Delightful serendipity was at work again in my life when I saw The Guild of Food Writers were organising a workshop on ‘vermouth’ only a couple of weeks before my next trip to Turin – home of vermouth! I was excited to be accepted as a member of the Guild, an association for professional food writers and broadcasters, at the end of last year, and last night’s workshop was the first event I attended.
I’ve been hearing for a couple of years or more about how vermouth is making a comeback. I’d only associated it with the 1970s when its popularity was epitomised by the iconic series of TV adverts for Cinzano starring Joan Collins and Leonard Rossiter. I also associated it with my mother, who never drunk much alcohol, but loved champagne … and Cinzano Bianco.
Vermouth might be making a comeback, but in all honesty I wasn’t hugely impressed. Even when I first visited wonderful Turin in October 2016, my only tasting of vermouth came in the form of a splendid (and strong!) Negroni at the famous Caffè Torino.
However, last night’s event prompted me to think I should really find out more about vermouth and why it’s becoming so popular again. The workshop was to be led to Kate Hawkings, drinks expert, columnist, writer, and author of the book Aperitif. It took place at The Whisky Exchange in Great Portland Street in central London.
When I arrived I was immediately drawn to look round the shelves, which were full of an amazing array of wines – and vermouth!
My vermouth knowledge until this point hadn’t gone past ‘Cinzano’ and ‘Martini’. Now I was to learn a lot more.
Downstairs in the basement, tables were laid out with samples of vermouth and little bits of appropriate food to taste with them.
Meanwhile, I couldn’t help but be drawn to look at the enormous selection of whiskies that lined the walls. I love whisky … but I needed to turn my attention to vermouth.
Once everyone was seated, the tasting began. And necessarily and fascinatingly, the ‘lesson’ began with history – and how vermouth came into being.
Vermouth is a fortified and aromatised wine, not a spirit, and is actually quite low in alcohol for something we think of as a ‘stronger’ drink – around 18 per cent. The name derives from the German name for ‘wormwood’ – Wermut – an essential ingredient of vermouth. Wormwood is also an essential ingredient of Absinthe, which is famous for being banned around the world through most of the 20th century. Wormwood is a plant that has been used medicinally for thousands of years, going as far back as Ancient Greece and Hippocrates, who mixed it with wine and added herbs and spices. It was used to cure intestinal worms and continued for centuries to be thought of as useful for gastric complaints.
The name ‘vermouth’ can also be linked to the Latin verb apere, meaning ‘to open’. In this sense it fits with our idea of vermouth being an aperitif drink … or if you’re in Italy, aperitivo. It is a drink to open the appetite.
Technically, vermouth was invented in Italy in Turin in the 16th century by Alessio di Piemonte, a wine merchant, physician and alchemist (I love that he did all three!). He used it for medicinal purposes. It wasn’t until the 18th century that modern vermouth was created by the first Cinzano brothers in 1757. They made in on a small scale in the mountain village of Pecetto in northern Piedmont and it was only sold locally. The first commercial vermouth was made by herbalist Antonio Benedetto Carpano in Turin in 1786. Later in 1863, still in Turin, a partnership was formed between wine merchant Alessandro Martini and herbalist Luigi Rossi to form that other famous vermouth label – Martini & Rossi.
Meanwhile in France in 1821, a French distiller Joseph Chavasse from Chambéry, who visited Turin and sampled vermouth, launched a lighter style pale vermouth made with local wine and alpine botanicals: Dolin Vermouth de Chambéry. Vermouth de Chambéry and Vermouth di Torino remain the only two geographically protected vermouths today.
So to the tastings. The photo below shows the enormous range of colour, which is reflected in taste.
Starting from the left, No.1, 2 … and through to No.6, I guess one might associate the pale 1 and 2 with dry vermouth or Cinzano Bianco; the rich darker colours at the far end with a sweet Martini (if we’re using 1970s talk!). But of course it wasn’t that simple.
No.1 was Chazalettes Extra Dry from Italy: first made in Turin in 1860, this went out of production in the 1970s but was relaunched in 2016. This light, delicate vermouth had a floral sweetness but that essential vermouth bitterness with it, and a lemon, herby touch with a hint of gin (juniper berries). It was delightful and one of my favourites.
No.2 was a Spanish vermouth, Lustau Vermut Blanco: dry with a mineral flavour, it was a complete contrast to No.1 with its minerally ‘nose’ and taste, which to be honest I didn’t much like. In Spain it’s drunk with lots of ice and a slice of orange.
No.3 was Regal Rogue Wild Rose from Australia. Part of a new wave of vermouths, this is designed to be drunk in its own right. It has 40% less sugar, no woods and low bitters. It was a fresh tasting vermouth with strawberry notes and went well with the cheese on the table, and would go well too with a lemon Sicilian lemonade.
No.4 was Caperitif from South Africa: made from a base of Chenin Blanc wine and 35 natural botanicals. Bittersweet and grassy, it’s an ideal mixer.
No.5 took us back to Italy and Cinzano 1757 Rosso: the nose had a strong vanilla that transferred to the taste, which also had a hint of raspberry jam and plums. Medium-bodied, rich and fruity with that wormwood bitterness, I have to tell you this was my favourite. And I quite surprised myself by that for it seemed a bit of a cliché. But it was gorgeous. We were told it’s a great vermouth for making Negronis and goes well half and half with gin.
No.6, still in Italy, was Cocchi Vermouth di Torino: this comes with the most delightful story. Giulio Cocchi, a pastry chef from Florence, fell in love with a girl from Asti, in Piedmont. He opened Bar Cocchi in Turin and launched a range of vermouths made with the local Moscato grape in 1891. This was another favourite with a big, complex taste: fruit, chocolate, orange peel, toffee, apples, with citrusy bitterness, it had a gorgeous sweet and bitter taste.
It was really fascinating to taste such a range of vermouths and get to know more about the drink. While interesting to try some of the new wave vermouths from Australia and South Africa, I have to say that my vermouth heart lies firmly in Turin, Italy. Numbers 1, 5 and 6 were my clear favourites. Thus I am totally inspired to try more vermouth and learn more about it when I’m in Turin in a couple of weeks’ time.
Vermouth is of course associated with some famous cocktails like Gin Martini, Manhattan and Negroni, so it was perfect to end this brilliant evening with Negronis.
People asked about storage at the end of the evening. We’ve probably all had bottles of vermouth that have stood on our shelves for weeks but because it’s not a spirit, but instead a fortified wine, it doesn’t keep well long. A dry white vermouth lasts only about 2 weeks once opened (though longer if kept in the fridge). The sweeter red can last for about 6 weeks.
Katie Hawkings’ book Aperitif was a great source for this post, as well of course as her talk last night. I also sourced a lot of information via the Internet and various sites.