Here’s the scene. You are on a Greek island. Maybe you are a tourist; maybe you were born here in the house your great-grandfather built.

Perhaps you’ve spent the day wandering ancient caves, shopping in a small village, picnicking on the beach and taking a swim. Or it was a work day: You prepared breakfast for your children, then faced off against the sun while hauling cement blocks around a job site and installing plumbing, before heading over to the office to catch up on invoices.

Either way, it’s late afternoon and you’re done. The midday heat remains only as palimpsest, its direct blaze soothed into a mere suggestion of reposeful warmth. Breezes blow, mingling the scent of scraggly pine brush from the hillside to your right with the salt-kissed sting of the ocean to your left.

It’s not quite time for dinner, but you’re hungry and you’ve got a little time. There’s always a little time. The taverna on the corner, perched over the cove, has tasty mezes: favas in olive oil, taramosalata (roe), kalamata olives, skordalia suffused in garlic, fried vegetables, lemon wedges. Bring a few plates, please, whatever is freshest, yes, for me and my two friends here. And of course, the retsina.

The retsina. One of the most distinctive wines on Earth, fuel equally for Greek patriotism, vacation nostalgia and international ridicule. Retsina is … well, wait a minute, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Here’s another scene. You are on a Maine island. Maybe you’re a tourist; maybe you’ve earned the right to call yourself a native. Caves, beaches, small-town shops, picnics, swims. Or you sweat through two T-shirts replacing the roof on the old inn. Either way, it’s late afternoon and you’re done. This is the fourth straight day above 90, you’re kind of over it if anyone’s asking, but at least we’re getting some wind finally; smell the pines?


Damn this heat wave, let’s hit the dock. The clams at Sophie’s are decent, and their new line cook is a bit overeager but that app he’s been doing with fried zucchini, local goat cheese and garlic scapes is hard to resist. They’ve got Rising Tide Spinnaker and Maine Island Trail Ale on tap. But you know what, Sophie’s family is from this little island in Greece, Kea I think it’s called, and in Greece they drink this wine called retsina, and so Sophie always keeps a bottle around. I’ve been getting into it.

What’s retsina? Well, it’s … it’s a surprise. It’s just a white wine, but while the wine is fermenting, they add pine resin to it. So you get this very crisp, refreshing white wine, with lots of lemon notes, super zippy on your tongue, basically just a crushable summer slurper, and then there’s this strong hit of pine.

I know it sounds like a gimmick, but they’ve been doing this forever in Greece. A retsina industry is centered around Athens, but small-scale local retsina is made throughout most of the country.

In fact, many modern Greek winemakers have felt retsina as something of a burden. The vast majority of resinated wine now is extremely simple, mass-produced, flavored bluntly with pine. Many producers have had to work hard to convince international consumers that they can make interesting wine not doctored in that way.

Like the history of most things, retsina is the result of necessity birthing preference. When all wine was made in clay amphorae, the naturally porous material needed to be sealed somehow lest the wine oxidize too rapidly. At first the vessels’ interiors were coated with pine resin.

Later on, people found that wines could be preserved more consistently and longer by adding resin to the wine itself as it fermented. The distinctive pine-touched flavor of wines produced in either fashion became a desired attribute, and Pliny the Elder, collating research done by other naturalists of the ancient world, even distinguished the areas responsible for superior resins. (Other reliable historical sources refer to the addition of seawater to Greek wine, as both flavor agent and preservative.)


Once wooden casks became the preferred container for the production, aging and transport of wine, pine resin was no longer necessary. As the Romans spread winemaking westward and northward, where the cooler climate obviated the need to coat wood to keep it from cracking, resinated wine lost favor. But not in Greece, where the tradition was, and continues to be, maintained.

To be frank, the Greek “preference” for resinated wine has likely been at least partially due to pine’s ability to mask the taste of flawed – usually strongly oxidized – wine. Other aromatized (and also fortified) wines, such as vermouth, have sprung from a similar corrective impulse. And since it’s generally easier and cheaper to make crappy wine than good, dosing the former aggressively with cheap, turpentine-tasting pine resin is one way to make a quick euro. The tourists, at least, will find it charming.

But we’re not tourists. Or maybe we are, but anyway we seek authenticity and appreciate native traditions executed at a high level. Or we just live in Maine which has a rocky, pine-bedecked coast buffeted by marine winds, where we enjoy pristine seafood and simply prepared local vegetables. For which a high-quality retsina is ideal accompaniment.

High-quality retsina exists. While many quality-minded vintners in Greece were running from retsina, producing fine, distinctive, unresinated whites from assyrtiko, roditis and moschofilero, some figured to join ’em rather than beat ’em. Actually, the finest retsina I’ve come across is made by a producer best known for beating ’em: Gaia, who make the impressive (nonresinated) Notios wines from Peloponnese.

Gaia’s retsina, the Ritinitis ($15), is so perfectly poised, its citrus notes charmingly caressed by the pine, that you can’t tell where grape ends and conifer begins. Even retsina’s boosters don’t ordinarily emphasize the category’s elegance – remember, you just got done hauling cement blocks or roofing the old inn, and someone just set out a plate of fried clams – but the Ritinitis is practically suave, its texture smoothed and lengthened by the addition of freshly drawn resin to the fermenting must.

Imagine a better-than-decent dry, crunchy-crisp sauvignon blanc from Chile, the wind at its back and brine on its breath, with added components of mint, eucalyptus, evergreen. The grapes are 100 percent roditis, a native varietal with high natural acidity that usually produces refreshing, midweight whites, for this wine harvested from low-yielding hillside plots. So, the initial material is impeccable. There are no shortcuts to disguise. And fermentation is carried out in stainless steel, so there’s no oxidation to prevent against.

Wherever you come from, wherever you’ve been, whatever you’ve been doing, whatever is planned for the future, now – the weather warming, the days stretching, the vegetables growing, salads forming and salty foods calling – is the time to drink this wine. No apologies necessary, nor fantasies. Your life is right now, and everything else can wait.

Joe Appel is the wine buyer at Rosemont Market. He can be reached at:

[email protected]

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