A Brief History of Retsina

October 11, 2019 by French Corner Cellars

Greece is known for its long history of wine production, oddly enough however very few people have ever tasted Greek wine! That’s not to say that strides haven’t been made to change that: you see the occasional Moscofilaro and Adiani Mavro adorning the shelves of a few shops, or perhaps on a well-cared for wine list. Overall, their grapes and wines are still largely unknown to the American audience.

There was a brief period in the 60’s and 70’s that the one big wine import of Greece – Retsina – was at the height of popularity, so much so that for many wine drinkers Retsina is the only recognizable Greek wine to this day. And as time went on, popularity turned to infamy as the wine is now almost solely remembered for its pervasive pine-resin notes, a flavor that is no longer embraced as it once was.

As much as the pine notes are reviled these days (mind you, cheap Retsina did most of the damage), most people have not idea how much more presence those heavy hints of resin had centuries ago, and that they came about through necessity.

For those not familiar with ancient wine storage, around 6,000 BC earthenware pots called Kevri were invented in Georgia, capable of longer-term storage for various materials, and of course, their wines. These vessels were widely used and mimicked, as the millennia went by, Kevri had branched off into pots called Amphorae produced by the Phoenicians around 3500 BC. As the Bronze age came about, they worked their way into Greek and Roman societies.

The largest problem with storing wine around was keeping the Amphorae sealed properly. The most viable solution at the time was to use resin from local Pine trees to keep the pots airtight. And taking into account things like extended travel and terrain, sometimes quite a bit of resin was needed. As the wines aged, the resin worked its way more and more into their flavor profile, producing a wine with a much more pungent and over-the-top pine presence than modern retsina. The amusing part of all this is that the best wines were advised to never used resin, due to the unpleasant notes that were imparted, proving that even over thousands of years, some things never change.

That’s not to say that you can’t stumble across a good bottle of Retsina once and a while, one that has its pine notes well-integrated with its fruit and acidity. It’s a fairly rare find these days, if you are fortunate enough to come across a label or two, make sure to serve around 45°F., preferably in an Avintage DIVA wine refrigeration unit!