Retsina rang a bell, I thought. Somewhere in my subconscious; even though Greek-island holidays – a very British working class or lower-middle class tradition – were not a part of my own particular history. (Butlins was our nearest equivalent, and I never tried the wine at Butlins.)
The word seems to stick in the ear somewhat. It has a loaded past and a dubious present. I know a lot of people are unsure about Greek wine – many because of legitimate personal experience with bad or mass-produced tourist bait, and many more (myself included until I tried some very lovely Greek red wine) simply because they’ve never heard much good about it.
Now Retsina is considered part of the Greek cultural export for better or worse. (I’m paraphrasing an excellent blog on the subject, here.) To deny its existence or downplay its role in Greek wine history is simply to reinvent the past. Regardless of the bad bottles that have sent tourists running over decades when production standards were perhaps not so rigorously enforced, or when European tastes were much more closely aligned with the medium-sweet low-alcohol exports from Germany’s own bargain bin, Retsina is quite clearly here to stay.
And so I thought I’d better try some, if I was to try and develop my own understanding of where Greek wine is coming from. Beyond the obvious answer of “Greece”, that is.
For those who know as little as I did when I ordered this; Retsina incorporates a small amount of pine resin in every bottle. Yes, you read that right. They’ve been doing it for ages so it must be okay. It was originally for preservative qualities as well as aromatic and… erm… tastomatic. Now it’s just because.
It’s very odd at first, I don’t mind telling you. It tasted like a decent, modern-style dry white wine like a Pinot Grigio or what have you – but with this overriding unmistakable edge of pine. The nose was all needles too, and the liquid had a glassy green hue that was perhaps a trick of the eye.
The initial experience reminded me of Heston Blumenthal‘s dreadful mince pies: an overwhelming and quite lovely aroma of pine that gave way to a tasteless fludge of dry flaky pastry with insufficient moisture in the filling and an Emperor’s-new-clothes style absence of anything resembling pine in the actual taste of the sugar dusting.
Not so here, though; the pine is there to stay, and while it’s not quite as sharp or bitter as you might expect, you will have to be open to pine in your wine to enjoy this.
I was open to it, and although not immediately convinced, I did begin to warm to it after a while; and I found it was not at all bad as an accompaniment to a mild curry, although it is most likely recommended as an aperitif (AKA, drunk alone).
I can imagine worse ways to spend your time than drunk alone with a bottle of Retsina. But then you’ll want to share it if only for what is – at least for anyone who never went on those ubiquitous Greek-island holidays – a rather curious taste experience.
You can pick up this refreshing and citrusy Retsina from Waitrose for a bargain price of £5.21. (When it’s in stock…)