November 7, 2013
Vermouths & Aperitifs
Overlooked in the USA for far too long, vermouths and other aperitif wines are making a comeback. But what are these bittersweet beverages and what should you do with them? We can categorize these drinks under the general heading of aperitif wines. They are composed of a base wine, or mistelle, that is fortified, aromatized, bittered and usually sweetened. The base wine is typically white even in red aperitifs. It can be sweetened by adding sugar or by stopping the fermentation of the base wine. Fortification is often done with grape or other neutral spirits. Fortification also helps preserve the wine and can be used to stop fermentation when residual grape sugar remains. A bittering ingredient, herbs, plants and spices are used to add flavors and aromas. Caramel and plant extracts can be, and most often are, used to color white base wines red.
In many Mediterranean countries, grape-growers blend herbs and spices with wines to create homemade beverages shared with visitors. These wines were produced during throughout Mediterranean history and were first recorded by the Greeks. The Greeks developed this practice to create medicinal tonics and to help preserve the wines. They added honey as a sweetener, and herbs and plants for flavors, including resins. By the Middle Ages, two centers of production were well established: one in Piedmont near the Alps and the other near what is now Savoy. The Alps provided the Piedmontees with an abundance of herbs and the vineyards around Savoy provided the winemakers with an abundance of mediocre wine they flavored with the exotic spices arriving through their area via Venice.
The French began the practice of adding quinine, a bittering agent, to aperitifs for its antimalarial properties during the 18th century. Commercial production of aperitifs began in the 18th century, and many modern aperitifs are still produced with the same recipes. There are three general categories of aperitifs depending upon the traditional bittering ingredient: vermouth, americanos and quinquinas.
Vermouth takes its name from the German word for wormwood, an herb, and once a prominent ingredient. Two main types are sweet red vermouths (Italian-style Vermouth di Torino) and dry or drier white vermouths (French-style). Vermouth di Torino originated in Italy around the 18th century. It is most common to see these as cocktail ingredients rather than aperitifs. The red coloring usually comes from caramel instead of red wine. French-style vermouths were developed around the same time. These vermouths are more floral and herbal in flavor.
Recently, several different styles of Italian reds have made it to American markets. Vermouth Amaro, such as Carpano’s Punt e Mes, is in the Vermouth di Torino style with additional bitters and sweetness. It is almost a cocktail itself. Another vermouth from Carpano is the Antica. It is a Vermouth alla Vaniglia, or vermouth with vanilla and more sweetness. It has strong spiced notes with vanilla and sweetness to balance.
Dolin is a respected producer of AOC French-style vermouths from Chambery, France in the Alps. The recipes that are still followed today were developed in 1821. It was granted AOC in 1932. Expect these to be subtle in aromas and sweetness and enjoyable as aperitifs over ice. They produce three styles: dry, blanc and rouge. The dry has less than 30 g/L sugar, and the others are 130 g/L. The neutral base wines are left to macerate with local herbs and plants for several months before being sweetened and fortified. The rouge is colored with certain plants and caramel. Try these with traditional French appetizers such as pates, charcuterie or escargot.
D. Augustus Perucchi developed Perucchi vermouth in the 1800s in Cataluña, Spain. It is a blend of herbs, plants and roots from around the Mediterrenean. The infusions are aged with the base wine in oak casks. The company prides itself on using many of the original equipment including the casks and presses. Their red vermouth is sweet and expresses the wood aging with notes of tobacco and licorice. The white vermouth is drier, faintly spicy, and has notes of ginger and chamomile. Enjoy the white as an aperitif with tapas foods, especially cured ham, and the red as a degestif with cheeses.
In America, some wineries, especially those with ties to spirits, are delving into vermouth. Ransom Wines & Spirits from Sheridan, Oregon blends organic aromatics with a base wine of Pinot Noir blanc. The brandy used for fortification is house distilled in an alambic pot distiller and is aged in mixed French oak barrels. It is assertive in flavor with only a touch of sweetness. The infusion includes wormwood, rosehips, cinnamon and citrus peels.
Americanos and quinquinas are not true vermouths because they do not use wormwood as the bittering agent. Americanos get their bitterness from gentian root, though some contain wormwood. The name is derived from the word “amer” for bitter. Cocchi Americano was first produced in 1891 from an estate-grown base wine of Moscato d’Asti in Torin, Italy. It is white and sweet with floral and citrus notes and is bottle aged for one year. Its complex flavors make it an excellent choice to serve chilled or with seltzer over ice. Cappelletti Americano Rosso is a red americano from Trento, Italy. It is fairly new to the American market. It is made from a base of Trebbiano, with gentian and citrus on the nose.
Quinquinas (pronounced ken-KEE-nah) are aperitif wines bittered with cinchona bark, which naturally contains quinine. Lillet is a well-known brand that reformulated itself in the 1980s to reduce the sugar content as well as the bitterness. The base wine is a blend of Bordeaux varieties and is flavored mostly with citrus liqueurs. The white is made from Sauvignon Blanc, Semillion and Muscadet and is excellent served chilled with lightly seasoned shellfish dishes. The rose is made from a white wine base and is colored with berry liqueurs and a small portion of a Cabernet and Merlot blend. It has strong notes of citrus only a slight bitterness. Byrrh Grand Quinquina also uses a red wine base. It was developed in Thuir, France in 1866. It is rare to see in the USA, and we are proud to offer it.
Expect your vermouth to last up to 6 weeks if tightly sealed and refrigerated after opening.
Below, please find a list of these aperitif wines that we regularly stock.
Vermouths, Americanos & Quinquinas
Carpano Punt e Mes 750ml ($21.95) $18.80 special
Carpano Antica 1L ($39.95) $33.00 special
Dolin Blanc 750ml ($17.95) $14.00 special
Dolin Dry 750ml ($17.95) $14.00 special
Dolin Rouge 750ml ($17.95) $14.00 special
Perucchi Gran Reserva Tinto 1L ($19.95) $15.00 special
Perucchi Gran Reserva Blanc 1L ($19.95) $15.00 special
Ransom Dry Vermouth 750ml ($32.95) $28.00 special
Cocchi Americano 750ml ($19.95) $16.90 special
Cappelletti Americano Rosso 750ml ($23.95) $19.00 special
Byrrh Grand Quinquina 750ml ($23.95) $19.00 special