In Praise of Retsina. (Really)
What Vegemite is to the Aussies, retsina is to the Greeks. Over generations their palates have become acculturated to the taste of resin in their wine. As early as 2700 BC, Greek wine merchants were using the gum of pine trees to seal the porous clay amphorae in which they stored and transported their wines. The resinous flavour infused itself into the wine or, to non-believers, contaminated it.
For the uninitiated the taste descriptor could be an anagram of the name (retsina: nastier); but it is still the most popular wine in Greece, accounting for some 30 per cent of white wine production there. According to Perikles Drakos, the Export Director of Tsantali wines, Greeks drink more white wine than they do red (“It’s rare to see anyone ordering red wine from May to September”) and retsina is the most popular white (“Your friends will say, ‘let’s go out for retsina’”). They will even mix retsina with Coca Cola, says Drakos, to make a popular drink called Toumbo Libre.
While retsina might be the Greeks’ wine of choice it was not readily available in the President Hotel where I stayed in Athens recently. Nor was it on the wine list in a typical country restaurant called Sofos in the town of Nemea, the birthplace of Hercules.
Yet it would not be an exaggeration to suggest that retsina would have been the first wine experience for consumers in the ancient world since Greek traders shipped their amphorae, protected from oxidation by sap from the Aleppo pine, throughout the Mediterranean and beyond.
From the third century AD, the Romans shipped their wines in barrels, making amphorae obsolete but the market was so accustomed to the flavour that pine resin was added during the wine’s fermenting process. In his book, Wine Myths and Reality, Benjamin Lewin MW cites a first century tribe called the Allobroges who lived in the southern Rhône between Vienne and Marseille. They made a wine called pomatum (meaning pitch). “It took its name from the use of resin to seal the containers, and may have been somewhat comparable to Greek retsina,” writes Lewin.
The tourism boom in Greece in the 1960s created a new international market for retsina. No self-respecting Greek restaurant around the world would be without one on its wine list. But that era was the time of bulk wine producers in Greece who used resin to cover the flaws in their white wines. Mercifully, over the years the concentration of pine resin has been dropping. In the late eighteenth century it was as high as seven point five per cent. In early twentieth century, according to Konstantinos Lazaridis, in The Wines of Greece, “ … up to the 1960s, most retsina contained about five per cent resin. During the 1960s commercial and bottled retsina [was] usually made with much lower resin addition of one or two per cent.”
The major grapes used in the production of retsina are Savatiano and Roditis although other white varieties can be used, such as Assyrtiko. There is also a rosé usually made from the Xynomavro grape. On a previous trip to Greece in 2009, I tasted wines made by what are considered the two best retsina producers in the country: Kechri The Pine’s Tear 2008, made from cask-fermented Assyrtiko with Roditis and Savatiano — very delicate and grapey with resiny and clove notes. Then Kechri Xynomavro Rosé 2008, which is also delicious.
But be warned: these wines are food-specific. They are not for sipping on the patio unless you have plates of Greek mezze to accompany them. You really do need to taste retsina alongside the cuisine of the country or region (which is axiomatic for all wines). The key is olive oil and garlic. So drink your retsina, nicely chilled, with hummus, dolmades, tzatziki, scordalia, taramosalata, feta, olives, pita … Bring it on.