Wine in the Time of Pestilence IV

There has been a lot of press chatter around the idea that we are drinking more in the Covid-19 crisis.  The Sydney Morning Herald reported that online sales for one retailer had jumped by 50-75%; Nielsen tracking figures for wine sales in the USA showed dramatic rises in wine sales in the two weeks following the start of lockdown in key states, then a dramatic fall, then two more weeks of increase (though less intense).  There has been an increase of wine sales in the USA of 29.4% since the ‘start’ of Covid-19 – just behind the increase in spirits sales but well ahead of beer on 19%; this has also seen a surge in sales of cabernet sauvignon – as if consumers want to go back to what is tried and tested.  Meanwhile in the UK I’ve heard through the grapevine, that for some UK retailers March was their best month ever.  What seems to be selling is their core range – so that consumers are indeed sticking with brands they know well and feel comfortable with, with sales of these wines almost one quarter up on normal.  That could include things like Rioja, Argentine malbec and pinot grigio.  The winners, it seems, are winning even more.

So, the sales figures seem to bear this out this general idea that everyone is drinking more wine, though the detail is much more complex than that.  As I’ve noted previously, the ease of buying wine in France isn’t mirrored in South Africa, for instance.  So how is our drinking behaviour changing?  By which I don’t just mean how much we drink, but how and what we drink – and why we may be drinking more.  Looking at my own drinking I felt it was changing, and anecdotally it appeared that others were changing theirs as well.

So, it occurred to me that it would be interesting to find out how some dedicated drinkers have been changing their relationship with alcohol during the spread of the virus.  To do this I chose my own colleagues in the Institute of Masters of Wine with a short survey on how they are drinking during the time of pestilence.  We asked both numeric questions and asked them to add comments about their drinking – and this is what transpired.  As this is a blog about ‘wine and culture’ I’m going to focus on the most interesting cultural findings.

I received completed surveys from 142 Masters of Wine, which is a good response rate and the sample was broadly representative of the Institute’s gender and geographic make up (65% male and 47% based in the UK).  The ‘typical’ respondent was aged about 56 and had been in confinement for just over 18 days at the point when they responded.  They pay on average just under 18€ per bottle when they buy wine, drinking about 5-6 days per week.

Forty-two percent said that their wine consumption had increased since the onset of Covid-19, while 15% said it had decreased, and for 43% it had not altered.  However, an examination of who is drinking more or less reveals some interesting and statistically significant results.  Those who are drinking less wine are disproportionately male (85%) rather than female – but those drinking more are proportionately more likely to be female.  The following quotation illustrates this:

I think anyone home-schooling kids whilst working from home during lockdown is definitely drinking more wine.

The same trend is even more marked for buying wine: women are more likely to be buying more wine than before Covid-19 by 60% to 40% for men. 

Interestingly, when we look at the country of residence of Masters of Wine drinking more or less there was no obvious difference between the regions of the world – except that none of the Australasian Masters of Wine claim to be drinking less (statistically it should have been three)! 

Many of those drinking less listed health concerns as a major reason to cut down – though a few also qualified this by noting that they are drinking better.

I am drinking less as I want my immune system a bit stronger.  I’m drinking less per week , but definitely increased the price point (doubled).  So drinking less, but better.

A great many Masters of Wine who responded to this survey noted that they were ‘raiding their cellars’, and this is related to the quality level of wine being drunk.  Over 46% of all Masters of Wines feel that the quality of what they are drinking is better than it was before.  However, one unfortunate London-based Masters of Wine lamented that his cellar was outside the capital and he couldn’t access it during lockdown! 

So why is the drinking behaviour of Masters of Wine changing? When we look at reasons for drinking more wine, a number mention that the sense of mortality is having an impact on their decisions: 

I’m glad you asked if I’m raiding the cellar for the good stuff. I am doing that, as are many people. Why save it for the apocalypse – we are in the apocalypse.

