ermouth 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
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
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.