The very first event of our North Greece wine trip was an evening tasting in our Thessaloniki hotel, offered by four wineries that we would not get the opportunity to visit. We had many good wines, but the Tear of the Pine in particular grabbed my attention. It was not only good, but something markedly different to anything else I had tasted before: a high quality Retsina.
Modern Retsina is generally a low quality white wine heavily flavoured with pine resin, which masks the quality of the base wine and any faults it might have. It is uncertain how it developed from the ancient practice of using pine resin for sealing amphoras to help preserve the wine. The evidence seems to be that the resin flavour was merely tolerated by the Greeks, it being left to the Romans to decide that it was a Good Thing, with Pliny the Elder writing about the best resins, and how he liked the bits of resin that got stuck in his teeth. But how did Pliny’s connoisseurship of pine resin lead to the resinous Greek wine of today? Apart from anything else, the resin is now added at the fermentation stage, which is necessary to extract the resinous flavour. The above-mentioned amphoras were used for transporting wine, not for fermentation, so it is possible that if ancient wines did taste of resin it was because the fermentation continued a little or re-started after the main fermentation period.
I always thought that Retsina was a pleasant enough drink when sitting in a simple taverna on holiday in Greece; in that situation I think I tended to order it more than most people. But for some reason the idea of drinking it back in the UK never appealed. Then, a few weeks ago, I was at a tasting in central Thessaloniki on a rainy evening, and without wanting to sound too negative the atmosphere was probably closer to that of Manchester than a Greek beach. The second producer at the tasting was Stelios Kechris Domaine, with oenologist Eleni Kechris presenting the wines.
We started with their Kechirabi Retsina, a wine they started making in 1939. It is 100% Roditis and fermented in stainless steel tanks with top quality pine resin. Without having had other Retsinas to compare with, it was difficult to evaluate, but I thought it was better than the Retsina of Greek beaches enjoyed many years ago. The predominant flavour was without a doubt pine resin, and it had a nice clean and refreshing feel to it.
Then we moved on to the Tear of the Pine Retsina. Like Kechirabi, the vintage was not on the label, but it was in fact from 2014. To give you some idea of the price, it retails in Greece for around €12, which would probably translate to around £17 in the UK, and is over double the cost of Kechrabi. The Tear of the Pine is made from the highly regarded Assyrtiko grape variety, fermented in new oak barrels, and aged on the lees for 6 months. It demonstrated very well how good Retsina could be, if you start with the intention of making a good quality white wine and use carefully selected pine resin in a controlled fashion. Here the use pine resin was very subtle, to the extent that it was easy not to notice initially. But the strength of the resinous aromas did seem to build up, perhaps as the wine warmed, and was most noticeable on the finish.
Let’s attempt a tasting note for the Tear of the Pine… Intense, fresh, citric on the nose. Almost Riesling-like with lime and maybe a hint of petrol. Herbs. Oak definitely. Aromatic resin in the background, sometimes contributing a spicy note. Medium high acidity on the palate, and bone dry. Citrus, oak and pine in that order of intensity, and with that order in time. More pine on the finish, then oak, giving an almost astringent finish. Elegant, with the resin providing complexity and refreshment. I drank the wine with dinner on a couple of occasions too, and the only slight negative was that after four glasses or so the wood flavours – the oak as well and the pine – started to get a bit much for me. If only I was able to stop after three glasses… 🙂 *****