Sunday, February 28, 2016

As the Verm Turns – A Look at Vermouth

"Do not allow children to mix drinks.
It is unseemly -- and they use too much vermouth."

-Steve Allen
Poor vermouth. A drop too much sends cocktail hipsters into an absolute uproar. Many martini drinkers take great pride in their disdain for this mixer and aperitif.
Winston Churchill, in a piece of famous apocrypha, would mix his martinis and “give a nod towards France” rather than add vermouth to his shaker. Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel stated that "Connoisseurs suggest simply allowing a ray of sunlight to shine through the bottle” of vermouth into the gin for a proper martini.

What did vermouth do to anyone to deserve this sort of treatment? I’ve never understood the depth of dislike. I really enjoy a martini from time to time, and I like the flavor that adding a little vermouth brings to the table. And I’ll never turn down a Manhattan, which has sweet vermouth as a major building block next to the rye or bourbon.

I usually have a bottle each of sweet and dry vermouth in my fridge for mixing purposes (more on that in a bit), but I’ve never really thought about vermouth as an aperitif on its own. I’ve written before about Lillet, a favorite aperitif of mine which you can usually locate next to the Vermouth in most wine stores, but I’d not said, “Hey, I’m going to pour myself a nice, cold glass of vermouth” before.

From what I’m reading, though, vermouth on its own as an aperitif is enjoying a bit of a renaissance in this day and age of craft cocktails and niche drinking establishments. A fortuitous Wine Fairy delivery crossed the threshold at Vine HQ not long ago, carrying with it a couple of bottles of vermouth a little more high end than the Martini & Rossi which usually serves as my “house” selection. Before I dive in to how they are, let’s talk a little about what this stuff actually is.

First off, vermouth is wine. It’s a fortified wine, which means that its initially low alcohol content has been boosted via the addition of a neutral spirit, like a brandy or cognac. Vermouth runs generally between 16-22% ABV. It’s also an aromatized wine, so the wine is infused with a proprietary blend of botanicals – most importantly artimisia, better known as wormwood.

Did your ears prick up a bit at the mention of wormwood? The name “Vermouth” actually comes from the French pronounciation of the German word for wormwood, “Wermut.” Wormwood is the source of the psychoactive compounds in absinthe. (Alas, vermouth will not make your hallucinate, although too many martinis can make you believe you’re a secret agent.)

The fortifying and aromatizing of vermouth allow it to remain fresh after opening for much longer than an ordinary wine – but if you’ve got a bottle of vermouth in the back of your liquor cabinet that you bought two years ago for a cocktail party and never finished, pitch it or cook with it or something. Vermouth is still, after all, wine – and like all wines, it begins to oxidize after it’s opened. It’ll generally hold its flavor for a month or two if you keep it in the fridge, but you can only count on a week or two at room temperature.

Vermouth, like many alcohols, was initially a medicinal drink when created back in the 1600’s, but its popularity really began to pick up in the mid-1800’s when the Martini and the Manhattan were first concocted. (Cocktail aficionados should note that the original recipe for a Martini uses gin, sweet vermouth, orange bitters, and simple syrup – rather than the splash of dry vermouth in a sea of gin more popular today.)

Vermouth can be an aperitif, drunk on its own with a citrus twist and a dash of bitters, but I admit to never taking it that way until this particular opportunity. I tried a pair of vermouths side by side – the La Quintinye Vermouth Royal Blanc and the La Quintinye Vermouth Royal Extra Dry.

Both vermouths are from the southwest of France. They are produced by mixing a fortified wine known as Pineau des Charentes with scads of botanicals (18 for the Royal, 27 for the Extra-Dry). I poured a little of each to do a side by side comparison first.

I started with the Royal, which struck me as a little sweet. It’s very pale straw-colored and has a very pretty orange blossom nose with flavors of pears and honey. These fruits gradually turn a little bitter towards the end as the botanicals bite in a bit. My notes say “honeyed absinthe!” and I’ll admit – I’d be a much bigger fan of absinthe if it tasted like this. I thought it was a nice, refreshing drink, and I could see myself drinking this before a meal as an aperitif – although I still would lean towards Lillet if I had a choice. Still, I was pleasantly surprised, and I still need to make a Vesper with it, since a Vesper uses Lillet next to its vodka and gin.

I wasn’t as much of a fan of the Extra-Dry as an aperitif. It’s slightly darker than the Royal and has flavors much more along the lines of a typical “dry vermouth” – very little sweetness and quite a heavy dose of botanicals, especially anise, which finished with a little bit of clove and cinnamon spice. On its own, I didn’t find it particularly pleasant, but I decided to use it in its more contemporary role – mixing a martini with it.

I’ve never run from vermouth in my martinis. I usually mix them 2.5 parts gin (usually Bombay Sapphire or Hendricks, but New Amsterdam is surprisingly workable for cheaper gin) to 1 part dry vermouth, with extra olives. I like the vermouth botanicals in a cocktail – as I feel they really round off the harder edges of the gin. Here’s where the Extra-Dry really shone. All of those herbal scents and flavors married beautifully with the flavors of the gin. One of the better ones I’d mixed in a long while. As a mixer, the Extra-Dry is top notch.

Both of these cost around $15 for a 375ml bottle, so they’re a little more pricey than typical vermouth, where you can usually get a 750ml for about $7-8, but the interesting flavors make it worth taking a flyer on if you’re trying to craft an impressive cocktail.

(Thanks to Sean at Colangelo PR for the samples.)

