Vassilis Kourtakis, the prominent Greek winemaker who continued the tradition of producing retsina, the world renowned wine, passed away in Athens on Tuesday.
Kourtakis was the CEO of Greek Wine Cellars, formerly known as Kourtaki Wines, among the largest Greek wine producers. Its brands include Kourtaki, Apelia, Calliga, and Kouros.
He continued the tradition established by his grandfather of the same name who, in 1895, was the fist to produce retsina on a large scale. He was one of the first among Greeks to formally study oenology. He focused on retsina shipped in bulk to tavernas around the country.
Retsina the Greek wine from ancient times
Retsina wine embodies the Greek spirit like no other. It’s unique flavor is said to have originated from the practice of sealing wine vessels, particularly amphorae, with Aleppo Pine resin in ancient times. Before the invention of impermeable glass bottles, oxygen caused many wines to spoil within the year.
Pine resin helped keep air out, while infusing the wine with resin aroma. The Romans began to use barrels in the 3rd century AD, removing any oenological necessity for resin, but the flavor itself was so popular that the style is still widespread today.
His son and Vassilis Kourtakis father, Dimitris, continued the family tradition. He introduced a line of bottled Kourtaki retsina, initially in 500-mL bottle-cap-topped bottles, and later also in 750-mL cork-topped bottles. This became very popular during the 1960s and 1970s; at its peak it was selling 60 million bottles per year, and propelled the company to market dominance.
Kourtakis diversified beyond retsina
Vassilis Kourtakis, took over on his father’s retirement after returning from France where he studied oenology and began diversifying the company into styles other than retsina, partly as a result of the downturn in retsina’s popularity.
As part of this process, he introduced a number of new brands alongside the Kourtaki brand. Apelia was introduced as a line of low-cost table wines, while Kouros was introduced as a high-end brand (it became the first Greek wine featured on a non-Greek airline’s wine list when Lufthansa added it).
The company also purchased several other wine producers during this period, including Calliga of Kefalonia. To emphasize that the company had a wider set of offerings than the Kourtaki brand, Vassilis changed its name in the early 1990s from Kourtaki Wines to Greek Wine Cellars.
In a statement the Greek Wine Association said Vassilis Kourtakis “was a leading personality in Greek wine.”
“He was intelligent, creative with a great sense of humor. He had an extraordinary knowledge of the geography of the Greek and world vineyards.”
Kourtakis was the main founder of the Hellenic Wine Association, its President for twelve years and its Honorary President.
An advert for retsina Kourtaki as it appeared on Greek TV in the 1970s: