by Peter Pharos

In praise of Retsina

An English acquaintance of a certain age, likes to bring up Nana Mouskouri every time we meet. He appears to find her not only an endless source of amusement, but also a quintessential part of Greek culture. Both were bewildering to me a first. It’s not only that most Greeks my age would struggle to name a track by Nana. The fact that she would loom so large in the mind of a non-Greek struck me as, well, a bit funny.

The story of retsina is not dissimilar. When I first got into wine back in Greece twenty years ago, the style was hardly a major consideration. You were meant to know your Assyrtiko and your Moschofilero, your Roditis and your Robola, but you were more likely to delve into the various local experiments with Chardonnay before you covered Retsina (hey, it was the 1990s). Sure, there were a couple of brands of the dodgy stuff on supermarket shelves, next to the beer and ouzo, but they were not meant to be thought of as wine. A half-litre would set you back maybe 50p. People mixed it with coke. Remnants of a small circle of aficionados of real retsina did exist, if one knew where to look, but by then their numbers were modest and practically restricted to Athens. In my understanding of Greek wine, quality retsina was our vin dugarage.

But go abroad and…wow! You people were obsessed! Supermarkets that stocked no other Greek alcoholic product, seemed to find shelf space for brands I’d never seen at home. Introductory articles on Greek wine opened by sagely informing their readers­­ that, surprisingly, the country produced non-resinated wine too. And people had views. Like, strong views.

The most common accusation thrown at retsina is that it’s not really wine, with people calling it anything from a vermouth to, my personal favourite, a “process” (one wonders what those latter savants think the rest of winemaking is). The differentiating, and offending, characteristic of retsina, you see, is that minor amounts of pine resin are added to the must during fermentation. In a world of chaptalisation and new oak, Charmat and flor, one struggles to see why this most ancient of approaches is singled out.

A more reasonable, and not wholly unjustified, concern is that the taste of pine resin can be overpowering or just disagreeable. As with all other aromas, the former is a sign of bad winemaking, the latter a matter of personal taste: just make sure to disregard any silly talk about turpentine, a line repeated by those who have never smelled at least one of the two.  For what it’s worth, retsina’s strong aroma and often intense taste is a feature, not a bug. As in other Mediterranean cuisines, one mode of eating Greek food involves serving at the same time a wide range of highly flavourful, highly diverse small dishes and sharing platters. Finding an ideal wine pairing is neither feasible, nor particularly desirable. In such a meal, the function of the accompanying drink is not to trigger a transcendental moment of food-and-wine matching, but simply to cleanse the palate pleasantly as one dips in and out of a small carnival of flavours. Lacking a solid retsina-making tradition, most of Greece enlists spirits such as ouzo and tsipouro to play the same role, though with only a fraction of the elegance and comparatively light touch of resinated wine.

Which brings us to the small circle of real retsina fans I mentioned earlier. When I hear people dismissing it all as heavily oxidised or just plain bad, my instinctive reaction is to ask where they tried it. Traditional retsina proper, you see, is mostly an Athenian thing, largely involving wines made in Attica and environs. In the 20thcentury, it followed the same pattern as the house wine served in French bistros, Spanish tabernas, and Italian trattorias. Most of it was mediocre, even bad, but there was the chaff and there was the wheat. Sure, the Athenian middle- and working-class connoisseurs of the era wouldn’t write twelve-aroma tasting notes, nor would they insist on strictly neutral lighting and white tablecloths against which to hold their non-stemmed glassware. Cellaring was outside their concerns. But they did know the right temperature and just the right accompaniment in just the right taverna. They were both knowledgeable and vocal on vineyards and producers, and could recite by heart their own personal vintage chart for each. They would travel to the other side of Athens to try a new barrel, if word-of-mouth deemed it worth trying. I often wonder why I don’t see Greek wine writers telling this story more, defend Attica’s preeminentvin de soif.

All this discussion of course would have been purely academic, were it not for the new wave of retsina. The past decade, a new generation of winemakers has practically reinvented resinated wine, reflecting both the innovative spirit and the confidence of the new Greek wine scene.

The heavy artillery of retsina from Central Greece has always been Savvatiano*, perhaps the most misunderstood grape variety in Europe. A victim of high yields and inattention, both in the vineyard and the winery, for years it gave dull, oxidised wines. A new generation of winemakers are treating it properly and highlight its potential – and when they add high quality resin to it, they end up with some of the greatest retsina there is. Principal among them, Papagiannakos and Mylonas. The former has an elegant, pale wine, whose colour I mistook for Roditis tasting blind. The nose has vanilla notes from the resin and white peach from the Savvatiano, while it’s balanced on the palate with fine acidity and hints of spice in the medium-length aftertaste. Mylonas on the other hand, produces the closest to my Platonic ideal of proper Attic retsina. A joyful, bright yellow colour with mastic notes on the nose, it is a full-textured combination of candied lemon and ripe greengage in the mouth, finishing with herbal notes that just call for another fried prawn or forkful of Greek salad.

In the rest of the country, the most popular variety for retsina is Roditis, a grape that can be too harsh in monovarietal offerings. Yet, the addition of quality pine resin fits it nicely, mulling the often too-sharp nose and matching the vibrant acidity on the palate. One of the best examples comes from Tetramythosin Achaia, well known in the UK as it’s stocked by the Wine Society. The resin isn’t hiding in this one, offering vanilla notes in the nose. In the mouth it is richer and sweeter than most; the fermentation in amphora seems to soften Roditis considerably.

