NEW YORK – Retsina has a long history as a traditional Greek wine many have disdained and tried to avoid, but as the New York Times’ Eric Asimov reported in his article “Great Retsina, an Oxymoron No More,” it is time for wine enthusiasts to give restina another try.
Asimov writes, “The flavor of retsina, a wine infused with the resin of Aleppo pine trees, has often been likened to turpentine, even by people who like the stuff. Most modern retsinas are made with poor, thin wine. A potent addition of resin masks the dullness of the base with a sharp, bracing pungency.”
The pine resin in wine goes back to ancient times when Greek winemakers “used pine resin to line and seal terracotta amphoras,” Asimov reported, adding that “even after wooden barrels replaced amphoras as the preferred storage vessels, the Greeks retained their taste for retsina.”
He continued, “A hundred years ago, when Greece was still largely agricultural, farming communities would drink retsina made from the local white wine. Taverns and families might tap the local pines for their own supply of fresh resin.”
Mass-market retsina today is often the cheapest wine, mixed with Coca-Cola for a buzz college students can afford, the Times reported.
Some producers are now making retsina more “thoughtfully and carefully, from grapes grown conscientiously,” the Times reported, adding that “it can be a delicious wine that goes beautifully not only with a wide variety of Greek foods, but with many other assertive cuisines as well.”
“The producers who have embraced retsina are not trying to transform it into a profound wine, a collectible or a bottle worth aging to show its complexities,” Asimov writes, noting that “instead, they want to turn retsina into a cultural tradition of which modern Greeks can be proud.”
Asimov’s first encounter with a “good” retsina was at Souvla in San Francisco. “I tried a glass with a smoky, charred lamb salad, and loved it,” he wrote. “It’s an experience I’ve had the pleasure of repeating several times since.”
The retsina was “Ritinitis Nobilis from Gaia, one of Greece’s best modern wineries,” Asimov noted, adding that “since it was first issued, back in 1998, Gaia has been trying to redefine retsina as a proud custom rather than a genre to be shunned.” Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, a founder and the winemaker at Gaia, was inspired over a quarter of a century ago while working at Boutari where his mentor Yiannis Boutaris’ remark that “retsina can be a wine of quality,” challenged him, the Times reported.
“Quality retsinas didn’t really exist back then,” Paraskevopoulos told the Times, adding that “at the time, they were more a source of shame.”
“Retsina was Greece’s national wine, and as such it needed protection. The thing is, you can neither protect nor promote something that isn’t good. I had to make a good one,” Paraskevopoulos told the Times.
Most retsina is made with savatiano grapes which have a reputation for producing dull wines, the Times reported, noting that Paraskevopoulos instead “chose roditis grapes, which can make fresh, spicy wines, grown at relatively high altitudes, 2,300 to 3,300 feet above sea level. He also paid close attention to the quality of the resin, he said, making sure it was especially fresh.”
Asimov pointed out that “the result was a refreshing, invigorating wine, with a bright pungency that seems ready-made for Greek cooking” and “though retsina is primarily a white wine (and occasionally a rosé), it goes beautifully with roasted lamb, its punchy flavors refusing to knuckle under to the savory meat.”
Asimov was also impressed by Manolis Garalis’ retsina from the island of Lemnos, made with organic muscat of Alexandria grapes, which Aris Soultanos of Eklektikon, Garalis’ U.S. importer told the Times, is “the only white grape they have on the island.”
Eklektikon also imports two retsinas from the Georgas Family, a traditional retsina which will be available for the first time in New York in a month, and the Georgas Black Label.
“It’s a natural wine, but a uniquely Greek natural wine,” Soultanos said of the Georgas Family Black Label, the Times reported, adding that “the demand has been so great for this small-production wine, he said, that it may be the first retsina available only in small allocations.”
Asimov tried Malamatina, “one of the better mass-produced retsinas,” at Kiki’s, “an excellent Greek tavern in Chinatown,” and noted that “the resinous taste was pungent and pure, and it completely dominated the wine, a thin savatiano.”
“In Greece, nobody blinks if you put Coca-Cola in it,” said Kiki Karamintzas, an owner at Kiki’s, the Times reported.
Paraskevopoulos of Gaia told the Times, “The unfortunate fact is that retsinas do not age well. Retsinas should be consumed within the year of their production. Not being allowed to print their vintage doesn’t really help,” referring to Greek labeling laws that “do not permit retsinas to be vintage wines, so they cannot be labeled with a year.”
Besides Ritinitis Nobilis from Gaia, the Georgas and Garalis retsinas, Asimov also recommended Tetramythos and Kechris’s Tear of the Pine for those interested in exploring the retsina renaissance.