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Thursday, November 15, 2001


Gifts of Dionysus

An Occasional Series on Greek Wine

For and against retsina
Perhaps I ought not to begin by admitting that the first Greek wine I tasted was retsina. I liked it, and I still do. A remarkable, unexpected flavor; not exactly antiseptic, yet somehow pure and clean. If you are setting out on a long walk in the hot sun, taking along your bread, cheese, and wine, then retsina and no other is the wine you must choose. I know this; I’ve made the test. With retsina, it doesn’t really matter how warm the bottle is by the time the sun is overhead and you sit down in the shade to take your lunch. Dry white wine will be dreadfully dull if it’s hot. Warm sweet white wine will cloy the palate and you’ll not be able to drink it. Warm red wine will make you pine for gamey meat or thirst for cold water. Retsina will always taste more or less the same.

That is exactly why retsina was invented. Historians have made it into a problem, as historians do. It was by chance, some of them say, that ancient Greeks acquired the taste for retsina, because ancient vats and amphoras were waterproofed with pine resin. “Ah!” said Socrates to himself. “I like that taste! I hope they go on sealing the amphoras with it….” Is that how it was? Believe me, it was not.

What really happened was that (maybe 3,000 years ago) those who had the unpleasant task of applying the hot resin to the interior of the fermenting vats sometimes applied more than was intended, or left pieces of unused resin in the vat. Three results were soon noticed. First, the wine picked up a distinct flavor of resin. Second, this resinated wine was less inclined to spoil; on the contrary, it lasted unusually well. Once established, the flavor – such as it was – stayed just the same. The wine was stable even as the temperature fluctuated. Which is why retsina is simply better, and always will be, than the badly made, badly stored cheap French wine that I unwisely drank with my dinner tonight. Finally, unlike most traditionally made wines, retsina is just about the same from year to year. The insistent flavor of resin masks, equally, the worst of a bad year and the best of a good year.

Retsina is typical of Greece, and properly made Greek retsina now claims the official status of “traditional appellation.” More than anywhere else, retsina is typical of Attica, the region of Athens. It has been an Attic specialty for at least 800 years, because it is 800 years ago that Michael Choniates, then recently appointed archbishop of Athens, wrote home to Constantinople that he did not like the local resinated wine. But at that date, retsina had been around many centuries already. In the year 969, an ambassador from the West, Liutprand of Cremona, reported back to the German emperor that he found the resinated wine he was given in Constantinople “undrinkable”!

Nowadays you will find retsina wherever Greek wines are sold, and you must buy it – if you will follow my advice – to drink with a light cold lunch, probably a Greek country salad, maybe an octopus salad, or, of course, to take along with bread and cheese on a long day’s walk. As for which retsinas, there are many on the market. Boutari’s is a light wine, lightly resinated – a beginner’s retsina? Kourtakis and Karela sell more strongly flavored ones; stronger still is Malamamatinas from Macedonia, a fast-selling line at Thessaloniki airport.

Appellation wine? Country wine? Greek wines behind the label
There is no doubt that retsina tastes best in Greece, under a Greek sun. A few years ago you might have said that about all Greek wines, and not many people would have disputed it. Very few Greek wines were marketed abroad, and those that were did not stand up to competition with French or Italian wines. That’s no longer true. There are some remarkable tastes waiting to be discovered in Greek bottles. But it’s necessary to know a little of what to expect behind the label.

Retsina is alone in its nationwide traditional appellation. Twenty Greek districts produce fine wines and are entitled to an “appellation of origin,” Onomasia proelefseos anoteras poiotitos in Greek, part of a system of classification that is familiar in all wine-growing countries of the European Union. The districts, roughly east to west are: Rhodes, Samos, Santorini, Paros, Limnos; four districts of Crete, namely, Sitia, Peza, Arkhanes, Dafnes; on the mainland, Côtes de Meliton, Goumenissa, Naoussa, Amyntaion, Zitsa, Rapsani, Ankhialos, Kantza, Nemea, Patras, Mantinia; and, finally, Kefalonia.

The appellation of origin is the higher classification. Below it comes vin de pays, “country wine” or “regional wine” in English, topikos oinos in Greek. The country wines of Macedonia, the Peloponnese, and Crete are often marketed abroad. A step below the country wines is “table wine,” epitrapezios oinos.

This system has its good and bad points, but its advantage for the consumer is the guarantee that appellation and country wines have been made in an identified district or region, from grapes of selected varietals, of controlled quality, using specified (often relatively traditional) techniques. The names don’t guarantee top-class wine – you only find that by tasting it. They don’t even guarantee that every wine so labeled will be better than the table wine in the next bottle – but nearly all of them will be. The names do guarantee, however, that the wine was properly made and meets a minimal standard of quality. That’s worth knowing.

A controlled appellation will usually be based on a selection of local, traditional grape varietals. The selection will be different for each district, based on the answers to two questions: What has been usually planted in the past, and which varietals will achieve the highest quality locally? The rules on production and maturing will also be different for each district. The classification is operated and the rules are applied by a national association, not by the growers; each maker’s product, each year, will have been tasted independently before it receives the appellation. Some are excluded because they simply don’t taste good; some because the maker didn’t follow the rules, by using an unauthorized blend of varietals, for example. At its best, the system encourages local styles to develop and continue, and winemakers to get the best out of local varietals, while discouraging sudden widespread changes reacting to fads in the wine trade.

By contrast, makers of vins de pays are relatively free to use the fashionable varietals which are now grown all over the world, cabernet sauvignon, sauvignon blanc, merlot, syrah, and others. Vins de pays will sometimes be made from a traditional local blend or a single local varietal, like many of the appellation wines; sometimes they will be made from one of the international varietals. There are few reasons to choose a Greek wine of this latter kind (rather than a French or Californian or Australian one) because Greece is an unusual country. Greek microclimates are unique, and they suit local varietals better than they suit cabernet sauvignon and the rest. (But the next bottle you taste may be the exception that proves me wrong!)

To get to know real Greek wine you have to forget these common varietals. You must have other names in your mind – first, some of those wine districts named above. Look out for the astonishing, deep, powerful red wines of Naoussa and Nemea, the sometimes flinty, aromatic whites of Kefalonia, Mantinia, and Santorini, the heavenly sweet muscats of Samos and Limnos, the port-like dessert wine mavrodaphne of Patras. These are all among the classic Greek wines that are now easy to find abroad.

Some of the varietal names include xinomavro, which contributes to the dark, complex, spicy wines of Naoussa and Goumenissa, and moskhofilero, which produces the flowery bouquet of a good Mantinia white. The major producers include Boutari and Tsantalis, which are really good at making and choosing wines, but an impressive number of independent vineyards in Greece are now marketing their wines abroad as well. With no need to soothe the expectations of an established market, they can afford to be adventurous. The results are sometimes stunningly good.

What to read?
Miles Lambert-Gocs, The Wines of Greece (Faber, 1990). Read this book slowly, over a glass of wine, savoring the enthusiasm of this tireless explorer of Greek vineyards.

Nico Manessis, The Illustrated Greek Wine Book (Olive Press Publications). I haven’t found a copy myself yet, but it comes highly recommended by Matt Barrett of

Andrew Dalby is the author of Siren Feasts: A History of Food and Gastronomy in Greece and Dangerous Tastes: The Story of Spices; his Flavours of Byzantium will be published later this year.
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