Walking through the front door of Suvla Vineyards’ immaculate visitors center on Turkey’s Gallipoli peninsula a visitor familiar with California wine country might experience a brief and intense moment of dislocation. This especially if they had spent time visiting other wineries in the area, whose hospitality facilities ranged from modest terra cotta bars, to polished modern architecture. None that I visited so unnervingly matched the crisp and bountiful offerings of the trendiest wineries in California. Walls of olive oil bottles, freshly filled from the winery’s stone press alternate with preserved vegetables and fruits, as well as lovingly showcased examples of the winery’s many labels. There are breadsticks and crackers, chocolate and dried flowers, and even nicely designed cutting boards made from barrel staves. The espresso bar hisses steam, and the long tasting bar is staffed with young and attractive people waiting to help you experience and learn about the wines on offer. Only the labels on the jars, the unpronounceable grapes on the wine bottles, the name tags on the staff, and the ubiquitous offering of Turkish tea in its signature glass cup would hint to the average tourist that they weren’t in Kansas anymore.
After I got over my own initial feeling of dislocation, my second thought was, “Someone clearly knew what they hell they were doing when they built this place.”
That someone is Selim Zafer Ellialti, and taking one look at his résumé makes it abundantly clear why, indeed, he knows what the hell he is doing, at least when it comes to building a wine business. In the course of his career, Ellialti has founded and run a wide variety of companies, from a retailer of spare parts for earth-moving equipment to an art gallery to telecom and software companies. His last company, Protek Computer Systems, was purchased in 2002 by an Austrian IT consulting firm, and for a year or so, he stayed on to help them manage their operations in Turkey.
But, like many entrepreneurs, Ellialti had the urge to move on, except he found himself saddled with a non-compete clause that kept him out of the computer and IT industry for a year. As he thought about what he should do, Ellialti came to a certain realization.
“I realized I wanted to bring my life back into the real world, not the online world. I wanted to invest in something that didn’t become obsolete in a few years, like all my IT investments. And so I started thinking about wine and olive oil. They have been on the market for decades, even centuries” he says.
So Ellialti took his investments and in 2003 started buying vineyard land in Eceabat on Turkey’s Gallipoli Peninsula, one of the southernmost points on the European side of the country’s sprawl across the Bosphorous.
“My idea was to make different styles of wine,” says Ellialti, “and Eceabat was the only destination, with her ultimate mixed climate between the Rhone, Bordeaux, and Napa terroirs. It is windy, sunny, close to the sea and to the forest, and there is a significant difference between daytime and nighttime temperatures. It also has a rich history.”
Indeed, just down the road lies the ANZAC memorial, a monument to the infamous campaign in World War I that sent tens of thousands of Australian and New Zealand soldiers to their deaths in a failed attempt to invade Turkey. The region’s more than 80,000 acres are all part of the Gallipoli Peninsula Historic National Park, which was established in 1980 to protect the military and natural history of the region.
It was only after he had bought vineyards in a national park that Ellialti realized that building a winery next to them wasn’t only going to be difficult, it would prove impossible. “Construction is essentially forbidden in the park,” he explains, highlighting what has been the most difficult part of his latest entrepreneurial venture. “So I had to find somewhere outside the park boundaries.”
“I made a lot of small mistakes due to lack of experience and accumulated know-how,” admits Ellialti, but proudly says he has yet to make a truly big mistake. “I learned a lot of things from the international business world that are helping me as I set up this winery: remote management, technology utilization, importance of know-how and consultant utilization, a sense of urgency, budgeting, time planning, efficiency, sales and marketing, focusing on targets, and cost sensitivity.”
Ellialti eventually found an abandoned German textile factory for sale just outside the park borders and pushed forward towards his vision to, as he puts it, “create one of Turkey’s most respected wine brands.”
After his non-compete clause expired in 2004, Ellialti decided to go back to work (as an executive at Microsoft) while at the same time managing the development of his vineyards, which involved a lot of replanting and refurbishment.
Somehow he seems to have managed the dual life well. “It’s been lovely to drive to the vineyards after a long flight from a US worldwide technology conference or an international meeting,” he says.
After a few years of selling fruit to Kavaklidere winery, one of Turkey’s most prominent, the winery facility was ready, and so was Ellialti. In the fall of 2010, Suvla Vineyards processed its first batch of fruit, destined for its first commercial release, and Ellialti’s Kilye Natural Agricultural Products also launched, both operated as part of the holding company P56 Group, which Ellialti set up to deal with the varied businesses he runs now, including his wife’s graphic design services (guess who designed all the packaging?).
Knowing that his first market was going to be Turkey, the focus of Suvla Vineyards’ initial offerings are the wines that will be most attractive to local consumers, namely international grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc, as well as some lesser known (to Turks) varieties like Roussanne, Marsanne, Cabernet Franc, and Petite Verdot.
