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MUREFTE, Turkey (AFP) -- Long shunned due to a religious ban on alcohol and scorned for its reputed poor quality, domestic wine has now found a place on Turkish tables thanks to the efforts of passionate local connoisseurs.

The tiny town of Murefte, located about 230 kilometres (143 miles) west of Istanbul not far from the Greek border, is in a sense the capital of Turkish wine-making. With only 3,500 residents, it has 30 wineries.

During harvesttime in late September, tractors loaded with grapes fill the town's roads as women clad in shalwar -- the baggy pants of colorful cloth worn by peasant women -- wielding curved pruning knives walk the tiny vineyards on the flanks of Mount Tekir. One's nose gets a whiff of alcohol from time to time.

Viticulture has been practised here since ancient times -- in fact since the Byzantine Empire, according to local historians.



Despite Islam's ban for the faithful to consume wine, Ottoman rulers allowed wine-making, thanks to the presence of a Greek community in the region until the population exchange between Greece and modern-day Turkey in 1923.

"We do not have a wine culture," said Tezcan Gurkan, a wine expert who worked at the state-run alcohol monopoly of TEKEL for 18 years before setting up his own winery, Ganos, in 1980.

"Our cuisine -- tomatoes, cheese, melon -- goes with raki (a traditional alcoholic beverage made of aniseed), not with wine," he said.

Turkey is the fourth biggest grape producer in the world with 570,000 hectares (1.4 million acres), but according to the International Organisation of Vine and Wine, it is ranked only 39th among wine-producing countries with 250,000 hectolitres (5.5 million gallons) in 2004.

It is the third biggest producer of table grapes and the world leader in the production of raisins.

"We have to modify the eating habits of Turks for wine to find its place on tables," Gurkan said.

With a small market and traditional practices employed in production, Turkish wine for a long time remained a poor quality beverage which repulsed delicate palates. But the last two decades saw the emergence of a new wine industry, which according to Gurkan, has already had some success.

"Now the kings of grape varieties are all produced in Turkey and we also have Turkish wines that can stand up to comparison on the world market," said Gurkan, whose high-quality production -- limited to 400 hectolitres a year -- is sold via the Internet to only a select few.

There are five Turkish grape varieties that are most appreciated.

"Among the red, we have the spicy Bogazkere and Okuzgozu from the east of the country, and the elegant and fruity Kalecik Karasi of central Anatolia," said Mehmet Yalcin, the director of the gastronomy magazine Gusto.

"Then we have the crisp and acidic whites, Emir of Cappadocia, and Narince from the Black Sea, which has more body," he added.

Turkish wines, now sold under hundreds of brands, have also found themselves a market.

"People have started getting more interested in wine. Nowadays, they buy according to the grape variety and the year. They want to try different tastes," said Esat Ayhan, the owner of La Cave, the biggest wine retail shop in Istanbul.

Ayhan said his clients are generally from the higher strata of society or intellectual classes: senior executives, artists, foreign diplomats and university students.

However, he added, heavy taxes on wine prevent it from reaching a larger section of society.

"There is a special tax on wine, which is added on to value added tax. The result is that you have to spend 15 Turkish Liras (about nine euros, 12 dollars) to drink wine in Turkey where as in Europe, table wine costs between one to three euros.

"This discourages clients," Ayhan said.

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