Vermouth could use a little respect, not to mention better press. Long considered an essential ingredient of the martini and other cocktails, winebased vermouth has lost some of its standing in modern drinks. Call for a martini in any inner-city watering hole, and you’re likely to get a glass of chilled gin with maybe a whiff of dry vermouth. For Americans, when vermouth comes to mind, it’s usually in a supporting role. But all that irreverence for vermouth is changing, especially with the rising interest in cocktails and mixed drinks, many of which call for dry or sweet vermouth.
Vermouth is officially classified as an “aromatized fortified wine,” a tongue-twisting term meaning a base white wine fortified to a minimum of 16 percent alcohol and infused with a proprietary recipe of as many as 40 different plants, barks, seeds, and fruit peels, collectively known as botanicals. While the infusion gives vermouth its unique flavor and aroma, it is precisely that character that causes some people to dismiss vermouth as being “medicinal.”
Vermouth got its start in Northern Italy in the 16th century, as a medicinal drink, created to cure many ailments of the time. Over the centuries, the basic formula has changed little, although the making of vermouth has kept step with the technological advances of winemaking and distillation. Today, the few Italian and French vermouth firms still in production have dropped the medicinal claims. The center of traditional vermouth production is in southern France and northern Italy, where consumers favor bitter drinks as an appetite-stimulating aperitif.
European vermouth base wines are made from locally grown white grapes, although large firms also buy grapes from other European Union countries. Usually, the base wine is sweetened and fortified by adding a mistelle, a mixture of sweetened grape juice and alcohol. The botanicals are then added, and the new vermouth is left to mature, followed by filtering and bottling. The difference between vermouths rests with the individual producer and its dedication to a respectful blend of traditional and modern techniques.
There are two styles of vermouth, dry and sweet, with the main difference being the number and types of botanicals used in the recipe. Among those European vermouth producers universally recognized for their unique stylized vermouths are Martini & Rossi of Italy and Noilly Prat of France. Traditionally, Italy has been known for the red sweet style, while France has been recognized as the traditional producer of the white dry style. The generalities no longer apply, with Noilly Prat and Martini & Rossi both producing dry and sweet vermouths.
Both are leaders in their respective countries, but their vermouths are uniquely different. Martini& Rossi, part of the Bacardi empire, is the world’s largest vermouth firm, producing a range of aromatized wines with a respect for tradition merged with modern large-scale winemaking. Noilly Prat is small by comparison, producing only three handcrafted products with an emphasis on tradition.
Noilly Prat’s base wine is made from Picpoul and Clairette grapes. After fermentation, the wine is left to “rest” for six months in large oak casks originally coopered on site in 1850. The idea is to give the vermouth texture through oak maturation but not the oak seasoning. After resting, the wine is transferred to oak barrels set in long rows in an open-air courtyard for one year. This aging process, used by Noilly Prat since 1850, gives the wine an amber color and subtle oxidative aroma and flavor.
Noilly Prat uses between 20 and 30 botanicals in their secret recipe, including chamomile, iris root, orange peel, coriander, marjoram, wormwood, holly thistle, quinine, cloves, gentian, and black elder. Annual production at Noilly Prat is 350,000 cases of vermouth, including Original Dry (Original French Dry in the United States), Rouge, and a wine-based aperitif called Ambre.
Martini & Rossi first produced vermouth in Turin, Italy, in 1863 and today enjoys annual sales of 18 million cases. At Martini & Rossi, vermouth production follows the same general steps as all vermouth but on a much larger scale. The base wine is made from locally grown white grapes, such as Trebbiano and the Parellada from Spain. Base wine for vermouth is always white, even for red vermouth, and by EU law wine must make up at least 75 percent of a vermouth.
Martini & Rossi uses as many as 30 botanicals macerated for 10–15 days in slowly revolving drums. Although the recipes differ according to the type of vermouth, the company purchases as many as 50 herbs, spices, barks, and peels from around the world: vanilla from South America, oregano from Crete, cinnamon from the Caribbean, and the essential wormwood flower from the Central Alps.
After the herbal infusion, sugar is added to adjust sweetness. Next is filtration and the addition of grape brandy to bring the alcohol content to approximately 16 percent. Blends are then aged in tanks for six to eight months. Following pasteurization and a second filtering, the vermouth is ready for bottling. For the rosso, a portion of the added sugar is in the form of caramel, which helps adjust the sweetness to about 16 percent while giving the rosso vermouth its red color. Martini & Rossi vermouths are made entirely in stainless steel tanks. The most popular Martini & Rossi vermouth in the United States is the Rosso, followed by the Extra Dry, then Bianco.
Other European vermouth houses universally recognized for their unique stylized vermouths are Cinzano and Stock of Italy and Boisserre and Dolin Vermouth de Chambery of France.
Americans tend to think of vermouth only as a mixer. Little wonder since most American vermouth is mass produced and bears only a passing resemblance to traditional Italian and French vermouths. However, a few years back, two California wineries, Duckhorn and Quady, entered the upscale artisan specialty drinks market with small production vermouths, King Eider and Vya respectively, drawing an even finer stylistic line between European and California vermouths. Duckhorn stopped producing King Eider, but Vya is available from dessert and fortified wine specialist, Quady Winery.
In world wine terms, vermouth may only be a small notation on the sales ledger, but, without vermouth, many popular drinks would not exist. Isn’t it time to take a new look at one of our great aromatized fortified wines?
Gerald D. Boyd, based in Sonoma County, is a freelance writer, lecturer, and panelist who specializes in wine and spirits, fine food, and travel.