As of 2012, however, Ellialti has begun to deepen his use of native Turkish varieties. The barrel samples he and his winemaking team showed off to the group of journalists that visited the winery in November were some of the more exciting wines I tasted while in Turkey. “We will be using more local varieties in the future,” says Ellialti, “as we would like to demonstrate the quality of our region, our grapes, and our winemaking this way.”
Ellialti’s concern for quality pervades everything he does, and it shows. He has received the stringent GAP certification for his wine and food production, which is apparently quite involved. “It is much more complicated than basic organic practice,” he says. “We have to build accommodations for our workers, storage areas for everything from tractors to medicines. We have to place signage appropriately throughout the facility, report all of the chemical applications we make on a daily basis, send grape samples for analysis even before we harvest to determine there are no chemicals being used, etc.”
LIke any good entrepreneur, Ellialti has built a strong team to help him with his latest venture. He relies heavily on the consulting services of the company LITOV, run by Jacques-Antoine Toublanc out of the Loire Valley in France. Toublanc and his team of consultants provide advice on every aspect of the business, from operations, to sales, to oenology and viticulture. The firm was responsible for helping Ellialti find and hire his chief consulting winemaker Francis Poirel, who in turn directs a team of one Bulgarian guy (Dimitar Dimov) and five young Turkish women that, together, handle all aspects of the production.
Somewhat bemused to see a group of five women in their mid-to-late twenties referred to sweepingly as “our winemaking team” I asked Ellialti to explain.
“Serap is responsible for planning and controlling of all the daily work in the winery, including bottling and procurement of all the necessary materials and supplies. Tugba is responsible for our laboratory and all analysis. Arzu is responsible for all the vineyards and the vineyard team. Eda and Zeynep are managing the entire cave and are responsible from all the bottled wines, tanks, and barrels, and participate in all the tastings and voting for all the blends. Zeynep is also acting as our international sales/export manager” he added.
Speaking of winemaking, one of my concerns about Suvla’s wines when I taste them, is their use of what, to my palate, is an excess of new oak that unfortunately overshadows what are generally very well-made wines. I said as much to Ellialti and a group of journalists during a tasting that sommelier Isa Bal and I were leading as part of the 2012 European Wine Bloggers Conference in November.
Ellialti raised his hand and asked if he could make a comment.
“When I asked my winemaking team what should be the way we use oak for this wine, they said one-third new, one-third first year, and one-third neutral oak” he said. “But when I tried to give them what they wanted, I found out that Turkey has a strange law. You can only import new oak barrels. You are not allowed to import used barrels.”
“So I agree with you,” he continued, “but you have to understand, you are tasting our very first vintage of this wine, and we only had our new barrels to use.”
Laughing, I admitted he had a point. And Ellialti couldn’t have provided a more perfect window into just how nascent is the modern Turkish wine industry, while at the same time proving the strength of Suvla’s earliest efforts.
In late 2011, Ellialti finally quit his day job to focus on his wine venture full time, a move which is the culmination of a thirty-year love affair with wine. In his twenties, he took a summer holiday to Italy, and as many do, he learned to love Italian wines. “My friends realized that I could only speak fluent Italian after a bottle of wine,” says Ellialti, who has equal hopes for his fellow Turks when it comes to falling in love with wine closer to home.
As one of the newest and brightest entrants into the rapidly modernizing Turkish wine industry, both the quality of his wines, as well as the clear business sense that Ellialti brings to the table prove that Suvla Vineyards will almost certainly play a big role in that effort.
As with most Turkish wines, few of these are yet available in the United States, and none can be found for sale on the Internet.
2012 Suvla Vineyards Kinali Yapincak Barrel Sample, Gallipoli Peninsula, Thrace
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of yeasty ripe apples and wet stones. In the mouth floral and appley flavors have a nice almost tannic tartness to them leaving a chalky feeling in the mouth. Interesting. Made from an uncommon indigenous grape variety called Kinali Yapincak. Score: around 8.
2010 Suvla Vineyards “Kabatepe Beyaz White” White Blend, Gallipoli Peninsula, Thrace
Light gold in the glass this wine smells of floral notes and honey.In the mouth the wine is honeyed, and slightly off dry with distinct notes of clover honey and wet stones. Decent acidity, but somewhat simple. A blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Roussanne, Marsanne, and Chardonnay. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5.
2011 Suvla Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc, Gallipoli Peninsula, Thrace
Near colorless in the glass, this wine smells of lime zest and sea air. In the mouth lime zest and saline notes have a mineral austerity and somewhat limited expression. Tight and brusk. 13% alcohol. Score: around 7.5.
2011 Suvla Vineyards Chardonnay, Gallipoli Peninsula, Thrace
Palest gold in the glass, this wine smells of wet wool and star fruit and apples. In the mouth yeasty notes of green and yellow apple have a nice crispness, but the yeasty note makes it a bit rough for me. 14% alcohol. Score: around 7.
2011 Suvla Vineyards “Single Vineyard Reserve” Chardonnay, Gallipoli Peninsula, Thrace
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of toasted oak and ripe apples. In the mouth toasty oak notes meld fairly seamlessly with apple and wet stone notes. Though the oak is present it is not entirely overwhelming, and the wine has a nice saline quality as well that is quite pleasant. 14% alcohol. Score: around 8.5.