Reward and celebration as well as the need to avoid boredom were also noted, as was the fact that the family is together.  Thus, food and wine combined were often mentioned, including jointly preparing meals and the overall pleasure of cooking – suggesting that community and family support have become more important.

I enjoy drinking wine even more now because it’s usually during mealtime with family and it helps bring us together. Since being sheltered at home, our lives have fewer outside distractions, which allows us to focus more closely on what we’re consuming

Additionally, many Masters of Wine noted the need to use wine for ritual: the marker of the end of the day at a time when lockdown has removed from us the normal routines and rituals of the working day.

It’s too easy to feel you need to mark the break in the day as you move from day to evening, work/busyness to leisure/family time with a glass of wine. Easier to justify it than normal: unprecedented times require a little reward/enjoyment on a regular basis

There was also an implication in some of the comments that in isolation wine gives a link to a previous, less threatening time, or to a wider, exciting world from which we are currently cut off – the world of wine being a notoriously convivial place!

Wine is a way to ‘travel’ with our senses, through the magical way it can express its origin, and capture the flavours and essence of wonderful places, and transport you around the world in our imagination. (For example, last night we said ‘let’s make a delicious fresh pasta and open a Chianti Classico and pretend we are on holiday in Tuscany!’)

Consequently, like the rest of the population, Masters of Wine have not been immune to the lure of virtual consumption, and online aperitifs are becoming more popular.

What are the key conclusions from this?  The first is that probably Masters of Wine resemble other wine drinkers in that few are decreasing their alcohol consumption and a number are increasing it.  It is also probable that the reasoning is generally the same for the wider population (isolation, family, boredom, apprehension, and the need for reward against health and maybe financial concerns).  They also mirror the general population in that some, at least, are having virtual aperitifs, and seeking reasons to celebrate.  The key differences are that they pay more on average for their wine.

A key marker of Masters of Wine however may be the quality of what they drink, which appears to be going up for many – and rarely going down.  This is affected by the fact that most have access to a cellar and the current crisis has acted as a catalyst to make use of that cellar and drink better wine.

Otherwise, the key conclusions seem to be the following.  It is female Masters of Wine who are driving the increase in wine consumption and the Australasian Masters of Wine have resolutely turned their face against drinking less in this time of pestilence.  Additionally, try to ensure that your wine cellar is where you live, and not away from your home.

Meanwhile, together with a work colleague I’m extending this research to the general wine-drinking population:

https://schoolwinespiritsbusiness.limequery.com/346558?lang=en

Please do complete the survey – we want as many responses as possible from all kinds of people: those who drink wine no more than a few times a year up to weekly imbibers – and please pass it on to friends as well: we need to get as many as possible completing this.

Meanwhile, public authorities have been telling us how we ought to drink. Early on in the pandemic the World Health Organisation warned that using alcohol is an ‘unhelpful coping strategy’ in lockdown. The trouble is that one person’s ‘coping strategy’ is another’s ‘reward’, or ‘ritual marker’ which becomes a pleasant, psychologically beneficial; and while WHO suggested that it is unlikely to alleviate stress it seems that many drinkers disagree with them. Meanwhile, and more usefully, organisations like Drinkwise in Australia and Drinkaware in the UK are promoting a message of moderation rather than abstinence, and reminding people of the sensible limits for consumption.

Finally, some people have been using this time to tell us how to expand our wine activities to get us through lockdown.  The trade magazine The Drinks Business have run articles explaining the best wine-related crafts to help break through the boredom (if you want to ‘repurpose’ your empty bottles or create wine-dyed cork straps this is the place for you).  If craft isn’t your thing then they’ve listed the ten greatest wine films to watch in lockdown – from Rock Hudson and Jean Simmons keeping a Californian wine company going during prohibition to a recent fictional release based on the life of Master Sommelier in training.

What to do? 

