Retsina: Dis­graced Greek wine re­turns to the fold

Re­viled as nasty plonk un­til very re­cently – and de­servedly so – this an­cient resinated tip­ple is now ready to re­claim its place in our hearts

Kathimerini English - - Focus - BY MEROPI PAPADOPOULOU *

The cus­to­mof adding resin to wine dates back to an­cient times; it is hardly sur­pris­ing that the vine would, at some point, meet the neigh­bor­ing pine, par­tic­u­larly in cen­tral Greece, where the two grow in such close prox­im­ity. And while the dis­cov­ery of wine it­self has been at­trib­uted to a ran­dom event – a happy ac­ci­dent, if you will – the use of pine resin was quite pos­si­bly man’s first cal­cu­lated in­ter­ven­tion in the mag­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion that turns mere grape juice into pre­cious wine.

How did this come about? Thanks to both its an­ti­sep­tic and preser­va­tive qual­i­ties, thick resin from the Aleppo pine tree was first used to seal wine casks. It was also uti­lized to seal por­ous clay am­phorae in an­cient times, help­ing to en­sure safer trans­porta­tion and stor­age for the con­tents. Over the cen­turies, wine­mak­ers be­gan to no­tice that the pine resin im­bued the wine with a dis­tinc­tive fla­vor and its use as a sealant be­came even more wide­spread. Later still, we find ev­i­dence of resin be­ing mixed di­rectly into the wine to im­prove its fla­vor. Some vint­ners, it ap­pears, even added whole pine cones to the clay jugs.

Fall­ing from grace

Dur­ing the 19th cen­tury, the ad­di­tion of pine resin was aug­mented by the use of pine casks to hold wine. A par­tic­u­lar mar­riage of fla­vors was achieved by stor­ing or ag­ing wine: It de­vel­oped a pep­pery taste, a car­bonic mouth­feel and a grainy af­ter­taste. Af­ter this type of cask dis­ap­peared from wine­mak­ing, pine resin it­self re­mained in use, but now it be­came a means of mask­ing the flaws of sub­stan­dard wines. In fact, it was this use of resin as a con­ceal­ing agent of sorts that even­tu­ally gave retsina its bad rep­u­ta­tion, a no­to­ri­ety from which it is only now start­ing to re­cover.

Mean­while, as 20th cen­tury Greeks left the coun­try­side for the cities and started to travel more ex­ten­sively, they de­vel­oped a taste for fruity, un­resinated wines, which they deemed more sophis- ticated. Retsina, long associated with the “com­mon-folk” cul­ture of tav­er­nas – where it was mainly sold and con­sumed – was no longer con­sid­ered ac­cept­able at the din­ing ta­bles of the coun­try’s as­pir­ing Western-minded bour­geoisie. This, in turn, caused a down­ward spi­ral, not only for retsina but for the Greek wine in­dus­try as a whole. With few ex­cep­tions, retsina be­came a ter­ri­ble wine – rough, harsh, lack­ing in fla­vor and char­ac­ter – that was served only at tourist traps.

In the minds of both for­eign and do­mes­tic con­sumers, all Greek wine be­came associated with bad retsina, and early ef­forts to pro­duce good-qual­ity un­resinated wine were un­able to over­come this ob­sta­cle of pub­lic per­cep­tion.

Even­tu­ally, high-qual­ity un­resinated Greek wine did man­age to win over the pub­lic, but retsina, which, thanks to its unique fla­vor, could have been a lead­ing am­bas­sador for Greek wines, was left be­hind. This aban­don­ment was a cruel fate for the hum­ble but long-lived retsina. This is par­tic­u­larly true when one con­sid­ers that it is only thanks to the abil­ity of the resin in retsina to mask in­fe­rior taste char­ac­ter­is­tics that Greeks re­mained wine drinkers at all, when in fact they could have turned to other al­co­holic bev­er­ages.

Promis­ing present

Lately, how­ever, things have im­proved; there has been a re­vival of this very spe­cial wine, with a num­ber of vi­sion­ary pro­duc­ers in­vest­ing in its “Greek­ness.” They are hop­ing to put retsina back on the path to suc­cess, both in Greece and abroad. They have taken on this rather can­tan­ker­ous wine, ex­per­i­mented with it and per­formed a dar­ing but suc­cess­ful leap of faith. They have achieved har­mony be­tween the var­ied fruity tones of the grape and joined it with the dis­tinc­tive yet dis­creet fla­vor of pine resin, un­der­lined with hints of mas­tic gum, rose­mary and sage, the slight bit­ter­ness of the pine nee­dle and a pep­pery fin­ish.

Good-qual­ity retsina features a bal­samic qual­ity im­bued into the wine by the pine resin which nonethe­less al­lows the grape aro­mas to come through. An al­most in­dis­cernible bit­ter­ness gives it a re­fresh­ing fin­ish, as though the wine were aer­ated, mak­ing it the per­fect com­pan­ion for the heav­ier

the grapes are pro­cessed in the usual man­ner, but a small amount of resin (al­ways taken from the Aleppo pine) is added at the start of fer­men­ta­tion and then re­moved once it has re­leased its fla­vors. The best resin is still sourced from pine trees in the At­tica re­gion, although Evia, Ilia and Corinthia are now emerg­ing as sig­nif­i­cant pro­duc­ers. or more com­plex tra­di­tional Greek dishes.

A num­ber of ex­cel­lent retsi­nas have emerged in the mar­ket, sat­is­fy­ing con­tem­po­rary de­mand for so­phis­ti­ca­tion while still main­tain­ing their own tra­di­tional char­ac­ter. Th­ese retsi­nas are also mak­ing in­roads at dis­tin­guished com­pe­ti­tions, fo­rums where it would have been in­con­ceiv­able to send a retsina just a few years ago.

His­tor­i­cally, the main pro­duc­tion re­gions have been At­tica, Vi­o­tia and the is­land of Evia; in re­cent years, Mace­do­nia, the Pelo­pon­nese and the is­land of Rhodes have all been mak­ing strides in pro­duc­tion as well. The more com­mon white retsina is most of­ten made us­ing Savatiano grapes, as they are ro­bust enough both to stand up to the resin and to par­tic­i­pate in the wine’s com­plex fla­vor struc­ture. In re­cent years, the Assyr­tiko and Xi­no­mavro va­ri­eties have also been used in white and rose retsi­nas re­spec­tively.

When mak­ing retsina, the grapes are pro­cessed in the usual man­ner, but a small amount of resin (al­ways taken from the Aleppo pine) is added at the start of fer­men­ta­tion and then re­moved once it has re­leased its fla­vors. The best resin is still sourced from pine trees in the At­tica re­gion, although Evia, Ilia and Corinthia are now emerg­ing as sig­nif­i­cant pro­duc­ers. * This ar­ti­cle first ap­peared in the free press mag­a­zine Greece Is Wine. To view more con­tent, visit Greece-Is.com, a Kathimerini pub­lish­ing group ini­tia­tive.

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