The Greek Grape

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Sticky Stuff From Trees

First of all, CHRONIA POLLA/HAPPY NEW YEAR!  There were many highlights of 2017 – Greek tourism reached another all time high, Greek wine continued double digit export and sales growth, and my Greek Grape Wine Tours led two great groups of wine enthusiasts on the trip of a lifetime!

Another highlight was my September harvest tour and our visit to Papagiannakos winery. I love kicking off my trips with a visit to Papagiannakos. Not only are their wines delicious, their winery bioclimatic (first one in Greece!), their history steep, but they also make a retsina I can drink! (See my previous post about Papagiannakos.)IMG_0041

Very quick background on retsina: In ancient times, winemakers would use pine resin to seal the amphorae (vessels) in which wines were stored and shipped. In the more recent past, winemakers would add enough resin to wines so you couldn’t taste the low quality juice. The resin used was also of extremely poor quality, so the wines tasted like paint thinner! Yuk. Luckily, times have changed and thanks to the efforts of a handful of talented winemakers, including Papagiannakos, modern-day retsina is much more

IMG_6921quaffable.

So, back to our visit. Once we finished our tasting, Vassilis returned from his truck with a bucket of freshly harvested pine resin! At the risk of being late to our next appointment, I couldn’t miss this opportunity to stay and learn more about this sticky stuff.

Trees & Terroir

Resin is always harvested from the Aleppo pine. Of course you see them with their long, flow-ey needles up in the mountains, but you also see many on the beaches in Greece providing welcome shade in the summer months.

Like oak barrels, the resin can offer different flavor profiles based on the forest in which the trees grow. In a recent article on retsina by Tara Q. Thomas in Wine & Spirits Magazine, Eleni Kechris, owner of Domaine KECHRIS, told Tara “Resin has terroir, seasons and vintages. Some are more minty, herbal, limey; some are like mastika, thyme, rosemary or even ginger.” How much fun would it be to do a side-by-side tasting of different retsinas looking for these flavor differences!? I need to arrange this.

Harvest

pinetreesapPine resin is harvested only one time a year, just before the grape harvest. It is quite the laborious task!  Vassilis explains, “We get our resin from a forest in Kouvaras, a 10 min drive from the winery. Pine resin has been harvested from this forest since antiquity. Each year Mr. Vaggelis examines his trees and decides from which to harvest. He taps each tree, ‘listens’ to it, and makes his selection.” How I would love to know what he ‘listens’ for! Next trip, I need to ask him.

Vassilis continues, “He then makes a cut in the tree and places his pot beneath the cut and collects the ‘juice’ that comes out. Each tree produces only a small amount of resin, so it takes him quite some time to collect from tree to tree.”

Production

Unlike the past, the resin is now used to ADD flavors during production, not to mask inferior wines.  It is added during the fermentation process when the wine is its youngest and can pick up its flavor(s). For examples, Vassilis added his on the 2nd day of fermentation during his last harvest. He drops a cotton bag of resin into the tank and then lets it steep for a couple days before he removes it. The amount he uses in each tank depends on the strength of the pine resin.

After learning so much about the process involved in modern day retsina, I’m definitely looking forward to more tasting opportunities to better understand all its nuances. Looks like this could be a highlight of 2018!

In addition to Papagiannakos and KECHRIS, look for retsinas by Gai’a and Mylonas. I strongly recommend enjoying chilled retsina with food, especially if you are a retsina newbie. A variety of mezes (appetizers) and herb-flavored foods, such as grilled fish with lemon and thyme or roasted chicken with rosemary, are great choices.

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