For too long retsina has been thought of as a cheap, oxidized, overly pungent bad wine made from mediocre grapes, its poor quality disguised by an overdose of resin and exacerbated by being stored in questionable conditions in the backyards of seaside tavernas. To say the wine has an image problem is an understatement – but that may be changing.
Regardless of its reputation, retsina is a true Greek original. It dates back to the Ancient Greeks, who would coat the interiors of their otherwise porous earthenware amphorae with resin to make their wine storage airtight. Wine drinkers grew to like the taste, and winemakers consequently began adding pine resin to grape must during fermentation. The European Union recognizes retsina’s importance with a protected designation of origin. The wine’s name, however, has suffered from decades of shoddy practices. But in recent years, producers have started making a new kind of retsina.
Using modern technology and selected grapes usually of the indigenous Savatiano and Rhoditis varieties, 15 producers are experimenting with the wine, exercising restraint with resin so as not to overwhelm the fruity aromas of the grapes. “People at international wine shows are all interested in retsina,” says Stelios Kechris, producer of the highly regarded Tear of the Pine. “I believe retsina is a contemporary wine – and full of surprises. I was surprised at how well my Se Fonto Rose behaved in the oak barrels and also that a resinated wine could age. Until I launched Tear of the Pine everyone thought retsina had an expiration date of a year.” Tear of the Pine sees four to five years in oak.
These light, refreshing retsinas are gradually gaining a following, but educating consumers remains the main hurdle to their rehabilitation. “Our customers do order it more than before,” says Agis Agapitos, the owner of Oinoscent wine bar, “but usually I have to explain to them that there are truly some very good options for them that have nothing to do with the past. On the other hand, wine connoisseurs already know this and look at new wave retsinas with interest and curiosity.”
Besides Kechris’s Tear of the Pine and Se Fonto Rose – the only rosé retsina in the world – Oinoscent also sells Ritinitis Nobilis, which comes from the hills surrounding Corinth. By the Glass, a wine bar near The New Hotel, and Heteroclito, opposite the Metropolitan Cathedral, also offer several new-wave retsinas. (We’ve written previously about the wine bars that have cropped up in downtown Athens over the last few years.) Other bottles to look out for include Retsina Papagiannakos, Vassiliou Domaine Retsina of Attica and Ino Retsina 1+1.
These wines, with their structure, moderate acidity and generous aromas of pine, lemon and other fruit, go especially well with seafood such as fried whitebait, squid and cod; Mediterranean preparations of meatballs or liver; ladera, the peasant style of cooking vegetables in olive oil; and the garlic, herbs and spices of Greek cooking in general.
The new wave retsinas have compelled traditional retsina brands like Malamatina and Kourtaki, which together comprise almost 90 percent of the Greek market and are exported to more than 40 countries, to rethink their own wines. Both have reduced the quantity of resin in their popular retsinas, making them lighter, but they have still a long way to go before they can win the awards and recognition that Tear of the Pine has received.
Yet Kechris is not one to rest on his laurels. “Retsina today is shedding the stigma of the past,” he says. “There are now many of us winemakers that are trying hard to prove that.” He has a greater goal in mind, too: “We all know that the general image of Greek wine won’t change unless the image of retsina changes. The two go together.”
Margarita Michelakou was previously Editor-in-Chief of Marie Claire Greece and a correspondent for Colors. She has worked for Athens Voice since its first day and currently manages the magazine Trofima kai Pota (“Food and Beverages”). She lives in Kypseli, “the Beehive,” an area in the center of Athens.