You may have never tasted it because, back in the 1960s, people started bottling it, and making it like Coca-Cola; they’d put just about anything in they could call wine, and then add enough resin that you couldn’t taste anything else. And the quality of the resin was awful, so the wines tasted like turpentine. This nearly ruined the entire Greek wine scene, as the sea of bad juice nearly drowned out all the other wines.
Of course, Greek wine recovered. And Retsina has, too, thanks to a few hard-core vintners. It’s a good thing it wasn’t abandoned, as the wine’s got serious history. It used to be a pan-Mediterranean thing, back when the ancients shipped their wines around the Mediterranean in resin-sealed amphorae. Good wines, too—special cuvées sealed in containers engraved with the name of the vintner, vineyard and vintage.
These new Retsinas are like those high-end bottlings, only they sell for $20, or even less. I don’t know why they aren’t poured in every wine bar in Brooklyn, right next to the vermouth on tap. And unlike vermouth, Retsina isn’t fortified; it clocks in at around 12 percent alcohol. It’s just wine, light and fresh, with a little extra flavor—the flavor of the place, like terroir times two. There are producers who are insane about it—like Eleni Kechris, who’s gone deep in her study of pine resin. “Resin has terroirs, seasons and vintages,” she told me. “Some are more minty, herbal, limey; some are like mastika, or thyme, rosemary, even ginger.” She says that there’s only one time you can add it to the wine, and that’s during fermentation—otherwise the wine just doesn’t pick up the flavor—and the temperature has to be just right: If the ferment gets too hot, it extracts heavy, oily notes; too cool and the flavor won’t be strong enough. She says the pine has to be super fresh, too—old resin is what gives off those turpentine notes.
Eleni and her father, Stelios Kechris, make a slew of different Retsinas, from a pét-nat to a barrel-aged version. At first, when I tasted the young barrel-aged Retsina, Tear of the Pine, I thought, ‘Vanilla and mint? Is this that vanilla version of Sleepytime Tea?’ But it works in the older vintages, when the barrel scents and the resin combine into one note of breezy, cedary pleasure. And the wine can age: They make it from assyrtiko, so it’s got acidity, and as it matures it takes on a little of that petrol, riesling-like mineral flavor, too.
That pét-nat is fantastic, as well, like a bottled breeze from the Grecian coast. Kechris tells me that they were inspired by stories of her grandfather’s taverna in Thessaloniki, where every October, people would eagerly await the arrival of the little “bombs,” as they called the still-fermenting casks her great uncle shipped up from Evia. It’s a party wine if there ever was one.
All of them really come into their own with food—which makes sense, since no self-respecting Greek would be caught drinking any wine without food. Kechris’s “traditional” Kechribari, light and limey, is the one you want with scallop ceviche, or a mountain of fried zucchini chips dipped in thick, garlicky tzatziki; the rosé, with the tomato notes of xinomavro, seems designed for domatokeftedes, little fritters of chopped tomato. (I’m going to try it with fried green tomatoes this summer, too.) The oaked one, Tear of the Pine, works terrifically with the smoky notes of anything off the grill—like, say, a red snapper brushed with herb-scented olive oil.
If you can’t find Kechris, look for Gai’a Ritinitis Nobilis, or Retsinas from Papagiannakos, Mylonas and Tetramythos. Konstantinos Lazarakis, an MW in Athens, tells me there are at least five others making great Retsina, too: We can hope those will show up here in the US soon.
Some people seem bizarrely offended by the idea of pine resin in wine, which is head-scratching. We have no qualms with adding the flavor of wood to wine, and play around with different types to get different effects; we even add in sawdust or wood chips. At least resin is a local agricultural product in Greece. If it were made here in Brooklyn, or by some biodynamic hipster on Sonoma’s far coast, forget it: Retsina would be all the rage.
This story was featured in W&S August 2017.
illustration by Vivian Ho