What is Retsina?

resinpinew

When you’re in college, you have the perfect excuse for drinking liquor that tastes like it could strip paint. Retsina fans, however, do not.

That may be harsh. Though the wine is known for its whiff of turpentine and has drawn a divide amongst wine lovers, the pine-flavored (yes, you read that correctly) Greek white is steeped in over 2,000 years of history.

Once Upon a Time

All those years ago, winemakers faced a dilemma: how to go about successfully aging their grapes. The process at the time was a little rudimentary, and wine would often stand in open or porous containers, exposed to oxygen and spoiling quickly. As no wine should be wasted, the Greeks came up with an ingenuous solution. They started to seal the containers with pitch from Aleppo pine trees, which, while keeping the wine for longer, also ended up flavoring it.

Retsina was an acquired taste from the beginning. In the first century, Roman writer Columella criticized the use of it in fine wines due to its distinctive flavor, though not so much later, Roman writer and wino Pliny the Elder (23 CE – 79 CE) encouraged the addition. He also recommended where in Greece to find the best resin, anticipating the concept of terroir.

When the 3rd century rolled around and barrel making was in vogue, using pitch was no longer necessary. However, the Greeks missed their air freshener-scented wine and preserved their traditions and tastes by adding the resin to the must during fermentation.

Of course, given how long Retsina’s been around, there are a few different stories about it’s origin. My favorite starts in 146 BC because I love little more than people throughout history proving you don’t need a reality show to act petty while drinking wine. Allegedly, when the Romans conquered Greece, along with committing the usual atrocities of war, they drank the Greeks dry. To retaliate (and protect their wine), the locals integrated pine resin into their winemaking as their intruders couldn’t stand the flavor.

New research from the University of Pennsylvania shows that credit might be displaced: they found jars in Iran dating back to the Neolithic period (8,500-4,000 BCE) which held resinated wine. Still, no matter who was the original mastermind behind it, Retsina become associated with Greece and remains a part of their viticulture today.

(More) Modern Days

Retsina gained international prominence because it was primarily grown near Athens — when tourists visited, this is the wine they saw locals drinking and the wine they talked about after their travels. Formerly, it was stored in barrels in the restaurants and bars, and it took until the 1960s for makers to start to bottle it. Even now, it’s not easy to get a hold of outside of the country.

Retsina continues to be made throughout Greece with the same Aleppo pine tree pitch, although production is primarily concentrated in Attica, Boeotia, and Evia. Staring with a white or rosé base, modern winemakers use Savatiano, Assyrtiko, and Rhoditis, or a blend of the different varietals. To accommodate different palates, some blends are subtler, comparable to more daring new world Sauvignon Blancs.

The drink is known to pair well with a sweeping view of the Mediterranean, but for those who can’t have spontaneous Greek wine getaways, couple it with seafood or a traditional meze spread. Opt for strong flavors. After all, though it may be tradition, pine resin-flavored wine isn’t for everyone.

3 Comments

  • Kelly says:

    I came to Wine Awesomeness looking to read a nice piece on wine history—and more specifically ancient Greek & Roman viticulture—but was left with quite an elementary and frankly, childish take on the subject. Perhaps more research and seriousness should be taken next time you write an article that tackles such a complex subject?

    At the very least let’s make sure we correctly spell and identify one of the more important Greek varietals “Assyrtiko”.

    I agree that Retsina is an acquired taste and definitely an odd style in the modern world, but joking about it (read: “air-freshener scented) takes away from its history and significance to the Greek & Mediterranean peoples.

    Cheers and I look forward to better work in the future.
    -K

  • William Moore says:

    Ah Retsina, I remember it well! In the late 1960′s – early 1970′s, when I was living in Los Angeles and just getting into wine, I used to get this at my Greek market deli, C & K Importing on Pico Blvd. near Normandie Avenue, across from St. Sophia’s Greek Orthodox church. This Greek market, run by a genuine Greek guy had a great selection of mainly Greek wines, some I’d never heard of other than reading about them in Wines of the World by Andre L Simon. I recall Retsina being a dry white wine and was cheap at around $3.00 per 4/5th qt. bottle. The brands I recall: Andrew P Cambas, Nicholas Tsotras and Achaiia Claus. the first two names, of course are Greek but I never found out how a Greek wine had a German founder. Anyway, this wine is a wine to drink very young and the most recent vintage if it has a vintage year on its label. Most of them aren’t vintage dated but producers release their wines early as these wines don’t age well and are meant to be consumed relatively young and fresh. There’s even a red Retsina, Kokinelli, I think that goes well with moussaka and leg of lamb. Both the red and white Retsinas are the perfect accompaniments to mezes, olives, feta cheese, grilled shrimp, or stuffed grape leaves. I haven’t seen Retsina here in quite some time and I’d like to give the new version a try. I understand the ones from years ago were more strongly flavored with pine resin and were definitely an acquired taste. I understand the modern versions are a bit more refined, and most likely, like all the other Greek wines I enjoyed many years ago at relatively cheap prices, have gone up price wise. Time to get to my local Greek market for a refill. Opa!

Leave a Reply to William Moore Cancel reply