Ever had a Retsina wine? Greek wine is growing in popularity, though it’s not likely to enter the mainstream any time soon. The wines of Greece come in a variety of styles, and the white Assyrtiko grape in particular has been turning sommeliers’ heads for a while now. Retsina is a very particular type of Greek wine, made partially from the trendy Assyrtiko grape. The Retsina style is no flash in the pan, though – its historical roots go way back at least 2,000 years!
What is Retsina wine?
Retsina is a resinated wine from Greece. Resinated wine is a peculiar style of wine that uses tree resin, mostly that of the pine tree, in the winemaking process. These wines take on a distinctive resinous taste, which some find very attractive indeed. Greek Retsina is the world’s best known resinated wine. Interestingly, the term “Retsina” is a protected geographic origin according to the European Union. Much like with Champagne or Pomerol, this is a legal designation that means winemakers from other countries and other regions cannot label their wine as Retsina. True Retsina wine can only come from Greece.
How is Retsina wine made?
Historically, the Greeks made their Retsina wine in much the same way as any other wine, with the key difference coming in ageing and maturation. Most wine today is aged in oak barrels or stainless steel, though the Greeks would use amphorae, old clay containers. To make Retsina, they would seal the wine inside the container using a layer or pine resin to protect the wine from oxidation. The resulting wine had a strong colour and pronounced flavours of pine and resin, not often associated with white wines.
Over time, the use of amphorae gave way to oak barrels, and the need for resin sealing diminished. The exact method used 2,000 years ago has given way to a more modern compromise. Winemakers today mix resin with the wine must during fermentation, and later use techniques of racking and clarification in order to separate the wine from this solid material.
Retsina wine grapes
The key grape varieties in producing Retsina are:
- Savatiano, a tough grape resistant to drought and widely planted throughout Greece, though particularly in central Greece in the Attica region close to Athens.
- Assyrtiko, which is certainly Greece’s most famous grape today. It produces highly acidic wines that are incredibly versatile with food, and thus is very popular among sommeliers.
- Rhoditis, a pink-skinned grape most popular prior to the Phylloxera outbreak. Today it is used to produce Retsina and is grown in Bulgaria.
- Athiri, known in particular for its lemon flavours. It is used on the Greek island of Rhodes to produce Retsina.
What does Retsina wine taste like?
Today’s Retsina is likely a lot more refined and palatable than the stuff made 2,000 years ago. Old-style Retsina was incredibly pungent, and could show unpleasant aromas of turpentine. Advances in winemaking technology, changing tastes and a decrease in the amount of resin used may all contribute to Retsina’s flavour profile today. The modern style still shows plenty of pine aromas, and will not suit everybody’s palate. The Greeks like to pair their Retsina with strongly flavoured dishes, so keep that in mind!
Have you ever tried Retsina wine? What can you tell us about it?