The story behind retsina, Greece’s traditional wine
Just like the sound of music or the smell of perfume, the taste of wine has the ability to bring back memories. For many people, retsina was the only affordable option as a backpacker when they were travelling their way through Greece. This is perhaps why, sometimes, you reach out for a bottle at the liquor store. A simple sip takes you directly to the breath-taking turquoise colour of the ocean and the sublime white houses of the idyllic islands. All that’s missing is the sound of “Zorbas,” a few friends with whom to dance sirtaki and a delicious Greek salad.
I, too, have those memories. I’ve had a love affair with Greece since I was 17 years old. When I first set my foot in this beautiful country, I was there for two months to study history and archaeology. As a poor student, retsina was my daily celebration. But, just like times past, my memories have evolved into new ones. This traditional wine is no longer a synonym for a mediocre beverage confined to Greek-themed dinners. Rather, it is thirst-quenching with a salty tang and a pleasant herbal tone that I can’t get enough of. Have I changed? No, retsina has.
To understand the evolution of retsina, one has to comprehend why it was born in the first place. Historically, flavoured wine was made around the world for one main reason: to cover up the flavours of a poorly made wine. Made mostly in central Greece where vineyards were surrounded with pine trees, retsina was produced by adding pine resin during vinification. It was a very useful technique to mask bad flavours at a time when winemaking and methods of preservation were not fully understood. Pine resin was also used to seal the mouth of the amphorae and to coat the insides to prevent oxygen from coming through. In some instances, pine trees were also transformed into wine barrels.
The fact that pine resin was retsina’s signature flavour profile did not encourage producers to improve their techniques in the vineyard or the winery. By the end of the 19th century, retsina was flooding Greek tavernas in Athens. Soon bottles were being shipped to the islands, and by the 1960s, it was filling tourists’ glasses. For better or for worse, this was this wine’s heyday. Large producers like Boutari and Tsantalis were focusing on high-volume, inexpensive wine. It was not until the late 1970s that such big companies started to notice a demand from wealthier consumers for better-quality bottles. This realization marked the start of a new era not only for retsina, but also for Greek wine in general.
Today, we can say that retsina is divided into two non-official categories: inexpensive retsina and “modern” and slightly pricier retsina. However, both carry a tradition and even the cheapest version you can buy is in every way better than the one you could find 30 years ago. So, what has happened? Everything is simply — better! Superior viticultural practices have increased the fruit quality and improved winemaking techniques. The pine resin is also of better quality. Producers now favour freshly harvested resin from Aleppo pine trees over old and oxidized ones. The quantity of pine resin added to fermenting white wine — and in some rarer cases, rosé — has also decreased. Legally, resin must now comprise 0.15 percent to 1 percent of the final product. But in the late 18th century, the concentration could be as high as 7.5 percent! No wonder you felt like you were biting into a tree. Many producers also believe that terroir is just as important for a pine tree as it is for a vine. Eleni Kechri, the daughter of Stelios Kechris, who is considered the father of the retsina revolution, is experimenting with this. A chemical engineer and the oenologist at Kechris Winery, Kechri is conducting studies at the University of Thessaloniki on the extractability of resin coming from different terroirs as well as on the evolution of the aromatic and flavour profile of resin during the stages of fermentation, maturation and aging. At Kechris, they’ve already done many experiments. The winery has found that high-altitude pine resin is more citrusy whereas the one coming from lower-altitude lands is more herbal. Therefore, Kechris prefers the latter for its highly recognized and premium Tear of the Pine retsina, which is aged in barrels. This particular wine is made from Assyrtiko and herbal flavours are more suited to the grape.
Most winemakers add the pine resin during fermentation by putting it into a cloth much like a tea bag. Depending on the concentration of flavours desired, they remove it either after a few days or at the end of fermentation. Others will add the retsina directly to the fermenting vessel, removing it at the end during the first clarification. Yiorgos Manolas, Export Director at Kechris Winery, says that nothing more can be gained by leaving in pine resin beyond the fermentation stage.
The fermenting vessel also matters. Traditionally, amphorae made out of clay were used. Some wineries like Tetramythos maintain this tradition. They have a beautiful collection with a few that are 800 years of age. The lining of the amphorae plays an important role. Panayiotis Papagiannopoulos, one of Greece’s most talented winemakers, who works at Tetramythos, says he lines his new amphorae with beeswax when they are too porous as he wants to prevent oxidation. Some of his other clay pots are lined with pine resin and the old ones are not lined at all. Meanwhile, at Kechris, they favour stainless steel over amphorae and they even age Tears of the Pine in barrels.