This blog theme will be continued…

Wine in the Time of Pestilence III

In the midst of gloom and disaster a slight glimmer of humour.  Humour is, after all, one of the ways in which humans, who unusually in the animal world can see into the future, manage to cope with the inevitable disaster which awaits us.

In France, as in all Western Europe, we are in lockdown.  Being France, this is of course a bureaucratic, precisely organised form of lockdown – it’s culturally embedded.  We can only leave home for one of six reasons (one of which is to have one hours exercise each day – though no more than one kilometre distance from our home).  When we do venture out we must have an attestation sur l’honneur – a sworn declaration showing the reason for our departure, the date and time we leave, our name and address, and – of course – our date of birth.  (The French are obsessed with declaring date of birth on any form.  Even when you have a contract to buy white goods or sign for a delivery you may be required to provide it, otherwise ‘the machine won’t work’.)  I’ve been stopped twice by the gendarmes wanting to check that my attestation is filled in and correct.

As I’ve noted in a previous column, only essential purchases can be made at present.  This excludes hairdressers, buying clothes, or bars – but does include places selling alcohol, including shops attached to wine producers. A story in an English-language French news website the other day caught my attention.  Three men went into a store attached to a chateau in the Bordeaux region. Two engaged the store manager in conversation while a third went behind the counter, dipped his hand in the till and extracted 40€; he was seen by the manager who chased all three but failed to catch them.  The manager returned to the story and called the police – then noticed a piece of paper on the floor.  It was the attestation of one of the thieves – correctly and entirely legally filled in!  He was arrested at home later that day.

This particular blog theme will be continued with something marginally more serious to follow shortly – though even that won’t be without an element of surprise…

Wine in the Time of Pestilence II

(Thanks to Cathy van Zyl MW, Neil Jing Zhang, and Paul McArdle for some leads which helped me develop this post).

Phylloxera began to spread through France in 1863 – and reached the furthest north around 1890 – so it took its time.  One of the interesting things about its spread is that while it eventually ruined vineyards in every region, before it arrived most regions had a reason why it would not affect them.  Soil, or variety or viticultural techniques: each place would be spared from what the others had endured – because they were, after all, special (thinking about it now, as an aside, I wonder if this played into the later development of notions about terroir?  Hold that idea – perhaps we’ll return to it one day).

The spread of Covid-19 in the western world had me thinking about this more.  The Chinese attempted to ignore it for a few weeks but – with the experience of SARS – when they took action it was severe and proactive.  The same in South Korea.  Yet when it arrived in Italy they took time, and ultimately only locked down a few provinces and regions (which in turn prompted an exodus of people, many crowded into trains whilst no doubt infected, to the south of the country).  Thus it spread rapidly, and with devastating effect.  Spain and France looked on but dilly-dallied.  Certainly we had the sense here that our lockdown, strict as it was, should have come a week or ten days earlier, given what was happening in Italy and Iran.  Boris Johnson should have seen this and acted sooner; and what can one say about the catastrophic shambles of federal leadership in the USA?  In each case there was a sense – even if only unconscious – that ‘we are different, it won’t be quite so bad here we are more special than those who have already suffered’.  I’m not claiming the Phylloxera was as bad as the current disease; it didn’t kill people. Yet the response was similar.  And while Phylloxera killed no one it did reshape an entire industry.  Hundreds of thousands of smallholders stopped producing wine, vast swathes of vineyard land disappeared (Champagne went from between 50,000 ha. and 80,000 ha. to the current 34,000) and what is now Algeria became for a while the main source of French wine.  The fallout from the current crisis on markets and distribution, if not production could well produce changes that are as momentous.

