Some people say that retsina, the resinated white or rose wine produced in Greece since ancient times, is an acquired taste. The Epicurious Dictionary describes the flavor as "sappy and turpentine like." But cooking expert Sheila Lukins breaks ranks and calls it the "quintessential Mediterranean wine," applauding it as an accompaniment for all types of Mediterranean cuisine. Like most Greek beverages, such as ouzo, it is undeniably at its best when combined with Greek foods, especially the savory mezes served as appetizers.
Try retsina in its native environment and you may respond to it like a true Greek.
The Birth of Retsina
Retsina gets its unique flavor from the pine resin used to seal the vessels in which the wine was stored and shipped. Since glass bottles had not been invented yet, there needed to be a way to keep the oxygen from spoiling the wine, and thus pine oils were used as a sealant. These oils were successful in keeping the air out but affected the wine's taste, which became so popular that even when air-tight barrels eliminated the need for the pine resin, retsina was still produced.
Today, retsina is produced throughout Greece. In recent years, it seems like many of the retsinas are less resinous than they were, as both young Greeks and tourists turn away from the strong pine flavor. Generally, the more traditional-looking the label, the stronger the pine flavor will be. If something looks trendy or designed for export, however, the pine flavor may not be as pronounced.
Gaia Vineyards is one of a handful of Greek companies attempting to increase the quality of retsina and to improve its reception overseas. Their Ritinitis Nobilis is an effort to grant retsina the respect of wine lovers.
Retsina in Greece
Some feel that Boutari's Santorini wine carries a resinous flavor, though that may be a trait from the highly volcanic soil and slightly vaporous air on the island.
Santorini is filled with truly great retsina spots--try any of the cliff-hanging taverns in Fira or, for a splurge, enjoy The Pyramid restaurant, particularly at sunset. A last-chance spot is the pleasant seaside tavern by the quay where the cable car deposits passengers. For cruise ship passengers, it's their last sip of Santorini magic before returning to their ship. Never miss an opportunity to enjoy the wines of Greece during your travels, and at home. As they say on Crete, Yamas!
More About Retsina
If you are interested in learning more about retsina, there are a few books that offer some insight. An outstanding resource for understanding and appreciating Greek wine is Nico Manessis' The Greek Wine Guide, a beautifully illustrated, comprehensive volume on the many wines of Greece. Achaia Clauss' Retsina Appellation Traditionelle helped wine critic Robin Garr suspend disbelief about retsina's quality as a wine, if only temporarily.