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Istanbul Eats Drinks: Melen Papazkarası Reserve

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(Editor’s Note: We’ve recently been lucky enough to make the acquaintance of Serdar Kombe, one of Turkey’s leading oenophiles. These are exciting times for Turkish wine and Serdar has generously agreed to review wines for us. For today’s “wine chat,” Serdar chose to talk about the Melen Papazkarası Reserve, a wine made in Thrace.)

1. Papazkarası? Another one of those Turkish grapes with a hard-to-pronounce name? What can you tell us about this one?
It is a very unique red grape variety that is grown mainly in the Marmara and Thrace regions, where it is produced in limited quantities. Production and, thus, consumption of this wine is very low. We unfortunately have not realized how rare and precious this grape is and are slowly losing this variety. The Melen winery refers to it as “the forgotten Thracian prince.” The name? It translates into “Priest’s Black” or “Black of the Priest,” roughly.

2. How does Papazkarası compare to other Turkish red wine varietals?
First of all, Turkish Greeks used to live where Papazkarası is grown, in Thrace near Turkey’s border with Greece and Bulgaria. Winemaking was and is an essential part of their culture, so perhaps the grapes in this region are more deeply rooted in the region’s terroir. The other grape varietals that are grown in Turkey are truer representatives of the Anatolian region, whose soil is less rich than Thrace’s. In that sense, latitude, climate and terroir differences make Papazkarası quite special. It has a personality and elegance of its own, which deserves higher recognition in the Turkish wine league.

3. Can you describe with a bit more detail how Papazkarası compares to the Anatolian grape varieties? And are there any Western grape varietals that you would compare it to?
Boğazkere wines are quite tannic, especially if they come from Diyarbakır. Öküzgözü has an acidic personality. Kalecik Karası wines remind me of simple French pinot noirs. Wines made with Papazkarası grapes, on the other hand, have a different complexity, in terms of fruit, acid, tannins and body. If I needed to compare with international grape varietal, I would say it is closest to Sangiovese in terms of taste and nose!

4. What was it about this wine that caught your attention?
I have been drinking this wine since 2000. It is one of my value-for-money Turkish wines. It is also a good representative of Thracian culture and history for me. Finally, it’s hard not to notice this distinctive wine’s amphora-shaped bottle.

5. What can you tell us about Melen Winery?
It was established at the beginning of the 20th century, actully tracing its roots to a partnership formed between a Turk and a Greek to produce rakı. They are still making wines, mostly from lesser-grown varietals such as Karasakız, Melencik, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and others, grown in their seaside vineyards. They are not after huge volumes and sales, but concentrate on quality and on producing wine of humble origins. For me they are the Don Quixote of Turkey’s wine industry.

6. What kind of food would you pair this wine with?
Tuna tartare, çiğ börek, mantı and veal chops would be great partners with this lovely wine. As a alternative, I can easily recommend drinking it alongside local Thracian cheeses as well.

7. Tasting notes?
It’s ruby colored, dry, light-bodied and with flavors of violet, black fruit, forest berries, vanilla and oak.

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