An exploration of Retsina is simultaneously an exploration of ancient and modern Greece. It is a wine that has changed with time and has been shaped by history. It is a Greek tradition. For over two thousand years this style of wine has been consumed with gusto. From early Greek mariners downing jugs of, what was then, a salty mixture to modern Greek youth mixing the now more tame Retsina into soda to get a little tipsy, this wine has more to it than meets the eye. At its simplest, Retsina is a white wine (or possibly rosé) which is made primarily from Savatiano grapes and is mixed with small amounts of Aleppo pine resin during fermentation.
This process results in a wine which typically tastes of apple and peach while leaving you with a slightly oily mouthfeel and hefty aroma of pine. For some the wine is “that wine” you warn your friends not to have at a Greek restaurant, for others, it is a mainstay of each meal. It is a wine which is still changing to this day with winemakers working diligently to innovate the process, explore new grape varietals, and preserve Retsina’s place in an ever-changing wine culture.
A brief history of Retsina wine
Centuries before we had oak barrels, appellations, and nice corks the Greeks and Romans were making wine and drinking it heartily. Their wine wasn’t typically the nuanced, barrel-aged, delight we now know though. It was rough, it was stored in clay jars, called amphorae, and it was often loaded with additives and preservatives, salt being an especially common one . To top it off the amphorae would then often be sealed in some way, with pine resin being the sealant of choice in some places.
This was all done to combat the effect of oxygen. When it comes to wine, oxygen is pernicious and once its effects take hold the drinkability of a wine plummet. If you want to experiment with this (not that it’s recommended to treat dear old wine this way) just buy a bottle of wine, have a couple of glasses to appreciate its flavor, and then leave the bottle out overnight uncorked and try it again. Oxidation will set in and your once fruity wine will now be tart. Modern innovations in the winemaking process post-harvest have reduced this problem at the industrial scale significantly.
Flashback to early Roman and Greek empires and none of those innovations were present. Retsina wine arose because of this. Greeks would fill clay amphorae with wine and then seal it with pine resin to keep out the oxygen. The aroma of the resin would then soak into the wine itself creating what we now call Retsina wine. When the innovation of oak barrels and other wine storage techniques came into effect across the Greek and Roman empires the pine resin was already so popular that Greek winemakers just continued to include it in the wine despite the lack of necessity. Some stories attribute the popularity and the staying power of Retsina to other reasons though.
As one tale goes, as the Romans were tearing across the land and blindly spreading their empire when they eventually dominated the Greeks they consumed all of their wine as well. The Greeks, as would any reasonable culture, retaliated to protect their wine. They added pine resin to their mixtures so the invaders wouldn’t be able to stand the taste. So was born resinated wine. This anecdote doesn’t have much historical evidence to support it but the underlying notion of outsiders not enjoying Retsina has held true.
Resinated wine was not well received in many other parts of the world and, even to this day, remains very much Greek. Retsina, specifically, is so quintessentially Greek that the European Union classifies the name Retsina as a protected designation of origin and appellation for Greece.
Retsina – the wine of the gods?
Greek mythology teaches that when Ampelo, Dionysus’s lover, passed away after a goring by a wild bull, a grapevine sprung forth from his body. In his sorrow, Dionysus squeezed the grapes of that vine and produced a juice that caused the one who drank it to become drunk. From this act of love, sorrow wine was born.
At another juncture in Greek mythology, Dionysus visited a region of Greece known as Attica. Attica, even in modern Greece, is also known as the Attic peninsula and it is home to the Greek capital of Athens. Upon visiting Attica Dionysus was met with great hospitality by the noble King Ikarios. As a gesture of generosity, and upon seeing the fertility of the region, the god Dionysus gave Ikarios the gift of grapevines with which he could make wine. Ikarios quickly went to work with the gift and made wine.
The legend continues as Ikarios then decided to share in his gift. He supposedly gave some of the wine to passing shepherds. The shepherds didn’t understand how the liquid would make them drunk and that the effect would pass so they misinterpreted the gift to be a poison. They quickly retaliated and killed the noble Ikarios. Heartbreak, generosity, and tragedy encompass the mythological birth of wine for Greeks. The wine gifted by Dionysus to Ikarios in Attica is now inextricably linked to Retsina as well. Attica is considered to be the birthplace of Retsina. Athens itself is a city surrounded by vineyards and, apparently, the Savatiano grape, with which Retsina is often grown, can be found along the city streets.
