After decades of neglect, vermouth is back with a vengeance. Whether it’s the ‘it’ drink for hipsters or the return in favour of your parents traditional aperitif, no age group seems immune. Wine connoisseurs, though, remain aloof. Legally, vermouth is a wine-based aperitif (at least 75% of wine, according to EU regulations) so both world should be keenly interested in each other.
The first commercial vermouths, produced a little over 200 years ago around Turin in what is now Italy, were made with Moscato wines. Other grape varietals were introduced into the mix as time went on and success led flagship brands such as Cinzano, Martini or Gancia to try and guarantee a consistent flavour profile.
Today, wines valued by most producers are young whites, neutral in taste, low in alcohol with little acidity. They are sourced in regions that are able to provide great quantities. In Italy, Trebbiano is very popular. Martini produces well over 100,000,000 litres of vermouth per year, and one shouldn’t expect them to put a focus on the wine. In Spain, household names such as Yzaguirre or Miró follow the same pattern: the two most widely used grapes are Macabeo and Airén.
The rise of artisan producers, with – at the moment – no incentive to produce in huge quantities, is however shaking things up, and winemaking is getting more and more significant in the vermouth world. This trend has its roots in the United States. Almost twenty years ago, renowned California winemaker Andrew Quady launched both a sweet and a dry vermouth with carefully selected varietals, including the very rare, uncommon Orange Muscat. His idea was very simple: if vermouth is mostly wine, then the wine should be something you’d love drinking on its own. This concept influenced many other producers, above and beyond California. Chardonnay (Atsby), Pinot Noir, Riesling (Ransom), Gewürztraminer, Spätburgunder (Belsazar, a German brand)… It’s all about the grape. In Australia, Maidenii is even made by a biodynamic French winemaker (with Syrah, Viognier and Cabernet).
What about Spain? The same trends are starting to show, but as always, things are a little different. In Galicia, Nordesia uses local grapes Mencia (sweet, red vermouth) and Albariño (sweet, white vermouth). The latter also features in local rivals St. Petroni’s offering – they make it with Albariño fermented on lees. In the Basque Country, hondarribi zuri is used to elaborate Txurrut vermouth. One of the most interesting initiatives comes from Ribera del Duero, where famed producer Cillar de Silos recently launched Golfo, a vermouth made with old vines tempranillo wine for a very striking result – it’s quite literally mouth-watering.
However most of those fairly new vermouth producers seem to be basing their choices on criteria of local history and terroir. It’s a tribute to their winemaking traditions, while more iconoclastic producers abroad are really making sure the base wine actually shines through. In that sense, maybe to the exception of Golfo, their vermouths are traditional products with non-traditional wines, while in the US, producers are all about non- traditional vermouths.
This difference in attitude is probably linked to the history of Spanish vermouth. Here as everywhere, the first vermouth producers used whatever was at hand locally -grapes, know-how, ageing system… It’s only the birth of an actual, international industry that led to standardization and the disappearance of the small players. But since Spanish brands never became as huge as their Italian counterparts, this process didn’t happen on the same scale and there are still countless vermouths produced with unorthodox yet typically Spanish methods that any wine lover will recognize.
The most striking examples are to be found in Andalucía, one of the oldest Spanish vermouth producing region, after Catalonia. This is, unsurprisingly, Palomino Fino and Pedro Ximenez territory. In Montilla-Moriles, the Cruz Conde Vermouth Reserva 1902 is a shining example of PX-based vermouth, made with their own 5-years old Oloroso. An 18-years old Olorso stars at the heart of Roberto Amillo’s recently released – and already highly demanded – vermouth from Jerez. In Huelva, Bodegas Oliveros produces an exclusive Reserva with a Zalema, Palomino Fino and PX mistelle, which ages up to 8 years in a solera system.
As one can see, the actual juice is not the only wine heritage to have an impact on Spanish vermouth makers. A few of them are now introducing solera system where there was none before –in Reus, the historical cradle of vermouth in the peninsula, at De Muller or in Madrid, at Zarro.
However, one thing needs to be underlined: most of the vermouth sold as ‘reservas’ are not actually ‘reservas’ as a wine lover would understand it. Indeed, it mostly means the vermouth has been resting for a few months in huge, inert barrels, so the impact of the wood is minimal. In that respect, an important exception comes from a renowned La Rioja winemaker, Martinez Lacuesta. They’ve been making vermouth in Haro since 1937, and when Luis Martinez Lacuesta decided to launch a reserva in 2007, his inspiration came from wine: the reserva ages ‘only’ for seven months but it does so in new oak barrels, which has of course a much stronger influence on the finished product. Lately, they’ve also been experimenting with a limited edition, aged for 12 months in acacia barrels.
If we had to draw a conclusion, we’d say the Spanish vermouth market is one of the most varied in the world and has plenty to attract wine lovers. It’s very traditional even when it breaks new ground. To top it all, it is mostly inexpensive (rarely over 12 euros a bottle). If the market keeps expanding – and we see no reason why it shouldn’t – we’ll see more unusual offerings (red wine based vermouths, such as Nordesia or Golfo, for example) and, hopefully, more vermouth where the base wine is not just a gimmick. It will then be time to wonder if it’s really vermouth we’re dealing with, a question that has been (and will continue to be) asked about the American versions mentioned earlier. This, however, is an entirely different story…
François Monti is the author of El Gran Libro del Vermut (The Great Book about Vermouth (Ediciones B).