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Isa Bal, MS: The Balkan Wine Producers Should Learn from One Another

Mr. Isa Bal, MS, was member of the team of judges at the 7th Balkans International Wine Competition in Sofia, Bulgaria (19-20 May 2018). He also gave a master class on the Turkish wines as part of the festival’s program (Turkey through the Glass of Isa Bal).

Isa Bal has been in the wine business for more than 17 years. He is the only Turkish Master Sommelier (MS), member of the Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) – the most prestigious worldwide educational organization for the beverage service in the HoReCa industry. Isa Bal was awarded the title Best Sommelier of Europe for 2008 at a pan-European contest held in Sofia, Bulgaria. 

His professional interests are in the field of fine dining. Mr. Bal has been Head Sommelier of the famous The Fat Duck restaurant (3 Micheline stars holder) for the past 12 years. Since January 2018  Isa Bal runs his own consultancy business focusing on restaurants, wineries and distribution channels.

Would you, please, highlight the most distinguishing features of the modern Turkish wines?

For me there are maybe three important things to be mentioned. On the first place, there are quite a lot of women working in the wine industry. I think they are even more in number than in most of the other wine producing countries. Another thing is that with the new modern style of wine making there is very good level of tannin management and oxidation management, and also vineyards are getting better. The third one, which we need to change, however, is the difficult working environment for the wine producers. In fact, all the positive things the producers are doing happen in a very difficult environment in political terms. Hopefully, they will be able to work in better conditions one day and make even better wines.

That said, what is the current state of the wine industry in Turkey?


I can say that the production numbers are stable or at least they are not declining in huge numbers and not going up in huge numbers either. Depending on how the economy and the situation with politics changes in Turkey, they can go either way. If you have a weak economy in a country you cannot have a strong wine industry. The quality will undoubtedly go down, though it will be a temporary thing. I think the quality of the Turkish wines has gone up immensely in the last ten years or so, and I expect it to get even better. As a matter of fact, Turkey is amongst the world leaders in terms of wine grape plantations, occupying the sixth place in this ranking.

And what about the state of the wine culture in the country?

I would like to tell you that we’ve got a very good wine culture but unfortunately we do not. People still drink “labels” – they drink “names” of the grape varieties or producers. However, there are some very good wine connoisseurs in Turkey, though not many in number. Besides, the young and educated people are becoming more interested in wine – they want to learn more and to know more. So, I could say that there are processes of positive changes as well.

Which is your favorite Balkan wine destination, except for Turkey?

Can I give you two? (smiling) For me they have to be Croatia and Greece. Probably Greece first and Croatia second. They make some very good and very interesting wines in both of these countries. 

How do you see the future of the Balkans as a joint wine region on the World Wine Map?

It is very important that the Balkan wine producers cooperate. Because, when you go as a single wine producer or a single small wine country in a big market like the USA or UK, or Germany, it is expensive for you. But if you do it together with other producers you will achieve at least two things: one – you will reduce your costs; and second – you will attract a wider group of consumers.


For example, if Bulgarian, Turkish and Greek wine producers go together in a new market, each of them will attract different type of customers, who will be very likely to try the production of the others once they come. So, the effect of this joint effort is that you will introduce your wine to more people quicker.


Also, for example the area near Plovdiv, the Northern Greece and the European part of Turkey can be organized as a common wine route that people can travel over one week and visit all three countries. It can really become a very attractive touristic and gastronomic destination.

It is important that local producers understand that it is not just about the wine in the glass. Yes, they have to sell the wine they produce but in fact they are selling the whole environment – a package of many other important factors that come together with the wine in the glass. 

Do you believe that it is time the wine producers from the Balkans to start putting more efforts into establishing a common wine appellation (like Wine from the Balkans, for instance)?

I don’t quite see it, because for me wine appellation is a geographical place with its own character. On the Balkans, and even in Bulgaria for example, you have many locations which exhibit very different characters. So, it is difficult to have an appellation in this sense, but cooperation should be the right thing to do. I actually think that it is time for the Balkan wine producers from the different countries to visit their neighbors, taste the wines the others are making and learn from one another. This is also very important.

As a professional sommelier, would you outline the most important characteristics of a good wine list at a restaurant?

First of all it is very much dependent on the style of restaurant you have got. You might have a very simple restaurant which does just one dish and if you have two wines on the list it will be enough. But if you have a gastronomic restaurant with diverse clientele you would like to offer different wines to the people. I personally don’t like restaurants that work only with one winery. Restaurants have to give chance to different wineries; they have to give chance to their clients to make the choice.


A simple rule might be to select wines for the list based on the quality, so when you stand up in front of your client you can decisively say that you have chosen this wine because you like it. The other important thing is the style of food you serve. If you are a fish restaurant you don’t need to offer heavy and full-bodied wines. Instead, you can put some elegant reds. You might include also some “big name” wines because some of your clients might prefer having such.


So, it turns that there are three most important things you have to take into account when compiling the wine list – quality of the wines, style of food you do, and your customers. 

Of course, if you live in a wine producing country your local wines should be well represented instead of international ones. That said, if I am a client of an Italian restaurant I would not expect to find there wines from Chile, as I would not expect to find wines from South Africa in a Bulgarian restaurant.

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