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  • Radical Retsina

    The Greeks have a long and storied history with wine. While there is archeological evidence of other countries cultivating grapes into various states of fermentation in the days before written history, the oldest surviving written records of winemaking are of Greek origin, dating as far back as the fifth millennium BCE.

    A uniquely Greek wine is called Retsina, and is one of those love-it-or-hate-it wines that provokes strong reactions from the tippling public.

    If we turn back the clock to around 2000 years ago, Greece was the preeminent producer of wine in the known world, but since impermeable glass bottles stopped with cork had not been invented yet, wine would spoil quickly due to oxidation from exposure to ambient oxygen.

    The state of the art in wine storage at the time were large clay vessels known as amphorae. These clay amphorae were used as storage vessels for pretty much everything, wheat grains to wines, togas to tunics, and anything else you might imagine. Even to the present day, ancient shipwrecks have been uncovered in the Mediterranean Sea with intact amphorae in the cargo hold.

    Unfortunately, the clay vessels were not airtight or watertight, so merchants would smear pine resin on the interior to prevent liquids from getting out, or air from getting in. You might think of this strategy as the ancient precursor of the Ziploc baggie.

    Insightful readers may already be wincing at the thought of drinking a wine that has been aged in pine resin, thinking it to be some unholy mashup of Chardonnay and menthol cough drops, and truth be told, you would not be far off.

    By the year 300 CE, most of the Roman Empire had switched from clay amphorae to less permeable wooden barrels for wine storage, with the exception of the Byzantine portion of the empire, now modern-day Turkey, which had acquired a taste for the resinated wines.

    The traditions continue to this day, with Retsina being a legally protected designation, similar to Champagne or Port. With improvements in viticulture of the last few millennia, the old clay vessels are no longer used, with the flavouring now added by introducing small chunks of pine resin during the fermentation process, which are then filtered out prior to bottling.

    My first introduction to Retsina wine was in the early days of the new millennium, as a wide-eyed and naive tourist visiting the Greek Isles, and grabbing an unremarkable bottle of wine at the local convenience store for the princely sum of two Euros, or around three Canuck bucks.

    Young and inexperienced in the ways of the world as I was all those years ago, I had never heard of Retsina, and assumed it was just another Greek wine. Imagine my surprise when I pried off the crown closure with a bottle opener and received a strong menthol aroma. The first sip was even more shocking, with notes of Pine-Sol cleaner on the tongue, followed by a lasting finish that cleared my sinuses and left my palate with a metallic aftertaste.

    Indeed, my first experience with Retsina was not pleasant. A more seasoned and worldly wine drinker may have seen the two Euro price tag as a warning sign of low quality, but I was unjaded and unsuspecting in my younger years, so made the incorrect assumption that all Retsina was identical to the bargain-basement rotgut likely only purchased by gullible tourists like myself.

    In the fullness of time, as my palate matured into its current world-weary state, I recently gathered up the courage to try Retsina at a Greek restaurant in Banff, and finally realized that I had unfairly maligned the good name of Retsina so many years ago.

    Modern examples of Retsina are usually made from the Assyrtiko or Savatiano grapes, both popular white varietals that are native to Greece. Faithful readers may recall me waxing poetically about the Assyrtiko grape, especially for its flexibility for pairing with foods.

    Modern Retsina wines are much more subtle and understated with their pine aromas, and only slight menthol hints in the finish. As a born-again Retsina drinker, I like to enjoy a glass or two at a Greek restaurant, especially when paired with brined olives or stuffed grape leaves. Ask for a recommendation the next time you are dining out at a Greek restaurant, and experience this millennia-old wine style for yourself!