There is another result of Covid-19 which is having an impact on the world of wine.  The plague has shut borders.  A viral mutation has managed to achieve what neither Brexit nor Donald Trump nor even Viktor Orban had attempted in order to keep foreigners out.  ‘The foreigners are dangerous; the disease comes with them; and so, conversely, we need to focus on what our own country offers’.  What are people drinking?  Their local drink, so much safer, more hygienic that that ‘foreign muck’.  OK – I’m exaggerating rather, but it’s interesting that some producers of English wine claim to be doing very well.  Mark Harvey, of Chapel Down, says that ‘retail and online is flying’ – particularly the sparkling bacchus.  Which makes sense, because bacchus (even if created originally in Germany) is the quintessential British grape variety.  Are drinkers in times like this more likely to revert to drinking what their own country produces out of a sense of solidarity with their compatriots and a need to identify with the national fight against ‘the enemy’?

Having said that it maybe that only certain types of wine will sell, and in specific places.  Another friend who works in the UK wine industry said that their premium fizz (pinot and chardonnay) is not moving so much – because it is the drink of celebration, and this is no time to celebrate.  I always remember listening to Yves Dumont, former CEO of Champagne Laurent Perrier, when the 2008 financial crisis arrived.  When there is a recession, the Anglo-Saxons refuse champagne – it is not appropriate in a time of crisis, when belts tighten and we should not be happy.  The French, on the other hand reach for something which sparkles; it is necessary to cheer you up amid the gloom.

This pandemic and the lockdowns which have become widespread have certainly revealed different cultural attitudes to alcohol and wine.  Today (4th April) I received an email from a high-quality wine store in Dijon telling that me that next Saturday would be ‘happy Saturday’ with 20% off all wine.  They are still open, and you can go there to buy what our government terms ‘purchases of première nécessité’ – essential products, which is what wine is after all!  On the other hand, South Africa has banned all alcohol purchases during its lock down, which prompted the following observation from one commentator:

‘The South African government has effectively decided, without consultation, to wean its population off alcohol (and nicotine) cold turkey, a decision that could end up killing more people than the virus it hopes to mitigate. Unmanaged cessation of alcohol consumption can result in death, which is just one obvious shortfall. The other is that people will either end up brewing their own nuclear-powered mampoer, and/or illegal liquor sellers will take hold of the market.’ 

I’m uncertain how many will die from enforced abstinence – but as history suggests that the final prediction is inevitable.  For those with large wine cellars, of course, it will have very little impact. 

Western Australia also decided that the crisis was bad enough to introduce limits to the number of purchases people could make ‘to limit excess drinking’ – but their conclusion contrasts with the South African one. From the 25th March the maximum you can buy is three bottles of wine a day!  Hardly a restricted intake for one household – especially when you can add either a carton of beer or a litre of spirits to that.

Meanwhile, in some parts of the Southern Hemisphere it has been harvest.  According to my friend Paul McArdle in Margaret River, cabernet is coming in as I write (where the main health concern was backpackers who pick grapes during the day then ignore all social distancing rules as they party at night).  New Zealand, too, has been facing the dilemma of harvest during a state of emergency.  The wine industry, like agriculture more generally, has a dispensation allowing it to work to harvest and process grapes, with protocols in place to ensure safe working environments.  However, in Marlborough, where over three quarters of all of the country’s grapes are harvested, there has been something of a backlash. It seems that some local residents have complained that the harvest is threatening to increase disease transmission – which is a particular problem as the region has the highest proportion of over 65s in the country.  It was reported that one doctor at the local hospital used Facebook to voice concerns, claiming that wine is a ‘luxury’ and that the harvest is ‘risking lives’.

What to do?  Returning to the sparkling wine theme – I commend to you the words of a French poet-cum-diplomat in the 1930s: Gentlemen in the little moment that remains to us between the crisis and the catastrophe, we may as well drink a glass of champagne.’

This blog theme will be continued…

Social distancing in the Burgundy vineyards…

Wine in the Time of Pestilence I

One of my fellow Masters of Wine, one of the most amusing and dynamic, is Fongyee Walker, who runs a Wine School in Beijing.  The one aphorism I remember from her above all others is ‘it’s only wine, after all; it’s not a fucking cure for cancer’.  In these times those of us who work with wine can only sit back and carry on with our work as far as possible but feeling fairly superfluous to the world-changing events unfolding all around us and the very significant work that so many are doing to keep us alive and well.

