Vermouths and other Aromatized Wines
For those of you who got to shop Everyday Wines pre-Covid, you’ll probably remember that mysterious little corner by the front windows filled with elixirs of varying shades, with whimsical labels and strange sounding names. That’s where you would find our Vermouths and other Aromatized Wines section. With so many of us reimagining our eating and drinking experiences this last year, we thought it would be a perfect time to delve into the possibilities of these wine-based treats. Vermouths and aromatized wines can really enhance your home cocktail game, from a simple addition to your Martini or Manhattan to concocting aperitifs and digestifs that’ll transport you to the alpine meadows of Europe (cue Sound of Music track).
To begin with, what are aromatized wines?
Not nearly as complicated as they may seem. Most start with a white wine as the base, generally a regional grape, that’s then infused with herbs, barks, roots, spices, and/or fruits. The exact ingredients/recipe of the infusion is always a “secret,” sometimes with centuries-old origin tales featuring monks and mystery. Some are fortified with brandy (also grape-based) to act as a preservative, and some are aged just like a regular wine, in oak barrels for several years. The result is a pungent, strong wine (generally in the 17% ABV range) with a distinct botanical bouquet. Some aromatized wines are quite medicinal tasting and are even purported to have beneficial digestive qualities. They can be used as an ingredient in cocktails, or enjoyed on their own at the beginning or end of a meal.
Definitely more of an Old World tradition, though more and more domestic producers are crafting their own versions, aromatized wines are mostly crafted in Europe. As such, the EU manages the designations and marketing of these wines.
There are 3 recognized categories of aromatized wine (per the EU):
The key (and required) ingredient that defines a vermouth is wormwood. This style actually takes its name from the German word for wormwood, Wermuth, though it originated in Italy around the 18th century. Vermouths can be dry or sweet, with a white wine or red wine base, and a wide array of herbs, peels, and spices contributing to the flavor profile. But wormwood, with its intensely herbaceous personality, lends distinctive notes of eucalyptus and a green bitterness.
Also invented in Italy is the Americano style, whose distinct flavor comes from gentian root. Despite what its name might suggest, this origin story has nothing to do with the Americas, but is a play on the Italian word Americante, meaning “bittered.” These tend to have an earthier palate and are delicious with just a splash of soda water.
Originating in Spain but now known the world over, these aromatized wines are characterized by the addition of cinchona bark, the same source for the quinine in our tonic water! This is an excellent example of the medicinal history of aromatized wines: discovered in Peru by missionaries observing natives using it to treat shivering fever, brought back to Spain by said missionaries, used as a powerful treatment for malaria when ground up into a powder and administered in…you guessed it, wine! All this being the 16th century, quinine the medicine did eventually find a more modern pill vehicle and remained the best antimalarial treatment well into the 1960s, causing much international trade drama along the way. But back to the wine. Quinquinas have a distinct sweet effect on the front palate, fading to a grippy dryness that can rival the heartiest tannins (remember, tonic water).
Each of these styles has their characteristic base note (wormwood, gentian, or cinchona) but from there the possibilities are endless. Each producer gathers from their surroundings and craft incredibly nuanced and unique flavor combinations. Bonal harvest from the meadows of the Grand Chartreuse mountains, Dolin follows a secret recipe of 30 alpine herbs growing in Chambery, Silvio Carta incorporates sage, myrtle and the leaves of an indigenous Sardinian succulent. Talk about terroir!
Enjoying these concoctions can be as simple as a two-finger pour, some soda water, and an orange peel. Or substituting a more artisanal vermouth in your Manhattan. There are also some really fun cocktails that use these wines as their jumping off points. Find some recipes here: https://alpenz.com/recipes.html Most importantly though, remember to treat these wines as you would any other in terms of storage. Keep them from getting too hot or too cold, and once opened store them in your refrigerator to slow oxidation. Besides, an ice cold vermouth on the rocks is extra delicious.
Ready to start your adventure? Below, we've provided descriptions for vermouths and aromatized wines we have in the shop. If you're looking to purchase any, check out the collection here.
Lillet: A bright and playful aperitif (meant to enjoy before a meal or as a light refreshment), made from Bordeaux grapes (Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon). Infused with a bit of citrus peel for a crisp, summery palate. Enjoy with a splash of soda water and a lemon peel.
Dolin Dry or Rouge Vermouth: Made in Chambery, on the border with Switzerland, and the only legally protected AOC for vermouth in France. Dolin Dry uses 30 alpine herbs, and the Rouge 50! These are also great options for cooking vermouth, to lend your dishes a bit more flavor and spice then cooking with just wine. Or, drink the Dolin Dry over the rocks with a twist of lemon peel and paired with pesto bruschetta.
