There was a lot to talk about with Mehmet Yigit Keskin. Yigit is a Turkish winemaker who lives in California, and his story was written beyond the borders.
Yigit has an impressive scientific background in oenology and viticulture, and he combines it with his hands-on winemaking experience. There are not a lot people out there who have them both, so I had to make this interview to share his insights with you. I’ve asked him many questions; about his career and his scientific studies, and about the important aspects of what makes an artistic winemaker. Finally, we finished the conversation by talking about a wine that surprised Yigit lately.
A glass of wine in the right moment
I asked Yigit how his career and love for wine started in the beginning, and why he decided to be a winemaker. As it turns out, Yigit never imagined himself in the wine business, but he picked up his passion for wine somewhere along the way. Originally, Yigit studied agriculture engineering at Trakya University, located in the Thrace region, which is one of the wine regions of Turkey. At the time of his studies, Yigit was considering a specialization in plant genetics; however something happened that changed his mind, and his life, completely. He explained it with these words:
“Everything started during the annual summer festival. When I was waiting for my university pop-rock band to go to stage, I sipped one of the local wines before heading to the stage. After having that glass of wine I felt enchanted by its beauty. I don’t really remember what was that wine at the moment, but it left good remarks on me.”
Wine does that… The right glass of wine comes in at the right moment and it can change your career, it changes your life. The wine story of Yigit started with that singular glass of wine, it created a new passion for Yigit, and led him to many different countries, wineries, and experiences across the globe. He completed a Master of Science program of enology and viticulture in France and Portugal, as well as hands-on experience through various wineries. Following, he traveled to Australia to make wine there and learn from its winemakers. He eventually made his way to the United States, spending time with some of the best California teachers, winemakers, and wineries; he currently lives in Sonoma Valley of California.
International experience that rounded his palate
As Yigit traveled to many countries for his education and profession, he had the opportunity to taste many wines from all around the world. Thanks to his studies and experience, he learned not only the science and artistry behind winemaking, but also how to taste wines professionally, and he even won a prestigious wine tasting competition in 2015.
The better he became in wine tasting, the better he became in making it. He explained this with his own words:
“Having travelled in many countries and being able to taste their culture made me a better-rounded winemaker, with my scientific as well as artistic background. Now, I can understand how to shape my brush to put a delicate touch when I make wine.”
Artistry of Winemaking
Yigit believes that winemaking is artistry. I’d asked him if he could explain the reasons of it.
“I really think that winemaking is artistry. For example, each grape variety has their own character and it is the winemaker’s job to create, to unveil the beauty of that variety to create something unique, something that will create memories for people.”
Not only that… There are a lot of attributes needed to be an artistic winemaker, Yigit says.
“An artistic winemaker needs to know a great deal about grapes, pruning, grape diseases, etc. A good wine is made in the vineyard; a fine wine is when you put your artistry in it. When I say this, I mean the artist choosing the vineyard site, the soil conditions, or in the cellar, choosing the right technique of production, for example the consequences of yeast utilization etc. they all effect how you will express the terroir.”
Yigit believes it is the vision, and the little touches of the winemaker that can turn a regular wine into a masterpiece. He analogized winemaking to painting, and grapes and vineyards and oak barrels to the types of paint, brushes, and canvases. The texture of the paint, the mixing of colors, choosing quick or deep strokes, all of these decisions impact what the final painting will look like. In the same way, winemakers have complete control over their art medium, in choosing the grapes, choosing when to pick the fruit, as well as cellar decisions, maceration, fermentation, bottling… There are a lot of details to consider for making every bottle of wine unique.
“For me a winemaker has to be so multi-thinking and quickly apply those thoughts to practice. Also a winemaker needs to have the heart in pursuit to making great wine.”
Combining Artistry with Science
As well as pursuing the artistic side of winemaking, Yigit knows the importance of combining it with science. During his master’s degree program, he worked in the lab with Dr. Manuel Malfeito Ferreira, a professor and expert in wine microbiology and winemaking who invented a differentiate agar media for the yeast Dekkera bruxullensis (a.k.a. Brett). Yigit was interested in Dr. Ferreira’s work and began focusing on additional research in this area. D. bruxullensis is a yeast that produce some aromas, such as earth, cured meat, barnyard etc. which can give complexity to wine up to a certain point, but can cause problems when it overpowers the other aromas of the wine. Previously it was known throughout the wine industry, and backed by scientific research, that D. bruxullensis grows at around 10oC. However, Yigit and Dr. Ferreira were able to prove that in storage conditions in both a winery and in a controlled lab, D. bruxullensis can actually start to grow as low as at 3oC. This is a very important finding for current international winemaking practices, because knowing this yeast better allowed winemakers to take extra precautions to control its growth.
In his previous experiences, Yigit created several books and guidelines for the wineries that he worked with. In California, he wrote a laboratory manual book which explains all the aspects of grape and wine analyses, as well as quality control procedures. He also wrote a harvest assessment manual, which explains sampling procedures to detect grape diseases including their spreading mechanism and prevention methods. He also helped the wineries to translate that information to data where it can be useful for winemaking. These books and guidelines continue to be in use by these wineries and winemakers.
A wine that reveals feelings
After explaining so well the artistry of winemaking, I’ve challenged Yigit to tell me which was the wine that he had tried recently and that had surprised him.
After thinking for a while, he was sure about his answer: 2015 Trousseau Gris from Jolie-Laid Wines from Sebastopol, Sonoma County, California.
“Jolie-Laid wines are one of my many favorite wines from this region, since our winemaking philosophies are similar. They believe that winemaking is an artistry, and every vintage of their wines have different character. Therefore, every vintage’s labels are unique and the design reflects the wines’ peculiarity.”
The 2015 vintage’s artwork is named “The Revelation of Desires,” and the artwork belongs to Italian artist Sabrina Garrasi.
As well as the tasting notes, Yigit describes the wine further:
“It was an enigmatic wine, delicate but textured, neither white, pink, or orange hues; almost rose-like but not exactly color on the glass. It had vivid aromatics on the nose, such as stone fruit, white flowers, citrus rind and wet earth, orange cream, melon, honeysuckle on the palate.”
The interview with Yigit made me think about those unique wines that are like a “diary” of their vintages. Whatever happened during that year in the vineyard and cellar, all of the thousands of little decisions that were made by the viticulturists and winemakers, ends up showing themselves in your glass. As long as there are winemakers out there like Yigit to produce them, we’ll have chance to taste them and experience the vision and feelings they wanted us to have. And who knows, maybe one day, a university student will taste a glass of the wine that Yigit made, and that will make her or him decide to be a winemaker as well.