Nevertheless, enforced confinement in France does give a bit of space to ponder more how alcohol in general and wine in particular is fitting into this world turned upside down.  We are in a state of near lockdown with all but essential services closed, yet this being France I have still received an email from a local drinks store reminding me that (presumably as one of those ‘essential services’) they remain open for all my liquid needs.  I wonder how long that will continue.

One of the puzzling things about human choices in a time of crisis is the obsession with toilet roll – something which appears in Australia, France, the UK, and seemingly everywhere.  Toilet roll seems for many to act as the adult equivalent of the infant’s comfort toy.  As long as we can exit a supermarket clutching three or four super-sized packs of Andrex, Cottonelle, or Charin we will sleep safely at night, knowing we are now able to face any crisis.  Yet it’s not just toilet paper; alcohol too can offer some of that comfort.  When I was in a supermarket the other day the person in front of me was bulk-buying bottles of rosé wine.  Nor is it just wine – as this picture of the lager aisle in a UK supermarket, courtesy of the blog’s editorial manager, reveals.

Some commentators are suggesting that wine is now a ‘crucial survival tool’.  According to an article posted by W. Blake Gray on Wine-Searcher.com the Californian Wine Institute has stated that wineries are ‘essential’ services in their State so that they should continue working during the state of emergency there.  Meanwhile the same article notes that Sonoma County has specifically allowed wineries to go on making wine (although they can’t sell it); the thing is that (as is happening in many places) regulations are issued very speedily yet without precision or clarity.  As a result the Wine Institute have advised its members that they consider what their members do is essential, so they should carry on making wine.  Meanwhile in the UK the Mail Online has noted that sales of wine ‘soar as tipplers stock up on the essentials in case they have to go into coronavirus self-isolation.  Purchases by ‘panicked customers’ mean that Naked Wines have had to suspend accepting orders temporarily.  Again – it’s an essential.

In a time when chaos and disaster seems to lurk just outside the front door we all need treats to ease our worries.  As the Bible says, ‘wine gladdens the heart of man’ (and maybe women as well), and certainly all of us who drink it know how a glass or two can lift the spirits.  Maybe, though, it goes further than that.  Wine is a magical product, which can transform us; we may try to rationalise that magic now, but for millennia drinkers with no knowledge of fermentation attributed the drink to some kind of deity; so because a god or goddess made it so it can magically change us in turn.  Perhaps in drinking wine (or any kind of alcohol) there remains a subconscious belief that the drink will transform us into an immortal, and keep the disease away.  No one will seriously believe this, of course – but then no one really thinks they need 150 toilet rolls to survive the next few weeks.

At a more personal level, I’m currently very fortunate.  At the time of writing, one of the five very specific reasons for which we are allowed outdoors in France (each of us clutching a sworn statement ‘on our honour’ explaining why we are not at home) is ‘short excursions, close to home, for physical exercise’.  As we live by vineyards, hills, and forests we can get good walks (maybe not so short) to break up the monotony of being indoors.  You occasionally meet a few like-minded people, smile and pass on opposite sides of the path, keeping as much space between you as possible.  Then, when we get home, the cellar has enough wine in it to last us a few years if necessary.  Meanwhile the market in the village is still open (although fairly deserted) as are the supermarkets.  Families with uncomprehending young children are stuck in small flats in towns and cities and single frail elderly people struggle even to get necessities.  It induces a level of guilt.  What to do?  I think this is the time to revisit Camus’ greatest work la Peste, which I haven’t read for 40 years.  After that, maybe, read for the first time Love in the Time of Cholera.  They won’t make the world a better place, but may help us to have more understanding of what others are going through and ensure that how we live can take more account of them. This particular blog theme is likely to be continued…

The end of wine as we know it?

