The Greek Wine Even Greeks Won’t Drink
At least, all of the Greek-Americans I know won’t. And my local Greek restaurant recently quit carrying Kourtaki Retsina of Attiki (the only retsina they had), citing a total lack of demand from their customers. Quite a bold move, considering Retsina is routinely called the “iconic wine of Greece” and is ingrained in the food and drink culture of the nation.
And a reluctance which I don’t understand. I’ve been enjoying Retsina for decades, although I will admit it’s in part because of Retsina’s origin story. More on that in a moment. The traditional grape for Retsina is Savatiano with Assyrtiko and Rhoditis sometimes blended in. Modern Retsina is made following the same winemaking techniques of white wine, with the exception of small pieces of Aleppo pine resin (!) being added to the must during fermentation. It is this pine resin that gives Retsina its name, as well as its unique flavor profile. The resin exudes an oily film on the surface of the fermenting liquid; after racking, the wine is clarified and the solids and surface film are removed.
Nowadays, much less resin is used than traditionally called for. Such wines lack the pungent “whiff of turpentine” of old. Indeed, it seems to me the resin content goes down every year. Frankly, I miss that resin punch, and even as producers seemingly try to make the wine more accessible, fewer people are willing to try it. Even so, it is considered an ideal accompaniment to such flavorful Greek dishes as saganaki, pastırma or garlic dips, which are often consumed as appetizers.
But why add pine resin in the first place? Isn’t this a gross adulteration, easily remedied? In ancient Greece, long before the advent of the barrels and bottles we take for granted today, earthen wine jars and amphorae were sealed with pine resin to protect the contents from oxidation. Some of this inevitably flavored the wine. So much for the historical record.
But the legend is far more interesting. It centers on the siege of Greece by the Romans in the second century B.C. As the invaders plundered everything that came their way, the beleaguered Greeks were determined to deny them the wine. “You will take our freedom . . but you will not enjoy our wine!” they reportedly cried. It was deliberately tainted with the now-famous pine resin, and in fact the Romans refused to drink it. Once the war was over and the Greeks had prevailed, however, it was time to celebrate. But, all of the available wine had been dosed with pine resin. What to do? Well, drink it anyway, of course, and acquire a centuries-long taste for it!
This Kourtaki Retsina of Attiki is lemonade-yellow in the glass. The nose features, predictably, a delicate and pleasant pine scent. On the palate, this receeds, allowing flavors of grapefruit and lemon to come through. This crisp wine has a lively acidity, with just a hint of bitterness on the finish.
Enjoy (yes, enjoy!) this Retsina with dolmades, porgies with avgolemono sauce, or chicken souvlakia.
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