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Great retsina - an oxymoron no more
ANYONE who has travelled to Greece or even eaten at a Greek restaurant in the United States may have received well-meaning advice from wine-loving friends: Don't drink the retsina.
On the face of it, the warning makes sense. The flavor of retsina, a wine infused with the resin of Aleppo pine trees, has often been likened to turpentine, even by people who like the stuff. Most modern retsinas are made with poor, thin wine. A potent addition of resin masks the dullness of the base with a sharp, bracing pungency.
The Greeks have favored retsina since the earliest days of ancient winemaking, when they used pine resin to line and seal terracotta amphoras. Even after wooden barrels replaced amphoras as the preferred storage vessels, the Greeks retained their taste for retsina.
A hundred years ago, when Greece was still largely agricultural, farming communities would drink retsina made from the local white wine. Taverns and families might tap the local pines for their own supply of fresh resin.
Nowadays, mass-market retsina, sold in clear 500-millilitre bottles with crown caps, is usually the cheapest wine available in Greece. Often, in cities like Athens, it is mixed with soft drinks and consumed (primarily to catch a buzz) by those on student budgets. These are the retsinas we have been warned about.
But retsina appears to be undergoing a renaissance. A few producers are demonstrating that if retsina is made thoughtfully and carefully, from grapes grown conscientiously, it can be a delicious wine that goes beautifully not only with a wide variety of Greek foods but with many other assertive cuisines as well.
The producers who have embraced retsina are not trying to transform it into a profound wine, a collectible or a bottle worth ageing to show its complexities. Instead, they want to turn retsina into a cultural tradition of which modern Greeks can be proud.
I've written about my own introduction to good retsina: I stopped for lunch in San Francisco a few years ago at Souvla, a smart little chain of casual restaurants inspired by Greek souvlaki taverns. Among its selection of wines by the glass, Souvla offered a retsina that it promised was good.
So I tried a glass with a smoky, charred lamb salad and loved it. It's an experience I've had the pleasure of repeating several times since.
That wine was the Ritinitis Nobilis from Gaia, one of Greece's best modern wineries. Since it was first issued, back in 1998, Gaia has been trying to redefine retsina as a proud custom rather than a genre to be shunned.
The origin of Ritinitis Nobilis stretches back more than 25 years ago to the days before Gaia, when Yiannis Paraskevopoulos, a founder and the winemaker, was working at Boutari, a historic Greek producer. A mentor, Yiannis Boutaris, of the family that owned Boutari, dropped an offhand remark that stayed with him: Retsina can be a wine of quality.
That remark challenged him, he said, both to determine whether it was true and to see if he could do it.
"Quality retsinas didn't really exist back then," Mr Paraskevopoulos wrote in an e-mail. At the time, he said, they were more a source of shame.
"Retsina was Greece's national wine, and as such it needed protection," he said. "The thing is, you can neither protect nor promote something that isn't good. I had to make a good one."
Mass-market retsina is generally made with savatiano, Greece's most widely planted grape, which has a reputation, perhaps undeserved, for making dull wines at best. At worst, farmed for high yields rather than good quality, it required industrial doses of pine resin for a sense of identity.
Instead, Mr Paraskevopoulos chose roditis grapes - which can make fresh, spicy wines - grown at relatively high altitudes, 2,300 to 3,300 feet above sea level. He also paid close attention to the quality of the resin, he said, making sure it was especially fresh.
The result was a refreshing, invigorating wine, with a bright pungency that seems ready-made for Greek cooking in all its garlicky, herbal glory. Although retsina is primarily a white wine (and occasionally a rosé), it goes beautifully with roasted lamb, its punchy flavors refusing to knuckle under to the savoury meat. I have also found retsina to be a wonderful partner for spicy Indian food.
While Gaia is the most prominent producer of new-wave retsinas, it is not the only one. Manolis Garalis, on the island of Lemnos, makes a lively, aromatic retsina with organic muscat of Alexandria grapes, grown in stony volcanic soils.
Why muscat of Alexandria? "It's the only white grape they have on the island," said Aris Soultanos of Eklektikon, Garalis' US importer.
Eklektikon's aim, Mr Soultanos said, is to revive Greek traditions through the wines it imports. He seeks out small producers who are working with indigenous grapes and styles, who are farming organically or biodynamically, and who make wines with a minimal amount of intervention.
That includes retsinas. In addition to the Garalis retsina, Eklektikon also imports two retsinas from Georgas Family, which farms about 11 acres biodynamically in the town of Spata, east of Athens. One, the Georgas Traditional retsina, is made with a small amount of sulphur dioxide, a stabiliser used in most commercial wines, and is minimally filtered. It will make its first appearance in New York in about a month or so.
The other, the Georgas Black Label, is made without any sulphur dioxide or filtering, and the grape juice is allowed to macerate with the skins before fermentation to give the wine a bit of colour and texture. Not unexpectedly, the Black Label is a cloudy wine, resonant with pine flavours. On the palate, it is rich and mildly pungent, an altogether delightful combination.
The Traditional is a little narrower in flavour with more focused texturally. With filtering, it's as clear as any modern white wine.
For his target market, Mr Soultanos is aiming more at restaurants and bars featuring natural wines than at Greek restaurants.
"It's a natural wine, but a uniquely Greek natural wine," he said of the Georgas Family Black Label. The demand has been so great for this small-production wine, he said, that it may be the first retsina available only in small allocations.
Until it sold out, it had been on the list at Saint Julivert Fisherie, a seafood restaurant that opened last September in Brooklyn. A new shipment is expected in the next few weeks.
"I'm a huge fan of this wine, and it's great with the food we serve," said Alex Raij, the chef and co-owner with her husband, Eder Montero.
Daniel Stickler, the wine captain, says he can divide his guests into two groups: those 35 and up, who have bad memories of retsina, and a younger group that knows nothing about retsina. Generally, he said, he explains how the wine was made and the Greek tradition. Most guests are then willing to sample it.
"Voilà! Nine out of 10 times they love it," Mr Stickler said.
What sets these wines apart from mass-market retsinas is the obvious quality of the wine itself. The 2017 Georgas Black Label savatiano, made just like the Black Label retsina but without the addition of resin, is a gorgeous wine, cloudy, rosy in colour and rich with spicy citrus flavours.
Both the Black Label savatiano and the retsina were from the 2017 vintage, but Greek labelling laws do not permit retsinas to be vintage wines, so they cannot be labelled with a year. Mr Paraskevopoulos of Gaia said this was a problem.
"The unfortunate fact is that retsinas do not age well," he said. "Retsinas should be consumed within the year of their production. Not being allowed to print their vintage doesn't really help."
I have not yet tested that hypothesis, so further research awaits. If you want to explore retsina, Ritinitis Nobilis from Gaia is a great place to start. Aside from the excellent Georgas and Garalis retsinas, I also recommend Tetramythos and Kechris' Tear of the Pine. NYTIMES