In olden days, Greeks used amphorae to transport everything, from olive oil and wine. These vessels were prone to leaking, and when transported on a rocking boat, the problem was compounded. An ancient solution was to use resins from pine trees to seal the jugs, sort of like covering the bottom of a wooden boat with pitch, creating an air- and water-tight seal. In the case of white wines, which are particularly prone to spoilage even in the best environments, the resin seal also imparted a unique flavor to the wine. Called retsina, this spicy, pungent flavor came to be considered an aspect of the wine, and its use was continued even when oak barrels overtook amphorae as wine vessels of choice. Now retsina is as ubiquitous and national a Greek drink as ouzo.
Retsina Then and Now
Retsina (from Latin: resina) has been part of world culture since forever. Indeed, the famous frankincense, amber and myrrh are resins. Retsina was so entwined in the Greek cultural fabric that there were even debates over the best trees from which to cultivate the best tasting resins to use, and best ways to produce retsina, including mixing it directly into the wine.
Resins are a tree’s natural botanical self-defense, and ancient Greeks also found this to be a good way to save their wine and simultaneously repel marauders away from it. Retsina was an acquired taste, unpalatable to many Germanic and other invaders. Today, people are finding it more enjoyable, as with modern production methods the degree of retsina potency can be regulated and moderated, so today’s Greek retsinas are undoubtedly less pungent and “turpentine-ish” than what our forebears were drinking. GoGreece recommends looking for more modern, trendy retsina wine bottle labels, as their contents will likely be tamer than the more traditional retsina wines (probably in a bottle with a more traditional, old-fashioned label).
Wisegeek encourages serving retsina stone cold in a wide-mouth glass, allowing the resin flavor to mellow further. It is best served with traditional Greek food, where the savory, spicy and sometimes salty flavors can mesh together well. Other cuisines that lend themselves to retsina are Chinese, Indian or other spicy Asian foods.
And as is the trend with many wines, retsina is becoming part of the cocktail culture. WineMag offers a recipe for using retsina as a gin substitute in their ‘Retsina & Tonic.’ The bitter, herbal notes work well mixed in where you might use gin or other similar hard alcohol.
I’d love to hear about your experiences with Retsina. Please share them here.