyards and cellars.
Cappadocia’s microclimates afford the region a lushness often absent from the plains of Anatolia that surround it. But the tufa soil, however heavily mineralised, needed encouragement if grapes were to flourish. The natural solution was to introduce flocks of pigeons, whose guano would provide nitrate-rich natural fertiliser. For a thousand years, high above valley floors and behind almost every village house, the soft tufa cliff walls were climbed and pierced and countless dovecotes were dug by grape farmers. These coops, with roosts for hundreds of pigeons and poults, were given smooth plaster faces to deter rodent predators. Their façades often attractively painted, such pigeon penthouses remain a feature of the Cappadocian countryside. Where their façades have cracked and fallen serried rows of meticulously carved pigeon holes are revealed, hinting at some avian democracy inhabited by a community whose work was dirt. Pigeons have mostly left Cappadocia now, but colonies of swifts remain to dart and flick at sunset among the region’s bluffs and gullies.
Around the world there are many examples of grapes grown and wine made on lava soil (the best known being the rather ordinary Lachryma Christi, pressed from fruit grown in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius), but, for the amount of grapes grown and for the antiquity of this endeavour, Cappadocia may be the world’s most exciting region. Nearly a million tonnes of grapes a year are harvested here, producing 12.5 million litres of wine, as well as table grapes, currants, vinegar and pekmez. (Cappadocia’s exceptional pekmez, grape molasses, is now used as a spread or a condiment; previously it was taken as a nourishing winter drink.) Of the 1,250 varieties of grape grown in Turkey, twenty can be considered valuable native varieties. Conditions in Cappadocia are perfect for local varieties such as Emir and Narince for white wine, and Yediveren and Kalecik Karası for red. These are grown alongside newcomers such as Öküzgözü and Boğazkere strains, transplanted from Diyarbakır, and European Alicante grapes, favoured for their rich claret colour.
Until a generation ago, wine-making would have taken place in every home. Clamber up to any disused cave or chimney-dwelling and the grape-pressing area is seen as a rock-carved, shallow rectangular trough, with a spout leading to a depression in which an amphora would rest and be filled. Fermentation of the grape juice would take place in the early autumn sunshine on a convenient rooftop, before the amphora was moved inside to the cool, stable temperature of an interior niche. Older inhabitants of the valleys still tread their own grapes by foot, first lining their tractor trailers with polythene, though most pressing now takes place at village co-operatives and factories.
Order Cornucopia 31 for Kevin Gould’s tasting notes and details of the Cappadocian wineries.
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