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Retsina is thousands of years old in its kind and is still considered the classic, ubiquitous wine in Greece today. No taverna could afford not to carry retsina, even in high-class restaurants it can be found on the menu. On the one hand, this self-evidence has earned it the highest degree of recognition of all Greek wines, but on the other hand, it has almost become its gravedigger. Retsina is originally the name for a certain white wine from Attica, Savatianó, which was spiked with pine resin, but mutated into a brand of sorts over 40 years ago.


The breakaway from the original culture really began when, from the 1960s onwards, the big wineries flooded both the Greek and the Western European markets with cheap resinated wine. This was made possible by the lowered quality consciousness and the changed buying habits of the Greeks themselves, as well as the booming tourism, especially from Western Europe. Naturally, the majority of tourists came in the summer, when the wine - at that time still mostly stored in barrels - was already old, amber-coloured and oxidative. Surprisingly, the wine was accepted and drunk this way, and the off-flavours were even regarded as a characteristic of Retsina. As the eating habits of younger Greeks changed dramatically from the 1990s at the latest, and as tourists wanted standardised food, many an international variety, such as Sauvignon Blanc, became more popular than the wine typical of the country. However, this change in demand and acceptance was practically provoked by the agony of traditional Greek wine production in the years before. It was not until the end of the 1980s that some wineries came to their senses, often in the course of generational change, and realised that tradition is not about preserving the ashes, but about passing on the fire. Today, the Greek wine scene is literally bubbling over. Many wines from the producers who are now so active, whether in the so-called traditional or international style, can already be successfully compared internationally. Or, as in the case of the "new" retsina and the rediscovered treasure of autochthonous varieties, they represent a category of their own with individual expression and special aesthetics.

Savatianó - the original grape for retsina

For most Greeks, however, retsina is still liquid everyday. For tourists to Greece, it is part of good manners and also part of the holiday feeling to drink a pint or two of the resinous wine. There is hardly a wine drinker in the German-speaking world who does not know the name retsina and has never tasted it at least once. But here in Western Europe, at home, buying a bottle of retsina? At most now and then at the Greek's, but actually one prefers to order a beer. The general lack of knowledge about Greek wine, both among consumers and restaurateurs, does the rest. Retsina, according to the generally prevailing taste image, is a weird to bizarre, bitterish resinous wine with a taste between vinegar with pine needle shampoo and stale apple juice with turpentine aroma. So it seems all too understandable that the wine lover and connoisseur has shelved this type of wine as at least uninteresting, but mostly even unacceptable.

The resulting significant decline in export volumes in the last decade is proof of the advancing wine taste consciousness of the target countries, which seems to be sealing the decline of retsina. The same carelessness and ignorance of the industry all over the world, resulting dumping prices and lack of marketing by the very well existing quality wine producers led to this sad result. But now, 5 minutes to 12, as it were, those producers for whom retsina is first and foremost a cultural concern are finally speaking out as loudly as never before. The response is still rather small. In view of the commitment now being shown, however, this should change soon, because the "new" Retsina has what it takes to become a cult wine with a cultural background. Intimate connoisseurs of the Greek mentality say that it is almost impossible for them to act in any other way than on their own, but here, too, a change is gradually taking place. A core group for quality retsina is now forming, and it is becoming clear that the unifying constant is less the area than the culture and the demand for truth of origin of wine and resin.

If one starts from these core points of the group's philosophy, several questions arise. Firstly, where this type of wine actually comes from, secondly, which varieties were originally used for it, why the spiciness is so different and, last but not least, when this wine should actually be drunk.


Originally, Retsina came from the Attica region, which is also the oldest wine-growing region in Greece. Here, in turn, it was the calcareous-gravelly and also partly clayey areas around Markopouolo, Spata and Koropi. Today, these very place names evoke very different associations than idyllic and romantic wine feelings, since they stand for the major airport of Athens. However, as is so often the case, appearances are deceptive. The expansion of the airport may have cost 2000 hectares of the best vineyard soil, but the remaining 8000 produce some astonishing quality.

Back to the history. Until the first decades of the 20th century, Attica supplied the whole of Greece with retsina. It was the house wine of the Athenians anyway, and the serving of the first deliveries of a new vintage was a lively celebration. One is involuntarily reminded of Lyon with its Beaujolais and Vienna with its Heuriger. The wine was selected by the merchants at the winegrowers', then transported away in barrels and distributed throughout Greece. Every winegrower had his typical retsina, for better or for worse. Even then, those who wanted mass also tended to get little class. In the course of time, it became obvious that producers from other wine-growing regions also wanted a piece of the pie, especially when it seemed so easy to add resin to a white wine and earn money almost automatically. In this case, unfortunately, the emerging diversity did not lead to an increase in quality, but to a reduction of retsina to a resinous white wine without a grown background.

By no means is every white wine suitable for the production of retsina. Of course, this does not matter if you reduce it to an aromatised wine, a resinous drink, so to speak. For a wine with character, however, the original wine is very important. Even more so for the controlled quality designation. The main variety for true Retsina is Savatianó (Greek Σαββατιανό), plus Roditis and Assyrtiko. The Savatianó in itself is an amazing mass bearer, which used to produce 2 harvests even in some years when the climate was different. But it behaves like many varieties of this species. Through sensitive vineyard work and appropriate pruning aimed at normal yields, it is greatly reduced in its yield and produces an animating, delicately mineral and finely fruity wine. When it comes to optimal quality production, grapes from the old vineyards are very often used for this, because these make even more characterful wines possible due to the deep roots and quite low yields. These vineyards are worked exclusively by hand, kept healthy without harsh chemical spraying and never treated with herbicides. All good retsina producers agree that mass yields and high-quality retsina are mutually exclusive.

