26th June 2018

Everybody’s favourite pine-scented toilet cleaner, just about acceptable accompanying a souvlaki for lunch next to the lapping Aegean on a baking hot day but toxic whenever taken away from that environment.  And it’s a flavoured wine as well, so it can’t really be taken seriously, can it?

Well why not?  We drink flavoured wine (in the form of oaked chardonnay or Bordeaux) all the time.  And you can argue that the oak is used primarily to refine good wine – well so, it’s argued, is pine resin; it is claimed that it has been added to wine for at least 2,000 years to protect it from spoilage – so it is a processing additive designed to protect the wine.  And perhaps the issue isn’t so much the resinous character, but how much of that character there is.  So maybe just as an over-oaked wine is out of balance, so an excessively resinous one is.  Part of the problem is that if your wine is flavourless or poor to start with then dousing it in resin is a great way to hide its inadequacies (sugar in cheap Australian red wine anyone?).

It’s made with resin collected from the Aleppo pine (which despite its name is grown widely around the Mediterranean, and not just in Syria).  The experienced collector can knock the tree-trunk and tell by the sound if it’s ready to be harvested, then the trunk nicked so the resin can drip out.  It forms a gooey paste which is added to the wine in a kind of teabag during a two or three week fermentation.  It is used in a proportion of about 1 kilo per 100 litres (and maybe less for the most refined versions).

Traditionally retsina was drunk by working class males in southern Greece – especially in Athens.  It was their marker alcohol like brandy for the shipyard workers in Bilbao or beer in British inner-city pubs.  This is something that will repay more research in the future.

There are three Protected Geographic Indicators for retsina – all in South and Central Greece.  Historically this style of wine probably existed much more widely.  There is good evidence that many ancient amphorae were coated in wine pitch to make them watertight.  It may even be that this is how the anti-oxidative properties of the resin were discovered.  Except that, for Vassilis Papagiannikos, there isn’t any scientific evidence that the resin is protective at all – perhaps it just hid the stale character of oxidising wine.  So we’ve come full-circle, and maybe the premise for its use given earlier is undermined.

Anyway, the style is being reinvented now, and there are some good examples available, at least in Greece.  As well as the Papagiannikos a more powerful version is made by Aoton.  The well-known producer Gaia also have one. Perhaps it is time to reassess our views about the purity of wines that have to be free from external flavour influences if that flavour enhancement makes for a better wine?