Sunday, August 8, 2010

The Pleasures of Retsina

As I mentioned in a previous post, the Greek wine Retsina is something of an acquired taste. According to the discussion of it given in the Greece section of Culinaria: European Specialties, Volume 2, this wine is “by far the most popular” in Greece, accounting for more than 10 percent of the countries entire wine production. The defining characteristic of Retsina is the infusion of pine resin into the wine during fermentation, a practice that dates back to ancient times when wine amphoras were sealed with pitch to prevent spoilage. The resulting flavor is unmistakable, and according to the Retsina entry in The New Frank Schoonmaker Encyclopedia of Wine (Alexis Bespaloff revised edition, 1988), while “some consumers find its distinctive and pungent taste an excellent match with the rich, oil-based cuisine of Greece, others find its turpentinelike flavor too strange to enjoy.”

I have had both experiences. My first taste of Retsina was many years ago in Greece, and I did indeed find “its turpentinelike flavor too strange to enjoy,” moving instead to other local specialties like Ouzo, the potent anise-flavored Greek national liqueur. On the other hand, a few years ago, friends brought us back both Retsina and Ouzo from their trip to Greece, and my wife and I both found the Retsina to be very good. The pine resin flavor was definitely present, but it was not overpowering as it had been the first time I tasted it. Contrasting the experiences, it occurs to me that the situation is somewhat analogous to the oakiness of Chardonnays, which can range from completely absent in wines aged in stainless steel, to very oaky in wines like my favorite Kendall Jackson Chardonnay. My wife’s liking for strong, possibly strange flavors is rather less than mine – she prefers her Chardonnays less oaked, for example – but she also liked the Retsina our friends brought back, so I suspect they brought us one of its “less pined” versions. (It’s also possible, of course, that my first sample was a “Retsina plonk” while the bottle our friends brought us was the Retsina equivalent of a Grand Cru.)

According to the Food Lover’s Companion, Retsina is available in either white or rose versions, and “should be served very cold.” In their book, What to Drink with What You Eat, Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page include a short entry on Retsina, suggesting – not surprisingly – that it pairs well with Greek food, most especially with feta cheese, hummus, olives, spinach and spinach pie, and taramosalata, a creamy fish roe pate. I have never tasted either taramasalata or the rose version of Retsina, and since I have been unable to find any kind of Retsina locally, it may be some time before I have a chance to try the rose. On the other hand, Culinaria gives a recipe for taramosalata, so I may be able to try that somewhat sooner. The trouble there is that my wife is not keen on things with strongly fishy flavors, so she has somewhat less enthusiasm about trying the dish than I do. Still, the recipe is next to one for saganaki, a Greek fried cheese dish that we both love. If only we could find a nice bottle of rose Retsina …

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