The Death of the Nordic Crusader Kings

In the summer of 1103 the island of Cyprus was host to the death of one of Europe’s most pious monarchs. That July, King Eric I of Denmark died there while on his way to Jerusalem. Had he made it to the Holy Land he would have been the first Christian monarch of Europe to arrive to the holy city in the aftermath of the First Crusade which had been so successful in reducing the region to Christian rule. But Eric died on the Eastern Mediterranean island, allegedly from drinking an undiluted batch of retsina, a Greek white wine made using pine resin and other ingredients.

What is curious about this is that Eric was not the only monarch of the age deemed to have succumbed to the deleterious effects of retsina. Another Nordic Crusader king, King Sigurd of Norway, who became the actual first Christian monarch to reach Jerusalem a few years after Eric nearly made it, also perished, according to legend, from drinking retsina when back in Oslo in 1130.[1]

This all points towards the decidedly volatile perception of this most curious of ancient Greek wine types. Many other accounts from the tenth and eleventh centuries attest to the nefarious reputation of retsina. But what exactly was this beverage and why, if its reputation is so bad, has it been produced consistently for the last 2,000 years?

The Ancient History of Retsina

One might wonder why the Greeks or any other ancient people would have decided to start adding resin to their wine in the first place? The answer is simple: it was a by-product of a preservation and aging method. Back in antiquity, before the Romans developed air-tight barrels to age wine in, the Greeks used to put white wine into containers to let it age. They used pine resin to seal the containers to make them air-tight and stop the wine from spoiling, but this had the additional impact of imbuing the wine with a pine resin aroma.[2]

A bottle of modern retsina

A bottle of modern retsina

Exactly when the Greeks began using this method is unclear, but we hear of the prevalence of retsina in the Eastern Mediterranean from the first century AD when writers like Columella and Pliny the Elder made note of it in their writings. [Text Box 1]

Nor was the methodology primitive by this time. For instance, in his Natural History, Pliny was able to describe various different types of resin acquired from different parts of the Roman Empire which could be used to infuse different flavours into retsina. Thus, it was very popular and even after the Romans discovered ways of aging wine without sealing containers with resin, the Greeks and others continued to produce retsina.[3]

Retsina Today

As the foregoing points on the allegedly lethal impact of retsina on medieval Nordic monarchs attests, the beverage developed a more dubious reputation during the Middle Ages. Numerous other stories beyond those of Kings Sigurd and Eric point towards the dislike for the resin wine in many different circles. And indeed in late twentieth and early twenty-first century Greece itself the wine has developed a questionable reputation, with students often mixing 50cl bottles of cheap retsina with soft drinks for a sugary alcohol intake not unlike the consumption of tonic wines further to the west.[4]

However, retsina is undergoing a renaissance today and has become popular once again beyond the Eastern Mediterranean where it has always retained some considerable degree of prominence. A new generation of producers in Greece and Cyprus, the only two regions where this protected-status wine can be produced as official ‘retsina’, are producing resin wine which is gaining in popularity across Europe, North America and even further afield in China, the world’s fastest growing consumer of wine. As this has occurred, the quality of retsina being produced has improved dramatically and it is now finding its way onto wine menus in high-end restaurants once again.[5]

Text Box 1 – Columella and Retsina

The first major references to retsina in ancient times come from the writings of Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, a prominent Roman, agrarian writer of the first century AD. In his De Re Rustica (On Rustic Life), a manual of agricultural life, he discusses the various types of resin which could be used to seal containers in which restina was produced.

However, while Columella was the first author to write specifically about restina, it is clear that the resin wine was being produced for a very long time prior to his writing amongst the Greeks of the Eastern Mediterranean. It is simply indicative of how widespread this method of preservation was by the first century AD that Columella was writing about it in his work. Yet, like many individuals in centuries to come, Columella’s views on retsina were mixed and he cautioned his readers not to mix resin into higher quality wines.[6]

Further Reading:

Eric Asimov, ‘Great Retsina, an Oymoron No More’, The New York Times, 17 January 2019.

Michelle Bouffard, ‘The story behind retsina, Greece’s traditional wine’, Quench Magazine, 6 December 2018.

Kerry Kolasa-Sikiardi, ‘Retsina – The 2,000-Year Old Wine Synonymous with Greek Summer’, Greek Reporter, 10 May 2023.

‘Retsina’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

On this Day

26 March 1130 – On in this day in 1130 King Sigurd of Norway, also known as Sigurd the Crusader, died in Oslo. He had risen to the throne as a teenager and had led the Norwegian Crusade to the Holy Land between 1107 and 1110, becoming the first European monarch to visit the Levant as part of the Crusades. Legend has it that Sigurd’s premature death in the Norwegian capital while in his early forties was owing to his consumption of retsina, a species of Greek resin wine which had been produced since ancient times by mixing pine tree resin and other resins into white wine. The story is almost certainly spurious, as was a similar legend that his contemporary, King Eric I of Denmark, had also died from consuming retsina while in Cyprus. But these tales are interesting in pointing to the decidedly ambiguous views on retsina which have prevailed over the centuries. Some view it as a noxious wine, but others have praised its qualities and indeed today it is making a comeback in the global wine market.[7]

References

[1] Christopher Tyerman, God’s War: A New History of the Crusades (New York, 2006), p. 251.

[2] Kerry Kolasa-Sikiardi, ‘Retsina – The 2,000-Year Old Wine Synonymous with Greek Summer’, Greek Reporter, 10 May 2023.

[3] ‘Retsina’, in Jancis Robinson, The Oxford Companion to Wine (Third Edition, Oxford, 2006).

[4] Eric Asimov, ‘Great Retsina, an Oymoron No More’, The New York Times, 17 January 2019.

[5] Michelle Bouffard, ‘The story behind retsina, Greece’s traditional wine’, Quench Magazine, 6 December 2018.

[6] Janice Leung, ‘Love it or hate it, retsina has been around for centuries’, South China Morning Post, 14 February 2013.

[7] Christopher Tyerman, God’s War: A New History of the Crusades (New York, 2006), p. 251.

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Categories: This Day in Wine History | ArticlesBy Published On: February 29, 2024Last Updated: February 29, 2024

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