Noilly Prat Extra Dry Vermouth: Called the “Mareseilles style” this vermouth is lightly aged and so has a weightier oxidative quality. Add some texture to your dirty martinis!
Comoz Vermouth Blanc: Both dry and blanc vermouths are clear, but blancs intentionally have some sweetness. This producer is only behind Dolin for being the oldest vermouth maker in France. Also infused with plants and fruits from the hillsides of Chambery, this Blanc is a bit less sweet than most blancs and more expressive of wormwood. It’s famously the key ingredient in the Cuban cocktail “El Presidente,” popular in Havana during American prohibition. You will of course also need rum.
Bonal Gentiane-Quina: Whoa, breaking rules! This earthy and spicy aromatized wine incorporates both genian root AND quinquina, as well as a roster of herbs harvested from the meadows of the Grand Chartreuse mountains. Delicious with dry French cidre as a twist on a Kir Normand!
Byrrh: This quinquina hails from French Catalan country, and is made with a darker port-like base wine. Excellent as a digestif, and delicious with a little splash of grapefruit juice for all you bitter hounds. Pair with blue cheese for dessert!
Corse Rouge and Blanc Quinquina: These two Corsican quinquinas are made on a base of Vermentino and Muscat Petit Grains. The Blanc is flavored by an indigenous citron while the Rouge is deeper and darker with spices and walnuts. These are rustic and flavorful!
Cocchi Rosa & Americano: Both technically Americanos, these two aperitif options are great as spritzers. The Rosa is made on a base of Brachetto d’Acqui, infused with roses and ginger, and shines like a ruby in your glass! While the Americano is lighter and more citrusy, on a base of Moscato. Remember that while those are both typically sweet wine grapes, that sweetness is necessary to balance the botanical bitterness.
Silvio Carto “Servito” Vermouth: Made in Sardinia, using indigenous botanicals like succulents, sage, and wild sunflowers. This vermouth is on a Vernaccia base, lending stone fruit to the palate. A distinct taste of place!
Cocchi di Torino Vermouth: This region (Torino) in Piemonte is the Italian equivalent of Chambery in France, being the only legally EU-designated and protected Italian region for vermouth. Made on a Moscato base and flavored with cocoa, citrus, ginger, and rhubarb, this vermouth is a favorite with craft cocktail bartenders to easily lend a little depth to a drink. We highly recommend drinking it neat and paired with a plate of salami and other cured meats.
Carpano Antica Vermouth: This dry classic comes from the Italian house purported to be the inventors of vermouth! Starting with a blend of white wines from Romagna, Puglia, and Sicily, the recipe then infuses vanilla, saffron, and wormwood (from Aosta) among other herbs and spices. The result is a perfectly balanced, woody and nutty vermouth that will take your negroni to the next level. And, it’s a little expensive to do so, but this is our secret ingredient in our summer solstice sangria recipe.
Cardamaro: Like a vermouth on its way to an amaro (a much more bitter distillate) this wine-based infusion is flavored by cardoon and blessed thistle and then aged in oak. A touch more bitter than your typical vermouth.
Punt e Mes Vermouth: Named for an Italian phrase describing “a point and a half,” for one part sweet, half part bitter. This is also produced by the famous Carpano family, and is quite a bit darker than the Antica formula. Flavored with citrus and cinchona, it’s delicious on the rocks with an orange twist.
Pasubio Vino Amaro: This bitter wine comes from the Dolomites in Northern Italy, and has a distinct pine-y alpine palate over a base of dark aged wine and blueberries.
Cocchi Dopo Teatro Vermouth Amaro: Taking its name from an after-theater tradition of going out for a small bite and washing it down with a bitter digestif. This concentrated version begins with the Cocchi di Torino as its base, then adds a double infusion of cinchona! Enjoy on its own (in a vintage stemmed sherry glass right?) or try in a rye or mezcal-based cocktail (it has the moxie to stand up to those strong spirits).
Lacuesta Vermut Rojo: This vermouth is made in Rioja, aged in oak as they love to do there, and infused with vanilla, chamomile, and gentian. It’s a darker style of vermouth, famously delicious with tapas (especially olives). Spain purposely makes their vermouth a little lower in alcohol and ready to drink on its own versus mixed in a cocktail. Give it a try and you’ll be surprised how quickly you move through a bottle of vermouth!
Priorat Natur Vermut: On a base of white Garnacha, Macabeo and Pedro Ximenez grape juice, fermented and aged in oak. Then the herbs are macerated separately for a full year before being added to this mistelle. The result is an aromatic and oaky vermouth with nutty bitterness.
POE D’Sange Vermouth: Made at POE Wines in Napa, from Pinot Noir wine infused with blood oranges and black pepper. Try in some prosecco for a fanc(ier) brunch bubble!