Gabriel Cili and his Assyrian wine – Culinary backstreets

By on August 10, 2022 0

Gabriel Oktay Cili is a man of many talents. When we visited him one winter’s day in January, he had throngs of visitors crammed into his tiny, tunnel-like shop on the main tourist thoroughfare in old Mardin, near Syria’s border with Turkey. Each had a cup of Assyrian cardamom coffee or tea in their hands and each waited for Gabriel to attend to them. For half an hour, he sold silver jewelry to a couple visiting town and pierced the lip of a woman who worked at a restaurant down the street. He fixed another’s gold necklace with an ancient blowtorch and fitted a young man with a personalized silver bracelet. All the while, he appeared at the back of the shop to intermittently dispense more coffee, filling the shop with his spicy scent.

But we weren’t there for the jewelry, or the coffee. We were there for the wine.

Gabriel sells homemade Assyrian wine from the back of his silver shop, aptly named “Gabriel Silver and Gold”. This wine, called “Mardin Suryani Sarabi”, is slightly sweet, slightly spicy and unlike anything we have ever tasted before. The first time we got it, a filmmaker friend who had a key to the shop let us in, we took a bottle, left some cash on the counter, and drank the wine from plastic cups on a roof overlooking the lights of Syria. The second time, we spoke with Gabriel about his childhood in Mardin, his travels around the world and his final return to his ancestral homeland, the ancient city. And this time, we sat down with a glass of wine each as he told us how he came to this ancient profession.

Viticulture dates back millennia in Mardin – many historians and archaeologists believe that viticulture began in the region, the Mesopotamian plain, over 2,700 years ago. The name of the Assyrian community derives from the Assyrian Empire, a polytheistic empire that ruled over a vast expanse of land spanning Turkey, Iran, Iraq, and Syria from 2500 to 609 BC. , silversmithing and winemaking.

During the Ottoman Empire, like other non-Muslim groups, Assyrians continued to live and practice their religion – Christianity – in the southeastern regions of what is now modern Turkey in exchange for taxes paid to the Ottoman state. This system of cohabitation continued until the last years of the Ottoman Empire, when thousands of Assyrians, along with Armenians and other Christians, were murdered and displaced. The Assyrian Genocide of 1915—considered by the community to be distinct from the Armenian Genocide—is called the Sayfo, and according to Assyrian delegates who attended the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, over 250,000 Assyrians were murdered. The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples Organization (UNPO) estimates the number of people killed between 1915 and 1918 to be much higher, at 750,000.

According to Minority Rights Group International, around 95% of Turkey’s Assyrian population left the country as a result of the genocide and the continued violence against the Assyrian community after the founding of the Turkish republic. It is estimated that only 3,000 Assyrians still live in their ancestral homeland, the southeastern provinces of Sirnak, Hakkari and Mardin, while around 22,000 live in Istanbul. Those who remain, like Gabriel, struggle to maintain practices that have all but disappeared with the campaign of violence against his community – including viticulture.

Modern Assyrian winemakers have worked to incorporate new winemaking techniques with ancient grapes and practices. When he was growing up, Gabriel remembers his uncle Suphi making wine for the family and the community. Later, her father, Hanna, continued the practice. The two men – who learned the technique from Gabriel’s grandfather – harvested the ancient grape varieties from the vineyards around Mardin, crushed them, then left the grape juice to oxidize before bottling and storing the wine to be opened. holidays. This oxidation period is what gives Assyrian wine its specific taste.

For much of the last century, this is how wine was made and consumed – by the community, for the community. However, the last two decades have seen the rapid rise of tourism in Mardin and with it the taste for Assyrian wine. Today, the Old Town’s main street, lined with intricately carved sandstone buildings, is dominated by shops selling the drink, as well as the yellow bittim soap and silver jewelry for which the town is famous. Tourists flock to the sandstone hilltop town for its ancient sites and leave with bags full of Assyrian wine and pastries – remnants of a culture all but extinct.

Despite the rise in popularity of Assyrian wine, Gabriel has retained the ancient techniques used by his ancestors. He still uses indigenous grape varieties – many of which are grown by the Armenian community that existed in the region before the 1915 genocide – which his family has worked hard to protect. He still crushes the grapes by hand and lets them oxidize in the sun in large vats. He estimates he makes around a thousand bottles every year like this, foregoing a factory for a smaller-scale production warehouse outside Mardin’s old town.

He integrated the winemaking technique he learned from his family with the techniques of European masters. When he returned from military service in Mardin at the age of twenty, he realized that his family’s wine could bring him profit. He started taking winemaking classes and brought his teachers to Mardin. They made it more “professional”, said Gabriel, and allowed it to produce more and better quality wine. He also began sourcing grapes to add to his family’s repertoire, including native varietals thought to be long lost.

The result is Gabriel’s spicy and sweet Assyrian wine, the one we drank from little earthenware cups on that cold January day. Years – centuries – of honing produced a wine that warmed us with its richness, tickled our palates with its surprisingly complex flavor, helping us fend off the bitter cold that crept past Gabriel’s door, the wintry wind that hissed through the empty, narrow streets of Mardin. .

The work of maintaining a cultural tradition, such as Assyrian winemaking, is not without challenges. Under the AKP-led government of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, alcohol producers in general and winemakers in particular have faced increasing scrutiny and limits on production and advertising. Small producers like Gabriel and others in the region struggle to be approved for government-sanctioned labels. With a total ban on alcohol advertising in the country, they mainly rely on word of mouth to sell their products. Gabriel believes his wine business could not survive without the income he earns from making jewelry and piercings.

Turkey is also in the midst of a historic economic crisis – the Turkish lira has lost more than 30% of its value against the dollar since the start of the year. Inflation is officially at a two-decade high of 73.5% (although experts believe that in reality it is much higher). Almost all of the materials Gabriel uses to make his wine – corks, bottles, barrels – come from abroad, so the more the lira loses its value, the higher the cost of making the wine. Gabriel tries to keep his prices low for loyal customers but has had to raise them, like every winemaker in the country.

We must also fight against climate change. The region around Mardin is in the midst of a historic drought, with dams and lakes drying up during record heat waves. While the grapes Gabriel uses are somewhat heat resistant – they are native to the region and can therefore survive some degree of blows from the region’s harsh climate – the extremes that Mardin experiences threaten even the hardiest grapes. . For now, Gabriel’s dry farming practices, which do not require additional water, can withstand Mardin’s ever-hotter climate. But if things get worse, he says, he will have to consider changing his harvest times or moving to other vineyards.

Faced with these multiple difficulties, Gabriel is disappointed that there is less cooperation between winegrowers and between winegrowers and the government. Few winemakers are employing data-driven or “smart” farming practices, he says, and even fewer are sharing their learnings. There is little cooperation and price coordination, and the government offers no incentives or tax breaks to winemakers. There is not even a centralized weather data collection system that allows growers to access detailed climate data. This hampered the wine industry, including those who make Assyrian wine.

For him, the government’s position on alcohol and winemaking must change if Turkish winemakers have any hope of survival. Alcohol taxes have increased and continue to do so – last month, alcohol taxes in Turkey were increased by 25% after already increasing by almost 50% at the start of the year. Additionally, the government must collect and disseminate data to support and encourage smart farming practices. If people were to be more efficient when growing and harvesting grapes, Gabriel said, the wine industry would be more sustainable.

Unfortunately, he doesn’t see that kind of support happening as long as the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) is still in power.

“Wine is a culture,” Gabriel said, “unfortunately they don’t see it that way.”

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