The Weird and the Wonderful: Vermouths and aromatised wines 

Vermouths have a classification of their own. They are not liqueurs, not exactly fortified wines although they do have added spirit. They are probably the most manufactured of all wines, in fact the use of wine as the foundation is least part of the production. Historically, vermouths were medicinal drinks, taken to help a range of illnesses, mostly stomach problems. One of the early additions was an aromatic root called wormwood or wermut, (pronounced vermoot) leading to the name vermouth.

Wormwood had powerful chemicals that caused great problems with drinkers who became quickly addicted to them. The French vermouth Absinthe was outlawed because of the bad effect it was having on the French population. It is said that the French impressionist school of art owe their style to copious intakes of absinthe.

The specialists in making modern vermouths are the French and the Italians. When making vermouths, the base wine would be fortified with brandy to 18% alcohol, then an infusion of herbs and spices would be done, either by marinating the wine and herbs together for some months, or by making a distillation with alcohol of the herbs and spices, and adding this to the fortified wine.

Amongst the herbs and spices used will be quinine, coriander, cloves, juniper, ginger, orange and lemon peel, hyssop, chamomile, raspberries, strawberries, rose petals, cloves, cinnamon and, still used, a little wormwood. The base wine for most vermouths is white; red vermouths owe their colour to added caramel but quite a number of vermouth producers use a base wine that is red. The classic vermouths include the following:

Noilly Prat: premier brand of ultra dry French Vermouth. White wine base, strengthened with spirit (fortified) to 17% alcohol, infused with 40 herbs, aged in oak for a year or two. Invented by Frenchman Louis Noilly in 1800. A visit to 2BD, Anatole de la Forge, Marseille, France will find the distillery. Noilly Prat is the best dry vermouth to make a Dry Martini cocktail. Noilly Prat is pronounced, more or less, as “noyee-prah”

Cinzano: Prime Italian vermouth producer, based in Turin. Inventor Carlo Stefano Cinzano, a master distiller, developed the beverage as far back as 1757. Cinzano vermouths are considered to be more up-market than those made by Martini-Rossi. A good cocktail with Cinzano is a Dry Manhattan. Into a mixing jug, add plenty of ice, 2 measures of bourbon or rye whiskey, half a measure each of red and dry Cinzano vermouth, a good dash of angostura bitters. Stir well, strain and pour into a cocktail glass, add a cocktail cherry, serve/drink/enjoy.

Martini: Noted Italian vermouth makers, part of the production of Italian group Martini & Rossi, founded in 1840 in Turin. Without doubt Martini is the most significant of the world’s vermouth producers, marketing an ultra dry blanc, a sweet white secco, a red rosso. The ultimate in cocktails is the sophisticated Dry Martini being either Gin or Vodka with a tiny drop of Dry Martini vermouth added (some say don’t add it, just wave the bottle at the glass), then either shaken or stirred (James Bond has a lot to answer for); served with either an olive or a cocktail onion.

Gancia: Another Italian vermouth brand, created in 1850 by Carlo Gancia in the region of Asti. Nowadays a major wine producer, the vermouth remains a favourite amongst devotees of cocktails, especially in the mixing of an Americano being a measure of Campari, a measure of sweet vermouth, pour over ice in a highball glass, fill with soda and add a twist of lemon.

Aromatised Wines

These are a variation on Vermouth where the infusion of herbs and spices will be less harsh and the strength will be lower.

Dubonnet is the best known, a wine based aperitif brand developed by Joseph Dubonnet in Paris in 1848. Most common is the Dubonnet rouge, having a wine base of red wines from Roussillon with added quinine and other herbs. The infusion is then aged in oak casks for two years. Dubonnet is one of the most popular aromatised wines to mix with other spirits and to blend with cocktails or as a long drink with ice, slice of orange and soda water.

Lillet is lesser known, but is a fine wine based aperitif made in the Sauternes region of Bordeaux. Comes in red or white style, made from dry Sauternes wines with added herbs and fruit, fortified with armagnac brandy, matured in Yugoslavian oak for a couple of years or so, sold at 17% alcohol. Try making a Lily cocktail: into a cocktail shaker add ice, equal measures of gin, Lillet and crème de noyau, with a dash of fresh lemon juice. Shake and strain into a wine glass. Very nice.

