March 16, 2017
Wine is bottled history.
Taken as a whole, a wine’s ultimate expression is one dependent upon the slow and unlikely confluence of culture, genetics, climate – even war – and eventually results in something delicious and intoxicating. You could argue that more sommeliers and winemakers are hooked on all that other stuff even more than the experience of drinking the wine itself – that at the end of the day, we’re no different than a room full of Trekkies nerding out at a STARFLEET convention. (You’d be right.)
That bottled history argument is exactly why I’m here to defend retsina as a wine over which we should be nerding out more often. Yes, retsina, that pine pitch-laden stuff collecting dust in the back of your parents’ liquor cabinet – a distant, dusty memory of their honeymoon cruise through the Greek isles in 1982. Buckle up, babies.
You might have noticed that Greek wines have gained some traction with the mainstream recently; thanks in large part to star sommeliers like Michael Madrigale (who championed the region during his tenure at Boulud Sud), grapes like assyrtiko and xinomavro aren’t the exclusive domain of tavernas in Astoria and Chicago’s West Side anymore. Still, a mere mention of retsina often earns the kind of response from wine pros that most of us associate with a five-year old's face upon the offer of broccoli (I’ve even heard an audible “blech” from one somm’s gentle palate). That’s too bad, because ignoring retsina means ignoring one of the longest-lived, most unique winemaking traditions known to man, replete with a 2,000 year-long history and a fanboy in the form of Pliny the Elder. In theory, retsina is all of the stuff wine geeks would usually lose their shit over.
As with all intriguing outliers, we have to go back in history for answers. The name “retsina” is derived from the Latin “resina,” which – surprise! – translates to “resin.” Retsina’s origins date back to Ancient Greece, before the expansion of the Holy Roman Empire and the discovery of Gallic oak barrels, when wines were fermented and matured in clay amphorae (that other ancient bastion of wine hipster devotion). The clay pots were porous and didn’t seal well, leading to oxidation and easy spoilage, but guess what acts as both an antiseptic and nature’s Elmer’s? Pine resin. so it was It was an obvious solution to the problems the amphorae posed, and though the appeal of the resulting resinous flavor was up for debate (one Byzantine historian deemed it “undrinkable,” so I guess the wine snob trope isn’t so bougie), it was generally pretty beloved by the locals. Over time, however, as wine technology improved, the addition of pine resin became a quick way to cover up a wine’s flaws, and ultimately, retsina became known for smelling more like paint thinner than an evergreen forest.
Still, the stuff survived for another 1,000 years – so clearly someone’s been drinking it – and I’m here to persuade you that that’s a goddamn miracle worthy of a second look. Today, there’s a renewed interest in the well-made stuff coming from producers like Gai’a and Papagiannakos, who make modern, nuanced styles with real depth and structure, sans eau de solvent. Given its history and preserved production methods, retsina should be more than a national treasure for Greece – it should be raised to the same heights as revered, historically and culturally representative styles like vin jaune, eiswein, and sherry.
Furthermore, it’s what we should be drinking with our gyros; I love assyrtiko as much as the next gal, but if we’re going to fetishize regional food and wine pairings, the buck stops at retsina. Want to know what makes the char on grilled octopus pop? A heady tinge of resinous excellence. That spanakopita bursting with tangy feta and fresh spinach? Retsina meets feta’s funk with its aromatics and elevates those spring greens like a champion.
Also, retsina with grilled, fatty lamb? Dude.