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Climate change is threatening thousands of years of winemaking in Turkey

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Turkey isn't famous for wine, but the beverage has been made and enjoyed there for thousands of years. These days, though, the country's vintners worry about their future because of how climate change is affecting their grapes.

NPR's Peter Kenyon visited vineyards along Turkey's Aegean coast, where he found winemakers wondering how they can survive amid rising temperatures.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: My first stop is at the Urla Winery, not far from the city of Izmir.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR CONDITIONERS RUNNING)

KENYON: Kerem Kumbasar, general coordinator for Urla Wines, takes me down to the cellars. At the peak of summer, outdoor temperatures can climb to a sweltering 110 degrees Fahrenheit. But down here, air conditioners work to keep the thermometers reading below 64 degrees.

KEREM KUMBASAR: This is the very healthy place for the wines...

KENYON: Yes.

KUMBASAR: ...And for us, of course, during summer, during hot summer.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIRDS CHIRPING)

KENYON: Owner Can Ortabas says when he bought this land, it was basically some 160 acres of brush and old olive trees with no water or electricity. But it had been protected from development. Then one day, he found terraces that looked like they'd once been vineyards. And then more evidence turned up in the form of amphoras, ancient vessels for holding wine.

CAN ORTABAS: And they were still smelling wine. I brought the archaeologist who is responsible for on the peninsula. They belong to Ionian Period, which is about 2,300, 500 years old.

KENYON: It wasn't until the late 20th century that scholars unearthed evidence of ancient winemaking in Turkey dating back to the Neolithic period. Ortabas says he grew to love the region's winemaking history, but these days, he worries about climate change. Increased heat can cause grapes to ripen too quickly, altering flavors and possibly diminishing their value as wine grapes. One sign of the rising temperatures - wineries are starting their harvest weeks earlier than what used to be the norm. Ortabas says it's long past time to acknowledge that things are changing and not for the better.

ORTABAS: I'm so sorry about it because there is only one beautiful planet. We are trying to go to the other planets, and there is only dust and minus 500, plus 300 centigrade. But we still don't take care of this planet.

KENYON: Those are concerns shared by Bilge Bengisu, who runs the Urlice Winery with her husband. She was an architect living in Michigan, and her husband was a businessman and sometime musician. So when they started growing international wine grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon on the Aegean coast, she says the experts warned them against it.

BILGE BENGISU: They said, oh, no, you cannot grow Cabernet in such a hot climate. And we said we wanted to try because we saw that the evenings are quite cool here, and we have really chalky soil that can keep cool. Even though it's hot, the roots can stay cool.

KENYON: She says the critics quieted down when the Urlice Cabernet turned out to be a success. But she worries that a warming planet could eventually overcome the benefits they get from their favorable microclimate.

BENGISU: I think it's going to create really important challenges. For example, late ripening types grapes - this will be a challenge to grow. And Cabernet Sauvignon is one of them, unfortunately.

KENYON: Bengisu says they still have hope, though they may need to find more heat-resistant grape varieties. In the meantime, winemakers here say visitors are coming in large numbers, giving a significant boost to the region's tourism industry. But they know a warming climate could bring dramatic changes in many parts of the world, and Turkey's Aegean coast is no exception. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, on the Urla Peninsula, Turkey. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.