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Today's Wine Tasting Note

© Copyright 1998 by Robin Garr. All rights reserved.

Retsina: Suspending disbelief

Grecian cup

Terracotta Attic (Greek) black-figure band cup of the mid-6th century B.C. Image from Classical Art: Introduction, Ancient Greek and Roman Art from the Michael C. Carlos Museum at Emory University.

Serious wine lovers joke about retsina, the traditional Greek country wine that's flavored with pine resin, a tradition that allegedly goes back to Homer's time when the clay amphorae used to transport wine were sealed with resin, a practice that puportedly kept out air and gave the wine a characteristic flavor that covered any signs of spoilage.

The bottom line? It's hard for a palate accustomed to Cabernet and Chardonnay to get accustomed to a wine that tastes like, well, turpentine.

But still ... when we lived in a Greek-American community in New York City, we often ate at neighborhood tavernas, swilled retsina from heavy tumblers with Greek fare, and liked it. And there's also the argument that the Greeks must have some reason to have retained affection for this odd drink for some 2,700 years.

So last night we threw together a Greek-style dinner of striped bass plaki (baked with tomatoes, onions and oregano) and a Greek salad with lots of strong sheep's milk feta, sought to willingly suspend our disbelief, and uncorked ...

Achaia Clauss non-vintage Retsina Appellation Traditionelle ($7.19)
Clear bright gold. Pine resin dominates the aroma and flavor at first, but as the wine warms toward room temperature, hints of white fruit and floral notes begin to appear. Dry and tart flavor, pine resin dominant over simple fruit.

Over the course of the evening, we developed the following tips to maximize the enjoyment (such as it is) of retsina:

  • Don't serve it cold. The colder it is, the more intense the resinous quality seems to become; below about 45F, it bears an unfortunate resemblance to pine-scented bathroom disinfectant. However, it's much more balanced (and palatable) at cool room temperature.
  • Put away your fancy wine glasses and serve it in tumblers, as the tavernas do. The inward curving lip of the standard wine glass is designed to capture fugitive, subtle aromas from delicate wines. Retsina is neither subtle nor delicate.
  • FOOD MATCH: Serve it with appropriate food. The aromatic and herbal flavors of Greek dishes seem to stand up to the resin and bring it into balance. The oregano-laced, tomato-tart fish was good with it; the strong feta in the salad was almost perfect.
Bottom line? It was an interesting experiment and a useful anti-snobbery practice. But we probably won't repeat it any time soon.

All my wine-tasting reports are consumer-oriented. In order to maintain objectivity and avoid conflicts of interest, I purchase all the wines I rate at my own expense in retail stores.

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