Words By Logan Hollers, Photos By Clarissa Villondo
Given this week’s upcoming Thanksgiving festivities, let’s talk about wine. Specifically, wines from…Turkey. Sorry.
Ankara, a family-run spot in Dupont Circle, has long satisfied cravings for Turkish and Mediterranean cuisine, dishing out upscale-casual cuisine (that’s a thing now, I guess) based on the classic foods from the region.
The restaurant’s wine program recently took a huge step forward; in recognition of the renaissance Turkish wines are currently experiencing, Ankara’s wine list now has a strong focus on lesser-known grape varietals and wines indigenous to the region. I love booze and I love saying öküzgözü (we’ll get to that) – naturally, I was psyched to go check it out.
Ankara partnered with D.C.’s own Andrew Stover, one of Wine Enthusiast’s Top 40 Under 40 sommeliers, to create the tightly curated list. Dude knows his stuff. Apparently Turkish wine has a long and storied history: wine historians believe that the southeastern part of Turkey was the origin of grape domestication, sometime around 9,000 BC, and the first evidence of winemaking in Turkey dates back nearly 7,000 years. Today, Turkey is experiencing a wine revival, with rising quality, increased production, and a global interest in indigenous grape varieties.
According to Stover, the partnership with Ankara was formed to introduce more people to the great wines coming out of the region. “Many of the Turkish wines on the new list are indigenous grape varietals unknown to most guests, but that offer comparative flavors to some of the internationally known grape varieties with which people are familiar,” he said. After trying damn near all of them, I’m sold. (It also didn’t hurt that we were at the same table as Scott Greenberg, one of D.C.’s foremost wine authorities.)
Starting the meal was a brut rosé from England – according to Stover, there haven’t yet been any excellent Turkish sparkling wines imported. That said, he still wanted to start us off with something “light and fun.” The brut fit that bill, crisp, with a light acidity. Apparently President Obama was served the same wine on his visit to Buckingham Palace; if it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.
The rosé was paired with some of Ankara’s more popular cold meze items. Shakshuka was outstanding; sautéed eggplant blended with tomato, roasted red pepper, and garlic. Toss a runny egg on top of this, and it’d be the perfect breakfast. Kofte, a pureed mix of red lentil and bulgur wheat, was also a winner – the assertive spice made these patties an excellent option for vegetarians. Sigara boregi was aptly named; the cigar-like phyllo pastries stuffed with feta and herbs was a spot-on match with the sparkling wine, which helped rinse out some of the salt and fat from the feta. Rounding out the meze was kopologu, an Aegean favorite that blended eggplant with garlic yogurt and a tangy tomato sauce.
Erin Gorman, Ankara’s marketing director, emphasized the theme in Turkish cuisine of keeping preparations simple, letting the ingredients from the region speak for themselves. A light salad of diced cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, herbs, green peppers, and onions proved her right, with ingredients that were dressed lightly and simply allowed to shine. Paired with the salad was a wine called emir (eh-MEER). One of Turkey’s main grapes, emir was a light and fresh white (similar to a Pinot Grigio) that’s a great match with salads and fish. Super dry, with notes of citrus and green fruit. (A quick note: each of these wine descriptions was what I was told. I love wine, and these all tasted like delicious wine. Also, I hate sounding like a pretentious douche and pretending I know how to describe wine.)
We also got to try Anakar’s signature moussaka. (Something I’ve heard of! Nice!) Think of a little Turkish casserole – layers of sautéed eggplant and ground beef are topped with a super rich béchamel sauce and a light swipe of thinned out tomato sauce. Perfect Turkish comfort food for a cold D.C. night. Accompanying the moussaka was a wine called kalecik karasi (kah-LE-chic KAR-ah-sehr), a bright, lighter red often referred to as the pinot noir of Turkey. Smelled like ripe red fruits with hints of spice and pepper. People who know wine said they picked up some cherry cola, as well. You do you.
Turkish cuisine is well-known for its preparations of lamb. Kuzu pirzola is a tiny little lamb chop; the meat lollipop was tender and juicy, without the intense minerally gaminess that sometimes accompanies the meat. Alongside was a simple pilaf, which seemed boring at first, but was actually a nice contrast to the grilled meat and beefy red wine. Paired with the course was the aforementioned öküzgözü (oh-cooz-GO-zoo), a medium-bodied red often compared to merlot or syrah. This was my favorite wine of the night, a juicy, jammy red that was super soft. I gulped this.
Lamb was also featured in the next course, ali nazik. Meltingly tender lamb (like, seriously, meltingly tender) was served on a bed of creamy roasted eggplant. Ropy and dark, with a sauce deep and complex (almost like a Mexican molé), the lamb had a lingering spice that demanded a big, bold red alongside. The varietal, a mix of öküzgözü, syrah, cabernet, and merlot, delivered. Very oaky, the wine had more acidity and spice than expected and held its own with the braised meat. I’ll pretend to be all bougey here and say that I actually picked up some tobacco and leather smells from this one. Solid.
Said it before, and I’ll say it again – not a huge fan of sweets. But even I could get down with Ankara’s baklava; shatteringly crisp layers of phyllo dough, held together with strong hits of honey and ground pistachios. I had one. I’d have another. Turkish tea was also legit, both stronger and clearer than the American teas I’m used to.
Listen, winter is coming. Instead of shacking up with the same old bottle of red you drink all the time (Two Buck Chuck ftw), branch out. Turkish wines are on point. Best of all, Ankara offers all wines by the bottle half price on Mondays and a selection of wines by the glass are available during Happy Hour for just $5. Worst-case scenario, you get drunk for cheap and catch a few laughs trying to pronounce Turkish grape names. Best-case, you find a new favorite to see you through the cold.