On the other end of what can be done with Roditis stands Gaia, known for its highly lauded Assyrtikos and Agiorgitikos. The exquisitely named Ritinitis Nobilis (Ritinitis being the formal Greek term for resinated wine) is the most elegant retsina out there. Precise, balanced, with gentle mastic notes on the nose and controlled citrus on the palate, it finishes long and demonstrates just how misunderstood retsina is.

If Savvatiano and Roditis are the usual suspects for resination, Assyrtiko*comes to many as a surprise. Together with Malagouzia*, Assyrtiko seems to be the variety du jour in Greece, planted and vinified all over the country, not always achieving optimum results. Yet, it gives some of the most exciting retsinas currently on the market. Domaine Kechris of Thessaloniki has built its reputation on the poetically named Tear of the Pine, a premium Assyrtiko retsina that combines power, acidity, but also a round flavour and very delicate resin (I have seen more than one old timer not picking it up as retsina at all). The 2018** is sweeter than usual, with orange and lime notes combined with the more typical grapefruit. Tasting it blind I was convinced that there was some Sauvignon Blanc in there, yet it’s 100% Assyrtiko.

It was inevitable that the success of Tear of the Pine would find imitators, yet I didn’t expect I would find a relative newcomer that would blow me away.  The surprise entry amongst the established names came from Gikas. Based in Athens, but with vineyards at the slopes of Kithairon*** in Boeotia, they produce Pine Forest, a 100% Assyrtiko retsina that is pure, intense, yet balanced. In the 2016 vintage I tried for this article, there was beautiful tension between the acidity, intensity and salinity of the grape, and the delicate sweetness of mastic from the resin. Gikas probably make less use of pine resin than any other producer and, as with Tear of the Pine, one can miss the retsina character altogether. They also intend it for ageing, and it is the only retsina I have seen bottled in magnum. It is not one for traditionalists, yet it might just be what retsina needs to reintroduce itself to an international audience.

There is certainly more to come as experimentation is rife…orange retsina, naturalretsina, pet-nat retsina. As an innovator, Kechris lead the way. Their Rosa is a 100% Xinomavro rosé retsina that pulls a beautiful balancing act between quality and glou-glou. With only a hint of the sundried tomato aromas associated with the variety, Rosa combines sweet mastic with structured tannins. It is also perhaps the only retsina where the resin is more obvious on the palate that on the nose. As for Afros, it is Kechris’s pet-nat experiment and the most fun wine I have had in months, supremely gluggable, yet finely balanced. All other quality retsinas use standard cork or screw cap. For Afros, Kechris has opted for the more traditional crown cap. I consider it a move to take crown cap back – and I wish more producers adopted it.

What does the future hold for retsina? Some think that the brand name carries such negative associations that it should be abandoned altogether. It is true that the questionable mass market stuff is still around at 3 € per litre. In the foreseeable future,Kourtakiwill probably keep slandering the good name of Greek wine in foreign off-licences. Malamatina, a bland Savvatiano-led blend with pungent resin, will probably still be mixed with Coke to make the infamous Toumba Libre and celebrate PAOK FC’s victories for decades to come.

Yet, I doubt that the name is as much of an obstacle as it is made to be. Sherry, Lambrusco, Provencal rosé have all changed their image successfully in recent years, with the cognoscenti making a point of identifying the good stuff. If quality retsina keeps coming up, people will eventually have to pay attention. Indeed, the more attentive ones already do. The start of 2019 saw the two most influential wine columns on the planet, Eric Asimov’s in the New York Times and Jancis Robinson’s in the Financial Times, celebrate retsina in the space of two weeks. Maybe the numbers and variety are not yet big enough to talk of a revolution, however, it is certain that the 2500-year history of retsina has turned a new leaf.

And what does all that have to do with you? It took me some time to realise that my English friend’s jibes about Nana Mouskouri didn’t have much to do with either me or Greece. Instead, they were a type of self-parody, an expression of bemusement at what one considered the pinnacle of sophistication back then, and how it looks today. So, I am here to assure you that you don’t run any risk with the avant-garde of the new retsina. You’re neither stepping into Abigail’s Party, nor will you face the blandness of a Ben Stiller Starsky & Hatch. Yes, retsina is still a fun, undemanding, yet distinctive wine. It is still extremely food friendly and remarkably tolerant of the most adventurous food-matching experiments. But today it is also creative, exciting, and just plain good. I invite you to try it.

As for Nana, if she was good enough for Michel Legrand and Quincy Jones, she’s probably good enough for today’s audiences too.

FOOTNOTES

* The transliteration of Greek to the Latin alphabet is always an issue. I subscribe to the ISO 843 standard, which gives Savvatiano and Malagouzia, though Savatiano and Malagousia are probably more popular currently. I also maintain that Asyrtikois the correct transliteration for the Santorini native, however, I succumb to the Assyrtiko spelling until the truth shines.

** Retsina being a “Wine of Traditional Appellation” that allows cross-vintage blending, writing the vintage on the label is prohibited. Yet almost all quality retsinas are single vintage and some producers apply workarounds: Papagiannakos have a very discrete number printed on the far end of the label; Kechris usea “release code”, i.e. R18 to indicate the 2018 vintage.

*** It’s hard to beat “Slopes of Kithairon” as a name for a PGI. It is the setting of the culminating scene of Euripides’ TheBacchae.

Mylonas wines are imported in the UK by Maltby and Greek

Tetramythos wines are imported in the UK by Eclectic Wines

Gaia Wines are imported in the UK by Hallgarten and Novum Wines

Kechris and Gikas wines are currently not imported in the UK. You can find them online at Greece and Grapes

Image of Plato by Stefan © Shutterstock