Retsina: Can We Never Mention It Again?

I wrote a version of this diatribe on a tasting note once, but that was too easy to miss and really too long for inclusion in a tasting note. So, this is a reprise of sorts. It was brought to mind when someone (yet again) mentioned to me that they hated Retsina, assuming that I must see a lot of it since I cover Greece. Well, no.

Retsina is a wine process, really, not a wine—pine resin is added to a base of white wine (typically Roditis or Savatiano), thus creating a pine resin flavor and aromatic. This supposedly mimics ancient traditions, when ancient Greeks sealed wines with resin closures.

I normally do not review Retsina, for several reasons. First, it has incalculably damaged the reputation of Greek wine. To this moment, every time I mention Greek wine to someone not familiar with the changes in modern Greek wine, the word Retsina pops up, usually accompanied by grimaces and eye-rolling. (Poor me, they are thinking. I have to review Greece!) It is in Greece's interest never to mention Retsina in the same sentence as the word "wine" again. (The banner image above is, by the way, my photo of Biblia Chora's cellar. Try some of their whites, like the Areti, to name one. They don't make Retsina, but they represent modern Greece well.)

Second, it seemed like every review I was writing on them turned on just one thing: how strong and off-putting the pine nuances were. Ultimately, it seemed like I was spending a lot of effort writing about what was an intentionally adulterated and manipulated drink that had nothing to do with the concept of modern Greek wine. I was writing about resin, in other words, not the base wine.

I have been occasionally challenged to see "high end" Retsina (in non-relative terms, that means around $20), but I remain unconvinced. Retsina is wine adulterated with an additive that invariably overwhelms everything else about it, from the grape type to the terroir. We complain loudly if too much oak does those things, right? (Oak barrels, by the way, affect texture and change the wine in positive ways. It is not just about flavor alteration. Retsina is more like tossing in oak chips.) Retsina is far stronger, far worse than oak, especially since it's not meant to be absorbed in a long aging process. The wines are rarely intended to age, actually. At the so-called "high end," some suggest the wine can age for five years. That isn't actually a very long time in the grand scheme of things and that applies to very few Retsinas. You may like it or not—just like I tend to like Kir Royale—but it's hard to consider it just wine that should be viewed like everything else. Retsina has one hit-you-over-the-head characteristic that overwhelms everything else. That characteristic come from an additive. That additive focuses your attention just on one thing and it will always do just that. The fruit will never thrive in such circumstances, nor will the terroir.

As an aside, I recall researching this once (can't lay my hands on it at the moment) and a Roman wine writer a couple of millennia ago suggested that with the invention of new closures at that time, no one should consider putting wines of any quality in resin-sealed bottles, because it marked the wine too strongly. So, within a couple of centuries C.E., there was just no more need to do it and sage advice to avoid it. Like Retsina or don't like it, as you wish, but it's hard for me to consider Retsina anything but an affectation as a result. It just makes the rest of the winemaking irrelevant. Why bother to make great wine and then kill it? (Not that I've ever seen a Retsina that I would call a great wine.)

Yes, I've heard the argument that it is a better food match for some things. Even so. Try a Gewürz. Or a Dafni from Lyrarakis. Or Muscat. Or Sauvignon Blanc. Or Vermentino, a Nykteri from Santorini. There are many high-personality whites that will work in various circumstances. Try a beer, if all else fails. If even I concluded at some point that the Retsina was a better idea for a food match (don't expect that to happen), it still really doesn't qualify as normal wine. The Kir-Royale (or wine cooler) analogy is better. It's a wine-based product, not wine. Retsina lovers can rest assured that no reviews are better than bad ones. I don't review wine coolers and Kir-Royale, either.

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