Retsina winemakers - lone fighters with group chemistry

Opinions are divided as far as the main variety is concerned, because Roditis and Assyrtiko have a bit more breed than Savatianó. Other varieties than the three autochthonous ones, however, are not worth any debate for the hard core of Retsinapurists. Even spontaneous fermentation is not an irritant within this loose group; one does it one way, the next another. What is the same is that the wines are practically ready by the beginning of October at the latest, are put on the market well before Christmas and should be drunk within a year. With one exception, because the Georgas Family winery takes a different approach that allows for longer-lasting wines.

Again, the producers of the cultural Retsina agree on the importance of their wine. This is how it is supposed to be: clean, refreshing in its way, palate-brightening, rather light (around 12%), pale yellow, fruity and slightly bitterish-spicy, with the really fine, mentholated and almost peppery tones of a pine forest in Greece. No blockbuster and no wild excitement, but a likeable individualist, in addition a good wine for many occasions, informal and at the same time to drink with much pleasure. This is how the winegrowers describe their ideal Retsina.

It will certainly take some time for Central European wine lovers to take a closer look at it again, but then they will get to know and appreciate the subtle differences. The Greek Ministry of Agriculture already takes this into account insofar as only Retsina from Savatianó from the regions of Attica, Viotia (Boeotia, north of Attica) and Evia (island of Euboea) may carry a seal of quality. The state control number means guaranteed monitoring of origin and production by the Ministry of Agriculture. This is undoubtedly a first important step in the right direction to put a stop to the quality-hostile proliferation. Further regulations will certainly follow, which will be less concerned with the origin and more with the character of the wine.

Pine tears - beguiling scent of menthol% incense% petrol and flowers

The second quality factor is the resin itself, whereby the geographical origin, the tree, the extraction and the consistency play a role. The tree is the Aleppo pine (pinus halepensis), which is usually incorrectly called pine. It originates from the eastern Mediterranean region, but is now widespread throughout the Mediterranean. Although they are one and the same species, the trees of Attica and some Greek islands are considered the only ones that give off the finely spicy and tasty resin suitable for flavouring wine. To extract the resin, the trees are carefully barked in a precisely defined manner. The exposed areas may not be larger than approx. 20X30 cm and may only be re-exposed at longer intervals. A healthy tree yields about 20 kg of resin per year, but only half of this can be used for wine. The right, fine resin is white and viscous. It exudes a beguiling, spicy smell with tones of menthol, incense, delicate petrol and flowers, the taste is similar. There is also a strong but piquant bitterness and surprisingly fruity notes. Resin of this quality can only be collected manually.

So one can easily imagine that for mass production of many millions of litres, other methods have to be used. Often, the subspecies Pinus Brutia, which gives twice as much resin per year as Pinus Halepensis, is already used for resin extraction. This resin contains considerably more terpenes, smells and tastes much coarser, more angular and more obtrusive, and is also mostly used for rosin and lacquer production. Harvested mechanically and in the past also very often chemically (using sulphuric acid), the extraction is cheap, arbitrary and not very area-related, just more or less industrial.

Old Savatianó canes near Spata

Other quality criteria are the time of resin application, the quantity used and the duration. Usually, the resin is packed into permeable bags for aromatisation and hung in the barrels like this. As soon as the desired degree of aromatisation is reached, the resin can be easily removed. If you add the resin loosely, it sinks to the bottom and can be removed when tapping with the lees. However, this method has the disadvantage that uncontrollable amounts of aromatic substances are released, cleaning the barrels is very laborious and is rarely really done correctly. The smaller producers, where both variety(ies) and quantity are fixed from the outset, put the resin in towards the end of fermentation and leave it in the wine for up to 3 weeks. Others wait until the end of fermentation and start the procedure 1-2 weeks later. For large quantities and market-oriented decisions, especially with regard to the choice of wines for the preparation of retsina, wine or preferably some alcohol is mixed with the resin and dissolved. The quantities of resin used vary greatly, from 20 kg per 1000 litres down to 500 g per 10hl at the discretion of the producer. Of course, generous use of resin drowns out everything, which can be an advantage or disadvantage depending on the wine used - but usually it masks the rather inadequate quality of the base wine.

So the big question remains, with which dishes should one drink retsina? After all, traditional Greek cuisine is rather a special case for most Western Europeans. As the aromatic wine it ultimately is, it should be used where dry Gewürztraminer, Muscat, or even dry Sherries and many a dry new variety come into their own. For example, with spicy Indian and also other Asian, mainly hot dishes, as the resin cools the mouth and literally polishes the taste buds. It also goes very well with spicy grilled meat, or sardines, mackerel and crispy fried fish stuffed with herbs, as well as, of course, salads with cheese and olives. Even many a spicy pizza would be happy with such an accompaniment. After all, people like the combination of Mediterranean food and wine: Italian wine with tapas, spicy whites from Italy and France with various salads and Spanish wine with pizza are hardly unusual any more.

The only problem is that the new, individual Retsina is unfortunately still available in only a few shops. We can only hope that the initiatives of quality-conscious producers and importers will soon change this. The wine is definitely worth it!

Sources of supply:

Gaia (Ritinitis Nobilis)


Kechris (Kechribari and Pine's tear/Dakry tou Pefkou)


Papagiannakos (Retsina of Mesogaia)





jmamakos@hotmail.com (Austria)
www.mavrommatis.fr (France)



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