Monday, February 15, 2016

Down the South American Aisle -- The Bloom of the Blending Grape

Neighbor Jeff and I make an annual trip to our local Big Wine Store to stock him up for his annual project. You may remember the adventures of Jeff’s Dinner Club – an undertaking in honor of his wonderful wife, Christine the Pie Queen. Jeff lovingly crafts one delightful meal per month for his lovely Lady of Confection. As a planner, he prefers to have all of his wines in place before the project begins.
Our recent shopping trip (artist's rendition)

Jeff also likes themes and loves his grill, so we found ourselves in the South American aisle this time around. South American wine is food-friendly enough as it is, but it lends itself so very nicely to food dragged across fire. We ended up selecting a number of wines from below the equator for his year’s project.

Since we were in the neighborhood, and since the Vine has been pretty heavily Eurocentric recently, I decided to snag a few bottles from South America myself. I wanted to try some varietals I wasn’t overly familiar with from that area of the globe. I pulled some “new for me” wine from Argentina and Chile. I also picked up my first-ever bottle from Uruguay. You know, for science – and for sharing, of course.

Among white wines, Argentina is best known for a grape called Torrontes, the second-most widely planted grape in that country. (The largest white varietal in Argentina by acreage is Pedro Ximenez, which is also one of the grapes grown in Portugal to make sherry.) Torrontes is considered Argentina’s “national white.” I was musing to Jeff, “I wonder why the Argentineans don’t make sparkling wine with all this Torrontes.” My eyes flicked over a few degrees and I happened to catch a glimpse of a sparkling wine cage, in which was – you guessed it – a sparkling Torrontes.

The bottle in question was Spirit of the Andes (NV) Sparkling Torrontes. From grapes grown in the Mendoza region, the largest winemaking region in Argentina, this sparkling wine is a refreshing enough sparkling quaff. Very pale in color, with a nose of apple blossoms, which move into a green apple-dominant flavor. It’s fairly acidic, and a little sharp on the carbonation. It was a decent enough sparkling wine, but it wouldn’t make me turn away from Cava as an inexpensive sparkling option anytime soon. $17 is a bit high for this one.

A bit further down the Argentina aisle, I saw a bottle of the Humberto Canale 2008 Cabernet Franc, and decided give it a run. I’m familiar with Malbec, Bonarda, and Cabernet Sauvignon as Argentine reds, but not Franc. Cabernet Franc is a hit or miss varietal often used for blending which, on its own, tends to produce a relatively lean, tannic wine. Most versions have a finish that tastes like graphite, which makes it a “love or hate” wine for many folks. But one region’s blending grape can be another region’s gold mine – as when the French first planted the Bordeaux blending grape Malbec in Argentina and it exploded into world prominence. Maybe there was something interesting to be found here.

The results were…mixed. I don’t know what kind of aging potential Argentine Cabernet Franc normally has, but this one might have been a bit on the downhill. The nose was of blueberries and violets with a barnyard-y funk in the background. I found it to be medium-bodied with a fair amount of dark fruit and a streak of earth. The finish is more blueberries, with a long line of pencil lead gradually trailing off. As it got some air, it developed more of the barnyard flavors, to the point where fruit largely faded. An inconclusive bottle, at best. Around $20.

Just across the aisle was the selection from Chile. Thanks to the nation’s skinny geography covering over 2,600 miles of latitude, Chile produces a little bit of everything. Among reds, they predominantly produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot/Carmenere, and Pinot Noir. I only remember trying one Syrah from Chile, so I thought it a ripe time for a revisit.

I should have remembered the big Chilean wines require quite a bit of time to open up. The fruit on the Lapostolle 2010 Cuvee Alexandre Syrah was basically nonexistent for about an hour after I opened it, so crack it well in advance if you’re going to go down this road. Once it opens (and even the next day), it turns into a right interesting drink. If you feel that French Syrah is too earthy and Aussie Shiraz is too fruity, this bottle from Chile might be a nice sweet spot for you. I thought this was quite nice. The nose is big with blueberries and a little bit of oak. The flavor is full of big dark fruits which are balanced capably by some punchy tannins. The flavors are full, making a solid wintertime red. With chocolate or big meats, it’s a solid choice at around $18.

Right next to the wines from Chile was a narrow selection labeled “Other South American.” Among that group was the Bodegas Marichal 2013 Tannat from Uruguay. Uruguay? Pop quiz – can you find Uruguay on a map? No? Let me help you:

When the Sweet Partner in Crime and I were on a wine-tasting excursion in Italy several years ago, one of the other members of our group was going on and on about how wonderful Uruguay was. He said that the food and wine were basically the best in South America, and it was great – because almost no one knew about it. That was the last I’d heard of Uruguayan wine until I snagged this bottle.

Uruguay’s “national grape” is Tannat. Tannat originated in southwest France and is used as a high-tannin blending grape to round off the edges and add structure to the Cabernet-based wines in that area, which includes Cahors. In this respect, Tannat seems to have followed Malbec’s terroir-driven path in Argentina – bursting from seldom-used blending grape into high production.

We cracked this open next to an Indian-spiced version of a shepherd’s pie made with a base of lentils and a little bit of ground lamb. We made a heck of a good choice. The Marichal is an extremely easy to drink, low-alcohol entry – clocking in at 13%. This wine sees no oak, and the result is a lean, fruit-driven red with enough grape tannin to give it a very nice structure. I found scents and flavors of raspberries and cherries – it’s about halfway between a pinot noir and a light Cabernet Sauvignon. There’s a nice little undertone of smoke, too. I’d certainly give this high marks, and for $13, it’s a great value for the quality.

Jeff got his wine cellar restocked, and there’s a rumor that he might even start the Dinner Club adventure posts up again…so watch this space…