Recently, I set out a bottle of Retsina along with a few other wines, and the Retsina flew. “What is this?” my neighbor asked, refilling her glass. “You’re drinking Retsina?!” her tablemate exclaimed, then insisted on trying it himself. If you’re old enough to remember when Retsina was rotgut flavored with pine, then try one of the new-wave bottles: They are made from high quality wine and the pine resin is more a suggestion than a coating. And if you’re lucky enough to have never tasted the rustic version, then just think of this traditional Greek wine as similar to craft vermouth, without the added alcohol. It’s wine with extra flavor, a hint of pine to add a cooling, refreshing aspect. Producers who were once biased against Retsina are newly proud of it; Vassilis Papagiannakos used to refuse to even talk about his Retsina, for fear it would tarnish his reputation. This year, it was the top Retsina we tasted.
Yiannis Paraskevopoulos uses roditis instead of the more typical savatiano for his Retsina, sourcing his fruit from a vineyard at 3,280 feet in altitude. That elevation makes for a vibrantly fresh, crisp wine, all lemon zest and fresh-cut herb flavor. The pine resin is an extra breath of fresh air, a high-toned note with a cooling effect that recalls mastikha, while a seashell minerality holds the wine firm. Strident and original, it’s delicious with tyropita, Greek cheese pies. (90 points, $17; Athenee Importers & Distributors, Hempstead, NY)
Stelios Kechris crafts this unusual wine from xinomavro, macerated for just long enough to take on a bright pink color, then fermented in oak barrels. The grape’s earthy cherry fruit goes surprisingly well with the flavor of pine, its herbal notes melding with the resin so that it’s impossible to tell where one component ends and the other begins. With its significant structure and weight, it’s a Retsina for richer dishes, like roasted eggplant and tomatoes with feta cheese. (91 points, $30; Mina Distributors, Milford, CT)
By choosing assyrtiko, a powerful grape, and leaving it on the skins for a week, Dimitrios Kioutsoukis turned out a wine that meets the power of the pine resin head-on. Fermented with ambient yeasts and mellowed in old barrels, the wine is more spicy than piney, its notes of mint, roasted fennel seeds and camphor mingling with peach and orange. Skin tannins give the wine grip, making this a Retsina for rich dishes, like pork belly bo ssam. (90 points, $25; Dionysi Grevenitis Selections/DNS Wines, San Francisco, CA)
Made from roditis grown in the cool north of Greece, this smells more like an herb garden than a pine forest, channeling Retsina’s cooling power in notes of thyme blossoms and peppermint. With its lemony acidity and clean, delicate feel, it’s appetite arousing, especially if there’s fresh seafood and fried zucchini fritters nearby. (90 points, $10; Dionysi Grevenitis Selections/DNS Wines, San Francisco, CA)
Vassilis Papagiannakos takes a light hand with his Retsina, choosing a base of clean, fresh savatiano and adding only a small amount of fresh pine resin. The result is a wine with lemon-pulp juiciness and the scent of a pine forest after a rain. It feels buoyant and elegant, with enough complexity and structure to stand up to fish with chermoula. (92 points, $15; Craft + Estate/The Winebow Group, NY)