The type of grape is another key element of retsina. Traditionally, Roditis and Savatiano, both widely planted in central Greece, were the natural choice. While they suffered from a bad reputation, mainly due to poor viticulture, things are changing. Vasillis Papagiannakos of Domaine Papagiannakos champions Savatiano. He says it is perfectly adapted to the dry and arid climate of the Markopoulou region where his vineyards are located. As a result, he is able to have non-irrigated bush vines. While Papagiannakos has also found that another virtue of Saviatiano is its aging potential, he does not like to age his retsina. He says that with time the wine takes on a botanical profile, which he does not enjoy. He prefers to drink it when it’s fresh and tangy. By comparison, Roditis can be very ordinary if not managed properly in the vineyard. At Tetramythos, Papagiannopoulos says that the unique mountainous terroir of Aigialeia, combined with the minimal intervention in the winemaking, has been important to having a line of finesse and elegance in its Roditis. He also stresses the importance of only producing retsina from free-run juice. Meanwhile, some wineries are experimenting with other grapes by following the lead of Kechris, a producer that is making stellar retsina from Assyrtiko and Xinomavro.
I personally enjoy this traditional drink on its own, as an aperitif. I find it extremely refreshing. But, the truth is, retsina fully shines when accompanied by the right type of food. Of course, the classics like Greek salad, fried squid, spanakopita and souvlaki work like a charm. But it is equally delicious with tapenade, white anchovies or a pasta that has been simply prepared with garlic, chili pepper, cherry tomatoes, fried sage and sprinkled with feta. Garlic soup is also a must-try, and my favourite match when the days get cooler in the fall is roasted lemon chicken. Have I mentioned baked eggplant or falafel? Those who like the cuisine of Yotam Ottolenghi should have plenty of fun trying to match retsina to some of his recipes. Especially with his Jerusalem cookbook. One word of advice, though, don’t underestimate the effect of pungent pine flavours when playing with pairings.
At first, just like blue cheese or fino sherry, the taste of retsina can be disorienting. But don’t let this distract you from giving it a real chance. Thanks to a handful of great producers who’ve decided to revamp its reputation by putting quality first, retsina has never been better. Old is getting new again. Drinking retsina has never been so hip.
Kechris Kechribari ($10)
This is the Kechris’ entry-level retsina. Dominant pine notes on the nose are underlined by pine mushroom and lime zest on the palate. Light-bodied and simple but well made and what a great companion to pita served with hummus, tzatziki or baba ganoush. An inexpensive snack full of flavours.
Kechris Tear of the Pine R17 ($25)
Considered one of Greece’s best retsinas and for good reason. Rich with creamy texture and the pine resin mingles well with the assertive personality of Assyrtiko. Concentrated notes of lemon, vanilla, yogourt and yeast are enhanced by herbal and mushroom notes. Elani Kechri says this retsina has aging potential. The structure walks the talk. I am putting a few bottles away myself to revisit 2–3 years from now. A great match with grilled lamb seasoned with sea salt and sprinkled with fresh lemon juice. Yamas!
Kechris Poza Rosé ($15)
One of the rare rosé retsinas. The combination of pink grapefruit, orange zest, herbal tone and slight bitterness on the finish reminds me a little bit of Campari. The perfect aperitif to encourage the appetite. A bowl of olives or slices of prosciutto, anyone?
Papagiannakos Retsina ($15)
Made of 100% Savatiano from non-irrigated 50-year-old vines. Fresh and tangy with a more restrained presence of pine resin flavours, which makes this retsina a finer and more delicate style. Love the bursting flavours of lemon zest and slight salty finish. Grilled sardines, please!
Tetramythos Retsina ($15)
Fresh and vibrant with lots of energy and character. The flavours of the pine resin are well supported by the high quality of the white wine, which is made from 100% Roditis. The grapes come from 4 vineyards where the age of the vines vary between 28 and 42 years. The grapes are farmed organically and only a minimal amount of sulfur is added. Good for the soul, good for the body and good for the planet.
Gai’a Ritinitis Nobilis ($20)
100% Roditis grown on the surrounding hills of Nemea in Korinthos. Light on its feet with a nice concentration of lemon notes that mingle perfectly with the herbal aromas. Elegant and nicely balanced. A great match for seafood yellow curry when coriander and lemongrass are among the ingredients.