Nov 18 2017

The Syriac wine

Wine has been of great importance to many Mesopotamian civilisations since the Sumerians first produced it in 4000 BC. In cultures from Egypt to Greece, it was held as the drink of the gods. But its status has fallen so much that the drink, once an important export to Europe, is now viewed as a Western drink in Mesopotamia and Anatolia, where only the southeastern cities of Mardin and Diyarbakır have maintain the old methods of production.

The guardians of these traditional techniques are the Syriacs, an ancient Christian community whose numbers are dwindling. The Syriacs are known for their great expertise as jewellers and stoneworkers; but they have a historic prowess and rich culture in many other fields. Chief among these is the tradition of wine production in the villages of the Midyat region of Mardin province.

Vintage in Diyarbakır. Sertaç Kayar
Vintage in Diyarbakır. Sertaç Kayar

This is the only region still producing the highest-quality grapes and wines – a sad decline since the old days when Syriacs and Armenians in Diyarbakır, too, produced so much of the drink that under every old house in the Sur district is found a wine cistern.

The Syriacs and Armenians in Midyat favour traditional production techniques over modern methods, which are unable to reproduce the desired flavour in the wine. But production of this unique wine is stifled by new regulations that prevent its transportation to other regions.

Mugdat Baran is a 32-year-old Syriac wine technician who runs Diyarbakır’s only winery. According to Baran, the key to the region’s distinctive wine lies in the traditional production techniques.

We make wine using just the same methods used in (the Ottoman) days. The French used to use the same methods, but now they’ve mechanised. In the old days they pressed the grapes by foot, but now they use machines for that, and to heat the juices. What we do in a pressing tub that they use three separate machines for.

According to Baran, the wine’s ingredients must be all natural with no additives. The fermentation process is accelerated by placing the wine under the sun, resulting in a swift production period of around 40 days.

This method of production has brought interest from as far as Tekirdağ, the western region considered the centre of Turkey’s wine production. Though regulations prevent Baran from shipping his wine there, he is confident that interested buyers will come to him.

Even though wine-making is a long tradition for the Syriacs who continue to produce it for personal use, he said, current laws prohibit the homemade wine. Yet in Diyarbakır, Baran feels little pressure from the authorities, except in the matter of transporting his goods. Any untaxed goods are contraband, so moving the wine is treated in the same way as transporting cannabis. Baran believes that if these restrictions are lifted wine production could contribute greatly to the economy.

Grapes before the press. Sertaç Kayar
Grapes before the press. Sertaç Kayar

Another people with a long history in Diyarbakır are the Armenians. While many were torn from the city during the 1915 genocide, and their numbers have decreased more since then, traces of their community are found all over the city.

Grapes are sacred to the Armenians, and their old houses contain areas to make and store wine. In the old days, the fruit was not eaten each year until August 15, when it was harvested and brought to the church to be distributed charitably around the city.

The Armenian oud master, Udi Yervant, remembers those days. A native of Diyarbakır, Yervant emigrated to America in 1992 when a retired colonel threatened him for singing Armenian songs. But Yervant’s heart remained in his hometown, to which he returned after 21 years in the United States, and where he now runs a cultural centre.

Wine, says Yervant, was so culturally important that it even held a special place in Armenian poetry. But this art has been lost:

“Who is left to make it? Did they leave any Armenians? They chased them all out; they killed the ones in good health and chased the rest away. So there’s no one left to make wine.”

Today, though alcohol is not fully welcome in Diyarbakır for religious reasons, the city has many licensed premises. However, these venues have experienced pressure from the local council, which has tightened its regulations since the arrival of government-appointed administrators so severely that it is difficult to do business.

Making wine. Sertaç Kayar
Making wine. Sertaç Kayar

According to Şihat Şengal, the chairman of Diyarbakır’s Chamber of Agricultural Engineers, this government pressure prevents profitable wine production, despite the region’s great productive capacity. This is a frustrating situation for Şengal, who echoes Baran’s belief in the wine industry’s potential: “If we lift the restrictions and get wine to the market, this region will become a major producer and make a significant contribution to our economy.”