We’re excessive within the mountains above Skopelos city and there’s not a single Mamma Mia! fan in sight. A heat breeze stirs the timber, filling the air with the citric scent of pine needles as we observe the Retsina Path, one in every of a number of historic cobbled paths (often called calderimi) that had been utilized by the island’s resin collectors up till the 1990s when demand for the sticky substance declined.
It’s early October and spike-armoured chestnuts scrunch beneath our toes as we hike by dense forest masking the backbone of this lush Sporades island, simply an hour’s ferry from Skiathos. Aside from the chestnuts and the occasional cluster of tiny rain-starved blackberries, there’s little else to inform us that it’s autumn; with temperatures hovering to 30C by noon we respect the forest’s dappled shade. As we stroll, Heather Parsons, proprietor of mountaineering firm Skopelos Trails, exhibits me how the resin collectors would faucet the pines by peeling again a small strip of bark, making use of a paste that stimulates the circulation of sap, then attaching a bag to catch the sticky substance because it slowly leaked from the tree. A number of tons of resin would then be carried – by way of this path – to Skopelos on the island’s north-east coast, the place it might be shipped off to the mainland to be used in paints, solvents and cosmetics, and for making Greece’s iconic retsina wine.
Cresting a steep part of the cobbled path, we pause to admire the view: on each facet the mountains are coated within the blue-green fur of Aleppo pines. From a distance it’s so dense it seems like tropical vegetation and I’ve the odd sensation that we’ve swapped the Sporades for someplace within the Caribbean.
The calderimi loops forward of us, the cobbles slotted carefully collectively like items of a stone-age jigsaw puzzle. Heather has devoted half a lifetime to saving these sadly uncared for trails from the encroaching undergrowth. Since arriving on Skopelos some 30 years in the past the British-born tour information has spent all her spare time chopping again brambles, eradicating shrubs that develop between the cobbles and talking with locals with a view to hunt down calderimi that may in any other case stay buried. Initially she labored on her personal, however now she has a handful of volunteers who assist her in her Herculean job.
“The state isn’t keen on defending them and my solely funding is from customer’s donations, however they’re simply so stunning I can’t bear to desert them,” she says, stooping to take away a clump of sow thistle rising throughout our path.
“After I was first right here folks had been nonetheless taking the resin and transport it – the resin-makers lived in small cottages and used tins to gather resin. They wore a type of bib they usually’d pour resin into the bib beneath their chin after which empty it into barrels,” she tells me.
Heather has written an in depth guidebook with details about the half-dozen trails she has uncovered up to now. “Folks can do the walks on their very own, however I additionally supply guided hikes,” she says. “At nearly 12 kilometres, the Retsina Path is the longest, so it’s in all probability value having a information for this one,” she provides.
We cease as soon as extra to admire views over to Evia. Wrapped in candyfloss clouds, the legendary island the place the Titans as soon as roamed floats mirage-like above the Aegean’s cobalt waters. Heather factors out a squat construction product of bricks beneath us in a area. “That’s a prune oven,” she tells me. “Considered one of Skopelos’s nicknames is ‘island of the plums’ due to this fruit which is grown right here. They dry them to make prunes and use them in a lot of scrumptious native recipes, like xoirino me damaskina – pork with prunes – or avgato, a type of plum marmalade,” she tells me.
We hike on alongside the winding path – aside from the occasional Balkan wall lizard sunning itself on the calderimi cobbles forward of us, the path – which takes us throughout the island’s mountainous backbone from south-east to south-west – is abandoned. It’s nearly a shock some 5 hours later to come across tavernas and vacationers as soon as extra close to Milia, one of many lengthy, sandy seashores that starred in Mamma Mia!
Scorching and hungry, we finish our hike at Linarakia, a seaside taverna overlooking the mirror-clear waters of Panormos Bay the place the proprietor’s daughter Eleni Stamatis exhibits us footage of her grandfather who as soon as lived on this small shack and picked up resin within the surrounding forests to make retsina.
As soon as the turpentine-flavoured backdrop to each Greek vacation, retsina was by chance invented again in 2000BC when historic Greeks used resin to seal their porous amphorae and fell in love with the linseed oil and lime-peel flavours it gave to the wine. Later, retsina was produced utilizing the identical strategies as for white or rosé wine, with Aleppo pine resin added throughout fermentation. From the 1960s onwards, nevertheless, when elevated demand led to a spike in manufacturing, increasingly more resin was added, to not preserve the wine however to masks its flaws.
As the standard of retsina declined, so did its reputation. Over the previous decade, nevertheless, as vintners experiment with completely different grape varietals and reduce down the quantity of resin added to the wine throughout fermentation, Greece’s best-known resinous wine has been reinvented – usually with spectacular outcomes.
Though the calderimi nonetheless exist, resin is not tapped right here in Skopelos and as we speak retsina is introduced in from elsewhere. Throughout on Evia, nevertheless, Giannis Vriniotis, proprietor of North Evia’s solely accredited winery, is planning to begin making his personal, sourcing the Aleppo pine sap domestically. Evia is without doubt one of the three Greek areas – together with Attica and Viotia – to have a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO), the equal of France’s appellation d’origine contrôlée, for retsina.
Since retsina isn’t aged, Vriniotis hopes to uncork the primary bottle a while subsequent 12 months. “It’s time to carry retsina again to its birthplace,” he tells me. “It’s had a foul identify for many years however now there are lots of winemakers who’re making crisp and refreshing retsinas which can be wonderful served with our Greek ladera – olive oil-cooked greens – and plenty of different dishes which can be historically troublesome to pair with wines.”
One of many first producers to experiment was Stelios Kechris in Thessaloniki, whose retsinas at the moment are served in a few of the nation’s finest eating places. Different new-age retsina producers embody Vassilis Papagiannakos, third-generation proprietor of the Papagiannakos winery on the Greek mainland reverse southern Evia, and Aristos Spanos, co-owner of Tetramythos winery close to Diakopto within the Peloponnese.
Earlier than I depart Greece I’m eager to attempt a modern-day retsina – so again in Athens at Oinoscent, one of many metropolis’s finest wine bars, I order a glass of Kechris’ Tear of the Pine to accompany a dish of chef Christos Boukas’s semi-cured mackerel. Recent and light-bodied, it’s a great distance from the drink I keep in mind fuelling many a night on island-hopping holidays within the 90s. Maybe retsina can have its day once more in any case.