How is Retsina wine made?
Historically Retsina was infused with large amounts of pine resin from sealing the amphorae because this is what was necessary to stave off the flavor sucking oxidative onslaught from the outside air. The wine would also be saturated with salt as another line of defense against oxidation. Now, however, neither condition is the case. Modern Retsina is predominantly made from Savatiano grapes, which happens to be Greece’s most planted white grape. Sometimes, Assyrtiko or Rhoditis grapes are added to the mix as well as other varietals found throughout Greece. Whichever grape is ultimately used the wine is distinctly Greek.
The overall approach in producing the Retsina is mostly the same as any other winemaking process. At fermentation, the process differs just a bit when pieces of Aleppo pine resin are added into the mixture to impart that distinct resin aroma and flavor. These pieces remain in the mix until the wine is filtered during a stage known as racking in which the wine is fed from one barrel to another via a gravity pump. This process clarifies the Retsina immensely and prepares it for bottling. The end product is a much milder form of its ancient resin-rich, saline heavy, ancestor.
What does Retsina wine taste like?
Retsina is an old world wine that has a flavor profile that varies from brand to brand. In a very general sense, the wine has a mild taste to it, neither too sweet or too bitter, and it typically has a whiff of pine and notes of lemon with a mild touch of salinity. Retsina made from Savatiano grapes, for example, has apple and peach flavors while other grapes will impart their own fruitiness to the wine. Since Retsina can be on a spectrum of pine resin strength from very mild to “I think I’m drinking a pine cone” there are also versions of the wine which have been likened to turpentine.
If you have tried the “pine cone” version, have faith they are not all like that. Retsina is generally considered an acquired taste and it is probably best to be aware of that before diving in. If you try Retsina and find it to be too strong stick with it and give it it’s fair due. Drinking Retsina is drinking a part of Greek culture and, as with any new or shocking cultural difference, it is ultimately worth taking the time to appreciate it and find some beauty in it.
How do you serve Retsina?
Retsina is a wine where the way you drink it can matter quite a bit more than with some other wines. The general recommendation with Retsina is to drink it very cold and from a wide-open glass. This helps to temper the aroma of pine which can sometimes be overpowering. In a more acute glass, the odor will be trapped and can completely subdue the other elements of the wine.
An argument can also be made that Retsina should be consumed along with other elements of Greek culture. Topping the list, of course, would be consuming the Greek wine in Greece while soaking in the beauty of the Mediterranean. Short of that, Greek foods, music, language, and customs should be paired with Retsina consumption. Maybe listen to Dimotiko and enjoy some dolmades while you drink a glass or three of Retsina. Don’t just try it as a wine, try it as a cultural experience.
What should I pair with Retsina?
Because of the pine resin in Retsina, the wine is known to have herbal aromas. This helps it to pair very well with roast chicken, lamb, or pork. Lemon, mint, and rosemary also pair very well. Overall you should think strong flavors to match the strong flavor of the wine. Spicy and savory dishes work well too, especially those with pickled, salty, or garlic components.
To go full Greek you should definitely pair the wine with Dolmades which are , if you’re not familiar, grape leaves, stuffed with an herbal rice mixture, made into small rolls and boiled. They are extremely delicious and just a little addictive. You should also consider putting together a traditional Greek ‘meze’ (Meh-Zeh) platter. ‘Meze’ literally translates to ‘a taste’ and that is just what this essential Greek platter is. It is composed of small plates of hot and cold savory dishes like cheeses, tomatoes, olives, pita bread, even dolmades. The variations are seemingly endless. In some ‘meze’ you might find meatballs or even octopus!
Retsina pairs well in some slightly unconventional ways as well. For one, you can use it as a mixer in cocktails because its herbal aromas give it qualities similar to gin. A Retsina and Tonic or a Retsina Mojito are both excellent drinks and definitely worth it, all you need is a great bartender set. Retsina also pairs well as a cooking wine and can be used to marinate fish, potatoes, and beets. This again is possible because of the herbal aromas of the wine.