A recent visit to the Pfalz offered another perspective on the impact of climate change on wine.  The winemaker at Muller-Catoir noted that making good riesling is getting harder.  ‘We will still make good riesling in 20 years; but in 30?  Maybe not.’  They are increasingly planting the pinots (noir and blanc) rather than riesling.  They are also moving away from lower-level vineyards and up into the traditional vineyards in the hills.

Meanwhile at Bassermann-Jordan we were told that they used to use a sledge every winter; now they have not had snow for the last four years.  Twenty years ago they harvested in October; now it can even start at the end of August.  They are also talking about irrigation as a possibility for the future.

English wine and British wine

Recently I was at at the marketing conference for WineGB – the coordinating body for the English and Welsh wine production industry – mainly high quality, traditional method, sparkling wine.  It took place as Brexit was coming into effect, and the feeling at the conference was very interesting.  WineGB made a lot of the fact that they are British, and proud of it.  Their logo incorporates the Union Flag.  That isn’t a pro- or anti-Brexit perspective, just a recognition that this is what they do, irrespective of politics, and a pride in the fact that they do it well, and have great potential for the future. 

English sparkling wine is just beginning to get a bit of attention in the global world of wine.  Some is sold to Australia; American critics, like Eric Asimov of the New York times has praised it.  With the departure of the UK from the EU maybe there is a real opportunity for it to expand on international markets.  Unlike most British businesses they are not locked into exporting to the continent at this stage – the English-speaking world is more important.  The industry is still exploring how to manage, structure and market itself, and just maybe freedom from the more rigid EU notion of a PDO (appellation) could allow it the leeway to evolve dynamically and creatively. 

A typical English vineyard

One of the things that WineGB want to do as part of their strategy is reclaim the notion of ‘British Wine’.  British wine has been a major part of the market for alcoholic drinks from well before the time of English sparkling wine.  However, its name is deceptive – it has nothing to do with grapes grown in Britain.  Rather, it is made in Britain using grape juice from other countries, and turned into a fortified, rather sweet but pale imitation of good cream sherry (sometimes flavoured).  It’s also very cheap, and beloved of those for whom alcohol intake is more important than complexity, balance and intensity.  The best known of these – paradoxically given its reputation for fuelling hangovers and fights – has been made by an abbey in Devon since the end of the 19th century.  The English wine production industry has skirted around this aberration for some time – scared of being damned by association with a competitor which bears no relation to the drink made made from grapes grown in the cool, sodden climate of the UK.  Now, however, it seems that they want to take the competitor on – and come out as proud of the ‘British’ part of their moniker – which seems obligatory given the name.  Maybe soon we’ll be talking regularly about British fizz and consigning sweet wine from French or Spanish juice to the vinous seconds bin.

Just one question for WineGB though.  What happens to their name when Scotland secedes from the Union and part of the British Isles is no longer included?

Retsina II

27th December 2019

I’ve already written before about retsina – but it’s a wine style which because of its history and very specific cultural context I find fascinating; so you are going to get a bit more of it I’m afraid.

These reflections are prompted by a tasting I was given of retsina when in Greece a few months ago, as well as some background information from a few winemakers.  I need first to clarify an uncertainty I raised in my last post on the subject; it seems, according to Prof. Yorgos Kotseridis of the Agricultural University of Athens, who has carried out research, that resin has no anti-oxidative powers, and cannot protect wine versus spoilage.  I would suggest, then, that the reason for adding it is to cover up the oxidative characters of wines which, in the past with inadequate storage containers, would often become undrinkable within a year or so of production.

