In centuries past wine jars were sealed with pine resin in order to preserve the wine within. This was not a practice exclusive to Greece. In fact wine jars, unearthed by archaeologists in the Zagros Mountains of Iran, show evidence of pine resin being employed as a preservative as far back as the late sixth millennium BC. In the 1st century AD, amongst others, Pliny the Elder and Columella recorded the different types of resin that could be mixed with wine as a preservative, or used to seal amphorae. Even though the Romans started utilising wooden wine barrels from the 3rd century AD, resin in wine remained popular.
The modern form of Retsina, or resinated wine, is common to Greece and most often found in Attica and those areas adjacent to it. Usually it is fermented like any other white wine, before the addition of resin from Pinus Helepensis to the recently fermented wine. Savatiano is most commonly associated with Retsina, particularly in Attica, whilst in Achaea, Euboea and Boeotia, Roditis (Rhoditis) is also commonly used. Some Retsinas are made from Assyrtiko, and many other local grape varieties are also permitted.
By law Retsina is released as a non-vintage wine, though it is made from grapes harvested in a single vintage. Today’s Retsinas are far less pungent and strongly flavoured than those of yesteryear, though many of the more highly resinated wines invariably end up being made for local consumption. Retsina is a vestige of our former selves, a survivor from the ancient world and, above all, a versatile accompaniment to a table (or picnic blanket) of varyingly flavoured dishes.