2011 Suvla Vineyards “Single Vineyard Grand Reserve” White Blend, Gallipoli Peninsula, Thrace
Pale gold in the glass, this wine smells of lemon zest and mineral notes. In the mouth, crisp lemon and wet stone notes have a hint of quince and spice along with a nice cool rainwater quality. Crisp, clean, perfectly balanced and with excellent acidity, this is quite charming. A blend of Roussanne and Marsanne. 14% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2011 Suvla Vineyards Rosé, Gallipoli Peninsula, Thrace
Palest pink in color, this wine smells of slightly stewed vegetables, wet stones, and berries. In the mouth clean notes of berries, honey, and wet stones take on a slight citrus/rosehip quality as they head to the finish. Not fully holding together, but reasonably tasty. A blend of Cabernet and Cabernet Franc. 14% alcohol.Score: between 8 and 8.5.
2012 Suvla Vineyards “Blush – Barrel Sample” Karasakiz Rosé, Gallipoli Peninsula, Thrace
Palest baby pink in color, this wine smells of lightly piney strawberry aromas. In the mouth bright notes of strawberry and a hint of raspberry also have a green pine bough and herbal quality that is quite compelling. Light tannins complete a rather complex package, though the wine is slightly high toned. 13.5% alcohol. Score: around 9.
2011 Suvla Vineyards “Kabatepe Kirmizi Red” Red Blend, Gallipoli Peninsula, Thrace
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of dried cranberries and dried cherries. In the mouth flavors of dried and fresh cherries mix with a strawberry note, as lightly leathery tannins wrap around the fruit. Good acidity and a lighter body keeps this wine pleasant and fresh, and its oak is quite well integrated. Tasty. A blend of Shiraz, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petite Verdot. 14.5% alcohol. Score: around 8.5.
2011 Suvla Vineyards Grenache, Gallipoli Peninsula, Thrace
Light to medium garnet in color, this wine smells of strawberry jam, wet leaves and wet earth. In the mouth slightly sweet, jammy flavors of strawberry and cherry mix with a hint of spritz in the mouth, leaving my tongue tingling as a result. Odd. 14% alcohol. Score: around 7.
2010 Suvla Vineyards Syrah, Gallipoli Peninsula, Thrace
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of prunes, blackberry jam and raisins. In the mouth the fruit is definitely on the dried side, but pleasant, with dried cherries, raisins, and figs wrapped in tacky tannins. Decent acidity and a medium body keeps the wine from being overwhelming, but on the whole tastes like it was picked too late. A bit of heat on the finish betrays the 15% alcohol. Score: around 7.
2010 Suvla Vineyards Merlot, Gallipoli Peninsula, Thrace
Light to medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of plum and a touch of oak. In the mouth plummy fruit mixes with well integrated oak and tobacco, and the high octane of its 15% alcohol. Tacky tannins wrap around the fruit, and decent acidity keeps things lively, but the fruit takes on dried characteristics in the finish. Score: around 8.
2010 Suvla Vineyards “Single Vineyard Bozokbag Barrel Aged” Cabernet Sauvignon, Gallipoli Peninsula, Thrace
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of classic cherry and tobacco aromas with just a hint of bell pepper in the background. In the mouth quite pretty cherry fruit and cola are unfortunately obscured with the vanilla of new oak, which is really all I taste after a few seconds. A shame to see that pretty fruit upstaged. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8 and 8.5.
2010 Suvla Vineyards “Sur” Red Blend, Gallipoli Peninsula, Thrace
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine offers merely a blast of new oak. In the mouth wonderfully fresh cherry and tobacco notes have a strong new oak component that is only barely kept at bay by the bright juicy fruit. Over time, this oak will no doubt mellow a bit, leaving this wine easily mistaken for a modernist, if lesser Bordeaux. Nice acidity and supple tannins. A blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petite Verdot. 14.5% alcohol. Score: between 8.5 and 9.
2012 Suvla Vineyards Karasakiz Barrel Sample, Gallipoli Peninsula, Thrace
A perfect cloudy ruby in the glass, looking like all of a fresh bright gem in a ring, this wine smells of redcurrant, raspberries, and cherry with wonderful earthy notes. In the mouth bright berry notes mix with earthier tones and a hint of herbs and a creamy sherry like note emerges in the finish. Excellent acidity. Quite intriguing at this young age. Would love to taste it in 6-12 months. This wine is a contender for the best wine I tasted in Turkey. Score: between 9 and 9.5.
2011 Suvla Vineyards Red Blend, Gallipoli Peninsula, Thrace
Medium garnet in the glass, this wine smells of new oak and… new oak. In the mouth, bright flavors of redcurrant and cherry are doused in powdery, mouth-coating tannins, while strong flavors of new oak wash across the palate. Decent acidity, long oaky finish. A blend of Karasakiz and Petit Verdot. Score: between 7.5 and 8.