What is the best Retsina wine?
Making a statement on the best of any wine is somewhat like saying what the best book or TV show is for every person. It mostly doesn’t work. Individual preferences are so varied that subjectivity rules the day here. Still, for the sake of information and finding a place to start in the ever-changing world of wine and Retsina there are some recommendations that can be made for very good and affordable versions of the Greek drink.
Among Retsina wines the Kechris ‘Tear of the Pine’ is a highly rated, award-winning, highly affordable wine. Made from Assyrtiko grapes the pine resin does not dominate this drinkable bottle. Expect a fruity and mineral body with aromas of citrus atop vanilla, butter, rosemary, thyme, and ginger.
Another very good, and affordable, Retsina is the Tetramythos Retsina made from organically grown Roditis grapes. This winery, in the Northern Peloponnese, uses only resin from pine trees adjacent to the vineyard and even ferments the wine in traditional ceramic urns. This wine boasts flavors of lemon blossoms and white peach with hints of pine.
A recommendation of ‘best’ Retsinas would be remiss without including a top selection from the home of Retsina itself. The Retsina Papagiannakos is an excellent wine made from Savatiano grapes grown in fifty-year-old north-facing Attica vineyards. The aromas of pine and lemon infused in this traditional wine provide a fitting example of what a Retsina is.
Is Retsina really a wine in the classic sense?
After all that has been written here this final question might be the one worth considering most. There is a strong and worthy argument to be made that Retsina isn’t technically a wine but is, instead, more of a wine-based drink. In many circles, Retsina is undoubtedly a wine and has been addressed as such here. Just consider for a moment however that this might be more a matter of nomenclature and less a case of substance.
Wines, fundamentally, can be considered an expression of terroir. The way the overall climate of a vineyard shapes the flavor of the grapes is expressed through the wine and is provided nuance in the winemaking process. Oftentimes if a wine is fermented and aged in oak barrels and the presence of the oak in the wine becomes too strong there is a cry that the wine has been lost to the oak. Effectively, the flavor of the grapes, the terroir, the uniqueness, has been overpowered and muted. In those instances, the oak takes center stage and the grape flavor, the wine, takes a back seat.
With Retsina some might say that the same situation is at play. Retsina really is a technique and not a wine. It is the act of adding pine resin to wine. The wine is actually Savatiano or Assyrtiko or some other varietal. Still, because many of these grapes are so often exclusively interlinked with the Retsina process we call the whole wine product Retsina. The process takes whatever the core white wine is, whatever flavor and aroma it might have or not have, and buries it beneath an overpowering aroma of pine. The pine then becomes the show.
For many years this is exactly what some Greek winemakers relied on to get by. They would resonate a substandard wine to hide all its imperfections and aromatic defects in the hopes that it might still sell as a Retsina. The truth is that pine resin and wine do not work together with the way other fundamentals of winemaking do. A Retsina cannot age like wine in an oak barrel might. Whereas the oak barrel might add notes of vanilla, might smoothen the wine, might add more complex texture, the pine resin in Retsina will only continue to overpower the base wine.
Playing devil’s advocate here it is possible to say that Retsina can be viewed as a one-trick pony. That’s fair to say if you look at it through the lens of the normal wine experience. Retsina is not a normal wine though. Retsina is a modern manifestation of an ancient process and, because of that, maybe it really isn’t meant to be enjoyed like most other wines. Typically you would sip a glass of wine to experience the terroir of where it came from, you drink to taste the land, the place, maybe appreciate a degree of the culture that created it.
Even if Retsina is a one-trick pony maybe it’s one trick is to pull you strongly and unabashedly into an experience that shocks you, just a little, and makes you question what you like. It brings you face to face with something that is, for better or worse, very Greek and that, for many, is also very foreign. Maybe, ultimately, that is a very good thing.
Bonus tip: You can watch a blind taste test of the Kechris Tear of the Pine Retsina by one of the best Sommeliers in the world, Andreas Larsson!