ISTANBUL // A Dutch businessman of Turkish descent says he is preparing to bring a new taste to the Islamic world. Taner Tabak has produced alcohol-free wine, and is about to bring his product to Turkey. He says he is also eyeing Iran, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf region as potential markets.
"It tastes and feels almost the same," Mr Tabak, 35, speaking in a telephone interview from his company Delikatwine in the Netherlands this month, said about "Kevserhelalwine". He wants to bring the alcohol-free wine to supermarkets and hotels in Turkey in the coming months. Alcohol is legal in Turkey, a secular Muslim country of 70 million people, and wine has become more popular in recent years, even if consumption rates do not compare with those in western Europe.
According to the latest available figures, about 21 million litres of wine were consumed in Turkey in the first half of last year, 1.1 million litres more than in the corresponding period in 2008. All in all, Turks drank about 536 million litres of alcoholic beverages in the first six months of 2009, about 4.5 million litres more than the January-June period of 2008. While alcohol consumption is climbing, Turkey has also seen the rise of a religiously conservative middle class in recent years, a development that has fanned demand for lifestyle choices in line with a more observant outlook. There have been booms in interest-free banking and in so-called "headscarf hotels" that cater to conservative holidaymakers who prefer facilities such as separate pools for men and women.
That is the market Mr Tabak is pinning his hopes on. He says he plans to sell 200,000 bottles of his alcohol-free wine in Turkey in its first year. During a recent tourism fair in Istanbul, he was inundated by requests for his wine from more than three dozen hotels. "Lots of people tasted it then and said it tasted like real wine," he said about the fair. "That is nice to hear." As Mr Tabak prepares to take the Turkish market by storm, some wine experts in Turkey say the alcohol-free product will not cause much of a splash because wine-lovers prefer the real thing.
"That is just a fashion, just a wave that will go away again," Esat Ayhan, the owner of La Cave, a leading wine shop in Istanbul, said yesterday. He said Turks were consuming millions of litres of alcohol every year. "Do you think conservative people do not have a share in that?" While Mr Tabak conceded that Kevserhelalwine does not taste like wine "a hundred per cent", he said it comes close, "maybe 70 to 80 per cent". He offers his product in four types that include a Champagne-style bubbly. At the moment, he sells about 40,000 bottles a year to clients in the Netherlands, Belgium, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Mr Tabak, who was born in Turkey but later moved to the Netherlands and is a Dutch national, said potential buyers include not only Muslims but also pregnant women and motor vehicle operators who want to enjoy the taste of wine but still drive their car safely. In interviews with Turkish media, he said he had the idea to produce an alcohol-free wine when a Muslim businessman complained about the restricted choice of drinks for him at a reception.
Mr Tabak said his company was aiming to produce a million bottles per year. Kevserhelalwine takes its name from the 108th sura in the Quran, and Mr Tabak says buyers of his product can be sure that they do not violate any religious laws. He had the wine tested by the Control Office of Halal Slaughtering and Halal Quality Control, or HQC, an institution in the Netherlands that hands out certificates for goods it says have been produced according to the rules of Islam, which prohibits the drinking of alcohol.
The HQC gave Kevserhelalwine the green light last April, according to the wine company's website. "The certificate was very difficult to get," Mr Tabak said. "It took one year, and they have very strong rules." He declined to give details about the production method and his production partners, except for saying that the alcohol-free wine is produced in Germany, a country with a strong wine industry.
"It is an alternative," Mr Tabak said about his wine. He said he is looking at Turkey as a first step and wants to offer Kevserhelalwine in shops, restaurants and hotels in the country. He named Syria, Lebanon and Jordan as well as Iran and Saudi Arabia as potential markets. "There has also been some demand from the Gulf region," he added without providing details. But Mr Ayhan of La Cave said there had been other attempts to tailor products to conservative customers, all of which had failed. "Two years ago, somebody introduced a halal toothpaste, but nobody bought it."