By Nico Manessis
ON SOCIAL media, recently, I witnessed a lively retsina thread. It came from far-flung corners of the world, including the Far East. It went on for several days. Comment was a revealing eye-opener. Through it all, it was clear that aficionados were either looking for the next step, or had seamlessly moved up to modern retsinas.
I suspect there is a much larger following that even insiders are not fully aware of. From my vantage point, there are further encouraging signs. During my many travels to the Greek islands, this new wave of retsinas, albeit of limited distribution, is telling. There were turning up in haunts old and new.
Repeatedly, this niche revival comes down to four different names: Kechris, Tetramythos, Gaia, and Papagiannakos. They are all of subtly different styles and approaches. The biggest surprise came from an enterprising sommelier whose guests had all four while offering practical pairing plate pointers. Five years ago this scene would have been unthinkable. Yet, for open-minded punters, the synergies in this loose group are enticing.
The Papagiannakos family are no newcomers to Retsina. Vassilis Papagiannakos is the third generation, with the fourth generation entering the family business. Today, most of their production has diversified from a one-trick pony to excellent, some may argue benchmark, Savatiano, aromatic Malagousia, an assortment of reds and a rare dessert wine. Their intimate familiarity with the local vineyards has not been lost and is one of their trump cards.
A 15-minute drive from Athens airport, these rolling hills near Markopoulo are steeped in farming history. Since Neolithic times, grains, olive groves, the vine, and figs have been staples, today adding pistachio trees to the mix. Like all other agricultural produce grown here, they encapsulate bright, distinct flavours.
The pine forests of nearby Koubaras and other Arvanites-inhabited communities are the source of the Aleppo pine. A dollop of measured pine resin is added to the grape must. As this ferments, the resin infuses the newly-born wine. Though the resin, harvested with sustainable practices, is not overwhelming, finding the right balance is not a simple matter of complying with legislature: 1 kg / 1,000 litters.
Fact is, everyone uses a lot less. Other factors that come into the equation are vintage variation, ditto for the pine-tree sap. This specialty and their other, non-resinated wines are made in a first of its kind winery, built in 2008, with impressive energy-efficient features, including a complex natural-airflow system. Cooler northern winds are channelled throughout the winery and exit from the southern-facing windows. This is a long way from the cement tanks and old large casks the first Papagiannakos generation used.
On several fronts, this historic wine has not only found an enjoyable, fresh-tasting, modern context. It is also unique.
Greece is not alone in reinventing traditional categories. Portugal’s Vinho Verde is another revival story of a European stalwart. Though much reduced from the industrial-sized volume of 1960s behemoths, these hand-crafted retsinas usher in a new era.
Not unlike Vinho Verde and Sherry, these light-on-their-feet retsinas are the perfect match for the saline and pungent small dishes found in this part of the eastern Mediterranean. Having upped its game, Retsina is now gaining a younger, more demanding, cosmopolitan fan base.
Justifiably, there are smiles down on the R section at wine central.
Though I never expected anything like this on my beat.
For the past 18 years Nico Manessis has specialised as a commentator on Greek wine and adventurer in the Greek vineyard. As a true descendant of the “stradioti” Marino Manessi in the service of Venice, he bravely undertakes his wine crusade on the civilised side of “taking no prisoners”.
The author of the Greek Wine Book series and the website Greek Wine World is one of My Greek Review’s regular contributors.