• Simon Reilly

Retsina - a taste of history

An edited version of this article was published in Issue 8 of Root + Bone, November 2015 (rootandbone.co.uk)

Illustrations by Ellis Van Der Does (www.ellisvanderdoes.com)

I first tasted retsina, not in some rustic tavern on a remote Greek island, but in an overpriced “Disney does Greek” restaurant in Primrose Hill. My memories of the wine are a bit misty. It happened about 4 years ago while I was still coming to terms with having a small child to look after. In fact, it may well have been the first restaurant meal we had plucked up the courage to attempt with him in tow.

However, I do recall he was happily asleep in the buggy when the wine and mezze first arrived so there may have been some 10 minutes of enjoyment before he woke up and started screaming until we left the place. During those brief moments of peace I do recall thinking the wine tasted weird and certainly like something I’d never had before.

Initially I thought it was off as it tasted as if some alpine fresh radox had been splashed into the bottle. It had a clear woody “quality”. However, after getting over this initial weirdness and when taken with the mezze it became very drinkable. And to manage the stress of what followed when the devil child woke up, I drank most of the rest of the bottle very quickly...

This initial exposure to this unique wine warranted some research. What was it? The wine list at the said restaurant claimed it to be “the legendary Greek wine”, so there must be something interesting to explore….

Retsina has been made by the Greeks since ancient times, for more than 2000 years anyway. At that time, the Romans hadn’t discovered the practice of ageing wine in barrels and glass bottles had not been invented. As a result, the lack of an appropriate sealant for the vessels (or “amphorae”) used to store the wine meant they oxidised and went off pretty quickly. To prevent this, the Greeks sealed the wine with the resin from the local Aleppo pine trees. Although this successfully kept the oxygen out, it also meant the wine was infused with the flavour of the resin.

When the Romans finally invented the barrel in the 3rd Century AD, the need for using resin ceased, however the pine scented wine was so popular with the Greeks that the practice continued and is still made today. Modern Retsina is made following the same winemaking techniques of white wine or rosé with the exception of small pieces of Aleppo Pine resin added to the must during fermentation. The pieces stay mixed with the must, and elute an oily resin film on the liquid surface; at racking the wine is clarified and the solids and surface film are removed from the finished wine.

That’s the boring technical wine bit, but in your Classical Studies class, you’d most likely have learned about what Pliny the Elder, in his work Naturalis Historia, thought about Retsina. He recommends that “resin from mountainous areas has a better aroma than those that come from lower lands”…. an early nod to the French concept of terroir perhaps?

Or you may have learned that the evolution of retsina stems from the Roman conquest of Greece. Apparently the Romans would not only invade, rape and pillage but then slurp all their wine as well. The spiteful locals then used pine resin to put off the Roman conquerors who apparently hated the stuff… “You will take our freedom….but you will not enjoy our wine!”

Anyway, want to try some? Here’s a couple of accessible examples, with my thoughts on tasting them….

Retsina of Mesogaia, Domaine Papagiannakos, 2013 (Attica, Greece). £7.20 per 50cl bottle, from The Greek Larder, 1 York Way, Kings Cross, N1C 4AS (www.thegreeklarder.co.uk)

My first reaction on tasting this was “this tastes weird”. The nose is really strong of earth, like you’ve just opened a sack of potting plant compost. The colour was quite a dark yellow, similar in appearance to good Alsatian Riesling with a bit of age. On the palate was a definite woody flavour with a bit of tobacco all overridden by a lovely mineral streak and a rich texture. Definitely a noble wine with a sense of place, we felt we were tasting a very unique, original and fascinating wine.

Tetramythos, Retsina (Patras, Greece). £11.95 per standard 75cl bottle, from Berry Bros & Rudd (www.bbr.com)

Less obvious than the Papagiannakos. The nose was more about citrus and grass than pine resin. Taking the nose with the fact that it was almost clear in appearance, if I had been told it was a new world sauvignon blanc I would not have been that surprised. It felt as if it was a retsina produced for an international palate, rather than one steeped in history. If I was ordering in a restaurant for a large group this would be a safe bet as a crowd pleaser with a bit of a story.

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