The big problem that modern producers face is knowing what style to make.  The Greek author and critic Constantine Stergides gave me a pretty good summary of the conundrum that producers face.  In the past the bulk wine used a lot of retsina, often up to 10kg per tonne of grapes; now, for the most refined versions it is much less – about 250gms per tonne.  A little while ago the main producers started to bottle these ‘lighter styles’ for export markets.  The result was that domestic drinkers gave it up as it wasn’t to their taste any more.  Now it’s made with limited resin and sold to partner with sushi!  This style doesn’t go so well with Greek food which needs a more forceful style – so the traditional market has been lost.  Meanwhile young, Greek drinkers wouldn’t be seen dead with it.  In the north of Greece it’s mixed with coke and trendy modern winemakers recoil from making it. The issue of food was repeated with other people I listened to – especially the fact that it pairs well with sushi, because it can stand up to strong flavours like ginger, wasabi, and soy sauce; it also goes with other intense foods, such as anchovies or pepper. 

Savatiano vines in Attica – the most common grape used to produce retsina

However, the styles have become so light that it is often barely detectable, so that you get onto issues of authenticity – and here we move on from the issue of what consumers would like to drink to what producers think is correct.  If you produce a retsina suited to modern (non-Greek) tastes what is the point of calling it retsina anyway?  This issue of authenticity goes further.  Constantine Sterigdes notes that many producers are now making it with the grape assyrtiko, rather than savatiano or rhoditis.  This – it is claimed – adds elegance but it seems to me that assyrtiko is more probably selected because it has become very fashionable and  easier to sell.  In any event, retsina was never designed for elegance.  One winemaker, Dimitris Georgas,  said he would not use assyrtiko, and that retsina needs a much more robust, even rustic variety such as savatiano in order to shine.  Meanwhile retsina has become a focus of contested ideas of Greek vinous identity.  It was a traditional working-class drink.  As some producers moved towards producing ‘good’ wines – wines which would shine internationally – from the 1980s onwards, there was a shift towards using French grape varieties.  This has been, after all, a world-wide phenomenon; if the French make the best wines in the world then we should use the same grapes as them, to show that we are worthy of respect for our wines.  Think of Chile, Lebanon, Super Tuscans or Georgia amongst many others.  Fortunately Greece has, in part, moved on from this and first assyrtiko and now xynomavro, agiorgitiko, moschofilero, and others are beginning to shine.  However, as Yiannis Karakasis MW has said, ‘retsina is a blessing and a curse; everyone knows about it but it has an appalling reputation’.  Many Greek producers who want to show how good their wines can be wanted to forget about something which can taste so coarse and unrefined.

In the end, as Eleni Kechris, another winemaker, pointed out the question is not how much resin but how good is the resin, and how good is the wine?  It shouldn’t cover the wine’s fruit.  Indeed, the best retsinas are not simply resinous; they can have aromas of thyme and rosemary as well as pine which complement rather than dominate what comes from the grape.  I’m willing to drink retsina not just because it’s a relic of another day, but because, in the right situation, it can be very enjoyable.

If you want to drink this debate, you may find some of the following wines interesting to try:

Gikas Winery Pine Forest 2016.  Very restrained pine – a merest hint.  This is made with assyrtiko and has good acidity.  The resin is collected from May to July and goes into big ‘tea bags’ which are placed in the ferment.  They experiment with it by fermenting at different temperatures; the higher it is the more bitterness is extracted.  It seems that 15-19oC is ideal, for about 10-20 days.

Nikoulou Winery: Botanic 2017.  A sparkling retsina.  Evident resin on the palate but less on the nose.  However, there are also floral and herbal characters (fennel especially).  I found the mousse rather dominant, and it is quite bitter on the finish (which is not necessarily a criticism).

Kechris Winery Roza 2018.  A red retsina made with xynomavro.  The resin is not very obvious.  An interesting wine, phenolic (naturally!), clear acidity, and with some red fruit.

Kechris Winery Afros 2018.  White retsina made from rhoditis.  A residual sugar of seven grammes/litre (so just evident) which, the producer claims, emphasises the resin.  Intense – ‘reminiscent of the old style’ she says.  There is a hint of spritz which also accentuates the resin character on the nose. Very traditional but balanced and good length.