Retsina’s Big Return

Crisp new styles of this traditional Greek aromatized white wine pair perfectly with herb-flavored foods and as an ingredient in creative summer cocktails.


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Modern styles of retsina—the traditional Greek wine aromatized with pine resin—are far cries from the floor-cleaner-scented, high-alcohol and oxidized versions of the past. Crisp and herbal, these wines pair effortlessly with dishes containing rosemary, mint and dill, and can even be shaken up in creative gin cocktails. Those who have tried retsina years ago and vowed to eschew it forever, or have yet to discover it, should give these updated versions a sip.

Domaine Papagiannakos: Made with Savatiano grapes sourced from Greece’s Attica region—where this wine style is traditionally made—Domaine Papagiannakos makes a refreshing retsina. The wine is crisp and lively, rich with lavender and pine notes and a minty-fresh flavor.

“Modern retsinas are very well vinified wines, and the resin is added to supply the wine with the aromas of the pine forest, not to cover bad wines,” says Owner/Winemaker Vassilis Papagiannakos. “Chill it well and sip it with meze like dolmades, spanakopita, tzatziki and calamari,” he says.

Gaia: Gaia’s Ritinitis Nobilis is another great choice for a modern style. Made from Roditis grapes and a small amount of pine resin, this retsina is clean and refreshing, with herb and eucalyptus aromas, and it pairs wonderfully with curried fish or chicken dishes, or with fried seafood.

Kourtaki: Kourtaki’s retsina is a widely distributed option with a distinctive yellow label you can’t miss on store shelves. Its characteristic menthol aroma and flavor make it a straightforward introduction to this style.

Cork and Fork Pairing

“Retsina is a wildly unique wine that’s a little bit more based on tradition and heritage than modern winemaking styles,” explains Alan Lamb, wine director at Agora Restaurant, a Mediterranean restaurant in Washington, D.C. He admits that with descriptors like “sappy” and “turpentine,” it’s no surprise that some people shy away from ordering retsina, but points out that wine lovers who order Right Bank Bordeaux may not have thought they’d enjoy tobacco and saddle leather scents quite as much as they do if they hadn’t tried it.

The enticing herbal aromas in retsina make it a perfect partner at the table for dishes like roasted chicken with rosemary or simple grilled fish with lemon and mint. Lamb recommends serving retsina with a platter of rice and vegetable-stuffed dolmades. He says the tannin in the grape leaves used in the dolmades acts as a carbon filter, removing some of the wine’s undesirable cleaning-solvent flavors and letting the notes of fresh pine and piercing lemon shine through.

Here is a simple recipe that stands up to modern styles of retsina.

Dolmades

Recipe courtesy Ghassan Jarrouj, executive chef of Agora Restaurant, Washington, D.C.

1 bunch of flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 white onion, finely diced
11/3 cups Korean rice, cooked
1 pinch kosher salt
1 pinch black pepper
1 teaspoon allspice
½ cup olive oil
1½ cups lemon juice, divided
3 tablespoons pine nuts, toasted
2–3 grape leaves, blanched
2 large potatoes, sliced
1 large tomato, sliced
Vegetable stock

Combine the parsley, onion, rice, salt, pepper, allspice, olive oil, 1 cup of lemon juice and toasted pine nuts in a bowl and mix well. Place a full tablespoon of the mix into the center of each grape leaf. Fold in the sides of each grape leaf and roll the bottom to the top to create dolmades.

In a large cooking pot, layer the bottom with the potatoes, then add the tomato slices. Arrange the dolmades in the pot in tight circles. Cover them with the vegetable stock and the remaining lemon juice. Place a heavy plate upside down on top of the ingredients to press down on the dolmades, and let cook for 45 minutes. Serves 2–4.

Retsina in the shaker

The aromatic quality of retsina lends comparisons to gin, making it a fitting substitute in cocktails for the botanical spirit.

“I’ve played around with adding and even substituting retsina for gin in a gin and tonic,” says cocktail consultant Doug Frost, MW, MS. “The bitter, herbal notes work well with it, though it’s a matter of degrees.” He reaches for a strong tonic like Fever-Tree to provide added dimension to retsina’s savory side. If you are also mixing it with gin, he recommends using a classic, overtly juniper style like Beefeater. And, he adds, “be liberal with your lime garnish.”

Retsina and Tonic

4 ounces retsina (or to taste)
4 ounces Fever-Tree Tonic Water
Juice of 1/3 lime, plus wedge
Sprig of rosemary or mint, for garnish (optional)

Add ice to a rocks glass. Add the retsina, tonic water, lime juice and lime wedge into the glass. Stir well and garnish with rosemary or mint.

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