 

Mistelles

The best come from France, some are made in Spain and Portugal but are generally used for additions to Sherry and Port, some is made in Australia and in South America. Mistelles do not fit into the liqueur category and are more towards vermouths with the mixing of spirit to unfermented grape juice. Certainly at one time a quantity of herbs and nuts was added to the mix and even now, in some parts of France, herbs are added. The best mistelles are from Cognac, Armagnac, Champagne, Burgundy, the Loire, Alsace, and Normandy.

Pineau des Charentes is a mistelle from the French brandy region of Cognac located just to the north of the Bordeaux wine region. Fresh, unfermented grape juice from the Ugni Blanc grape is added, blended 3 – 1 to Cognac brandy, then aged in oak for 2 years. Comes in white and red styles. Excellent as an aperitif but caution should be used in its consumption, as with all mistelles. Its effects on the unwary drinker far outweigh its actual alcohol content.

Floc de Gascogne is a mistelle from the region of Armagnac and the method of production and grape used is the same as above, using Armagnac brandy. Again, excellent as an aperitif but little known outside France. Mixed with champagne, it becomes a “Pousse Rapier” – a sword thrust. Why so called? Try it and you will find out!

Ratafia. This mistelle comes from the region of Champagne, where local unfermented grape juice is added 3 – 1 to local fiery marc brandy, made from the grape-press residue, the pomace. Ratafia is the traditional drink to seal an agreement, a contract; hence to ratify the deal. From the Latin “rata fiat – let the deal be settled”.

Pastis (or Anisette)

Although an aperitif on its own, Pastis does come under the vermouth banner. Introduced after Absinthe was taken from the market due to its side effects, Pastis is now one of the most important of drinks in France, also throughout Europe and elsewhere in various forms. The basic herb is aniseed, plus other herbs and spices, infused in grain spirit, sometimes sweetened, sometimes not. The famous makers in France are Pernod/Ricard; other French producers include Berger, Casanis, Pec, Duval, Alize. In Spain the style is called Ojen, in Greece it is Ouzo. In Egypt it is Raki. In Iraq it is Arrak. All have the same style in that they turn milky with the addition of water.

Sambuca Italian, variation on the pastis style, also using aniseed plus other herbs. Served neat in a small glass, with the addition of three coffee beans (con la mosca or with flies) then set alight. The waiter will serve the flaming Sambuca, douse the flame with a circle of cut lemon. You sip the delicious liqueur, finishing by chewing the coffee beans. There are many who suffer from a singed top lip by failing to notice that the flames may not be extinguished (they are almost invisible).

Oysters

If you are taking oysters straight and fresh from the shell, a suitable very dry white wine should go with it. So your choice, with French wines, will be Chablis, Pouilly Fuisse, Champagne, Muscadet. The first three are made from Chardonnay; Muscadet is made from Muscadet grapes from Nantes in Brittany. Champagne made from just Chardonnay is classified as a “blanc de blanc” – a white from white; usually champagne is a blend of two black grapes Pinot Noir and Pinot Meuniere and Chardonnay. These wines will be cool climate whites with good acidity and a firm bite to the taste, ideal for tackling an oyster. Hot climate whites (Australia, South Africa, California) of the same style will be softer, with less acidity and rather buttery, not so oyster friendly. If you are serving champagne with the oysters, choose a very dry example. A brut champagne still has quite a lot of residual sugar, so go for extra brut or brut sauvage.

If you are cooking the oysters, poaching with vermouth is ideal, but how about poaching in the Greek style, taking the cooking method back to ancient Greece and using Retsina, not just for the cooking but to drink with the oysters. A good Retsina, Boutari and Kourtaki are two top makers that come to mind, will be made using resin from the Aleppo pine trees in the fermentation and will be made from grapes grown in the key region of Attica, the grape of choice being Savatiano.

Chill the Retsina to about 5 to 8 C. Give the bottle a shake before opening so as to combine back into the wine the pine, or turpentine, resins that leach out during storage and go to the top of the bottle rather like cream does in rich milk. If you don’t shake the bottle, the first glass from the bottle will be very turpentine rich which may come as a shock to the drinker. About 16 million bottles of Retsina are produced annually, half of which are exported.