Retsina – queen of wines for 4,000 years!
Author: Eleni Kefalopoulou - Wine Journalist
What other wine can boast an unbroken history of 4,000 years? Unless some new archaeological discoveries prove us wrong, retsina is the only wine with this distinction.
Archaeologists have discovered that the Minoans knew of retsina four millennia ago. In fact they used it in their cooking. Dioscorides in his treaty "On medical matter" writes “each nation makes retsina in its own way” So, at that time retsina was known internationally. The Roman Cato also gives directions for anyone who wants to make retsina.
So how did retsina manage to become renowned throughout the known world in ancient times?
The ancient Greeks used amphorae (large ceramic containers) to store their wine. Clay, however, is porous so they coated the inside of the amphorae to make them waterproof. They also used resin to cover the seals of the amphorae. The resin acted as a preservative as it formed a layer over the wine which was not easily penetrated by oxygen. So the wine did not come into contact with oxygen and in this way oxidation was avoided.
They obtained the resin from the pine trees by cutting a notch in their trunks. And, by coincidence, the pine was the sacred tree of Dionysus, and was very common in Attica and Evia which were the main retsina-producing areas.
The wine which came into contact with the resin, took on some of its scent and flavour. People began to like this characteristic and so resin, instead of being just a preservative for wines stored in ceramic pots, began to be added to the grape must to flavour it. Retsina was known far and wide, but later, once wooden barrels began to be used, the Romans and other people stopped producing it.
However, it was still produced in Greece and in Attica retsina became synonymous with wine.
In later years the tradition of retsina continued in tavernas and grill houses and then in grocery shops and more modern tavernas. In the tavernas in the Plaka, the district of the Gods, retsina enchanted workers and intellectuals alike. Taverna customers used to shout “Grab a cup of wine.” and the taverna owner would bring the wine jug full of tempting retsina. It would be accompanied by a few mezedes (appetisers) such as sardine pate, olives, onions, tomatoes, cheese and some bread – all served on a sheet of “ladocolla”, grease proof paper. No wine has featured in more songs than retsina which became Athens’ trademark from the interwar period until the 1960s. It was always produced from Savatiano, Attica’s indigenous grape, with resin from the pine tree Pinus Halepensis added to the must. There was also a rose retsina called kokkineli which included Roditis grapes. The new barrels were opened on the feast day of St Dimitris. This was the Greek “nouveau” wine of that time, also known as “yiomatari”, in contrast to the last of the wine from the previous year which was known as “sosma”.
From the mid-20th century onwards there was a great demand for retsina. Taverna owners began to use low-quality wine and, to cover its faults, more resin was added. The result was a bitter tasting wine that was very hard on the stomach and was very easy to get drunk on.
After the 1970s consumers moved away from the tradition of retsina for another reason as well. With the rise in living standards, people began to encounter wines which were more delicate, both in terms of aroma and of quality.
These were the decades when anything related to the countryside and to traditions was thought of as “passé”.
Yet in the midst of the “life-style revolution” a few winemakers took care to ensure that this four thousand year old legacy was not lost. With the highest quality grapes and modern know-how, they strived to produce retsina which lived up to its name. The deposed Queen once again regained her place in the hearts of wine lovers. And, as well as its history, there is no other wine that is such a good accompaniment to the strong flavours of Greek cuisine. Cod with garlic sauce, fried fish, meatballs, tzatziki, and dishes cooked in olive oil are all crying out for retsina as an accompaniment.
The humble retsina can become an exceptionally good wine in the hands of a good winemaker. Do not miss out on this experience.