Every wine person I know goes through periods of waning enthusiasm for wine. It doesn’t detract from one’s ability to work and play in the business, nor does it lessen the charms of a great bottle. It merely means temporarily yielding to the rejuvenating properties of other alcoholic beverages. Not being much of a beer drinker, save for an occasional Budweiser by the old rustic swimming hole in North Carolina, I’m left with booze. Unfortunately I’m also not much of a booze drinker (save for the occasional ill-advised tequila shot and, really, I’m too old for shots.) Now what am I left with?I find that my drink proclivities are informed by alcohol percentage. Too little alcohol and I get bored; too much alcohol and I get drunk. I like my drinks to weigh in at the alcoholic strength of wine… and guess what what delivers in this regard? Vermouth! Vermouths: fortified wines flavored with botanicals such as roots, barks, herbs, flowers, spices, and seeds, are generally around 16% alcohol, then you add a little ice and you’ve got yourself a tasty beverage that delivers a welcome respite from wine. Over the past few weeks, beginning with my annual December chest cold, Vermouths (and related tipples) have become my post work drink of choice. I realize I’m way behind the times. Various friends of mine have been extolling the virtues of Vermouth for ages. Also my mom used to drink it, though she drank it dry and with a twist of lemon. Oh well. Better late to the party than never in attendance at all.
My introduction to the world of Vermouth took place about a year ago in North Carolina with some Yankee ex-pats living in Durham who have a full cocktail bar set up in their apartment. We were getting ready to go to dinner and I wanted a relatively mild aperitif that would leave plenty of room in my wine slot for all the Burgundy that was to come. I’d been curious about Carpano Antica Formula for some time, but the large, 1 liter bottle is kind of a commitment. Here was an opportunity for a taste with zero commitment. Low and behold, Carpano was magically delicious and I went back for seconds.
To this day (and several home bottles later) I still love the vanilla, caramel, and rum raisin complexity of Carpano, made in the Piedmontese city of Turin from a recipe that allegedly dates back to 1786. It’s a rich, sweet, almost oaky Vermouth with pleasing, burnt orange, citrusy acidity and a mellow hint of bitterness on the finish. Carpano is a soothing and luxurious beverage, and it’s not monochrome like a plush, oaky wine. There are layers of flavor that deliver something a little bit different with each sip. One sip you’ll taste a prune, the next a vanilla bean, the next a proper British marmalade…
It’s surprisingly hard to find out about Carpano Antica Formula; their ancient recipe is well-guarded. On a website I discovered while researching called Eat.Drink.Think, I learned that Carpano is made by the Branca distillery. Are these the same folks who make Fernet, the wonderfully bitter digestif that has recently and mysteriously taken the world of hipster beverages by storm? It’s certain that no two bitter herb inflected brews could be less similar than Fernet and Carpano. Who knows? Eat.Drink.Think’s author describes himself as having been put in “a pleasure haze” by Carpano Antica, and I get the vaguely Coleridge-ian reference ; there’s an almost opiate quality to the stuff and I have friends who claim they can go through a liter in a day. However, I’ve noticed that I only really love Carpano when I’ve got a sore throat and am craving its plush silky sweetness like a fortified cough drop. When I’m healthy, Carpano is ever so slightly cloying. Next time you’ve got a cold, try my remedy: one small glass Carpano on ice with a lemon wedge and one large mug South African Rooibos tea. This full-bodied and earthy non-caffeinated tea makes a delightful companion piece to Carpano. Then get to bed! And when you’re better, move on the slightly more ballsy Vermouth.After my last home bottle of Carpano, JR, our spirits buyer at Chambers Street, ordered me to branch out. He suggested that I try Cocchi Vermouth, also from Torino, one of two recognized appellations for Vermouth. Apparently Guilio Cocchi, founder of the Cocchi business, was an enterprising Florentian who moved to Piedmont in the late 19th century to distill as well as to make the Asti Spumante. I never would have guessed it based on the flavor profile, but Cocchi’s sweet, red Vermouth is based on Moscato! Brighter and less oak influenced than Carpano, Cocchi offers more cocoa and mint, darker, cooler tones than Carpano. At the same time it’s lightly oxidative, giving the faintest hint of what an acquaintance of mine would call “tootsie roll.” The oxidation also comes out on the finish with a note of walnut. Neither better nor worse than Carpano, it depends on what you’re in the mood for.My first taste of Cynar was at Huckleberry Bar, a fantastic cocktail spot on Grand Street in Williamsburg. I am the antithesis of a cocktail geek; cocktail culture has always seemed quite pretentious to me. After all, my favorite alcoholic beverages are made by rustic French peasants with callouses and dirt under their nails, not impeccably groomed young men wearing unnecessary suspenders and gel in their mustaches. Nonetheless, I love the good people at Huck, and I try to order a cocktail or two each time I go there. The day after my 30th birthday, my best North Carolina friend, SS, and I wandered into Huckleberry Bar, atrociously hungover, in search of bitter refreshment. (I think S might literally have said something like “I need Chinato NOW, Sophie.” (More on Chinato later…)) Neither of us had tried Cynar and this seemed like an opportune time.Produced by Gruppo Campari, a beverage conglomerate with 40 spirits in their portfolio, Cynar is an aperitif that is flavored with artichokes. This raises an interesting question: why is Cynar considered an aperitif rather than a Vermouth? Is Vermouth a sub category of aperitif the way Cognac is a sub category of brandy? Must Vermouth be from either Torino or from Chambéry to properly be considered Vermouth? Cynar is a dark brown, dense (but still only 16.5% alcohol), fairly intensely bitter, herb-y liquid that makes Carpano Antica taste like a Starbucks caramel macchiato. It’s bracingly delicious on ice with a lemon wedge, and also makes a good cold remedy alongside a cup of Rooibos, but possessed of more “adult” flavors than Vermouth di Torino.
When I first moved to New York about five years ago, I had the good fortune to be taken to dinner at Convivio, an Italian restaurant in Tudor City that, as I recall, specialized in the wines and foods of southern Italy. The sommelier was Levi Dalton, a fiery wine personality who has done much to enliven our business in various ways. At the end of the meal, which, incidentally, was lubricated by the bracing, Volcanic wines of Taurasi, Levi poured us each a flight of five Amari (Amaro=a spirit-based digestif flavored with bitter herbs). On this occasion, my palate was opened up to a brave new world of flavor. Bitterness is something we come to appreciate as we grow up; I’m almost tempted to say that our appreciation for bitterness waxes as our appreciation for sweetness wanes, but I know too many Riesling and Reese’s Cup-heads to make this proclamation. I’ll just say that as I’ve grown up, bitter and sour have taken over my brain, leaving less challenging flavors like sweet behind…
This brings me to Mauro Vergano’s Americano, a Grignolino-based aperitif that makes Carpano and Cocchi and Cynar seem simple. Vergano, an extremely kind and amusing man (This isn’t conjecture; I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting him once or twice), worked as a chemist before obtaining an oenology degree and eventually beginning to make Chinati. As a chemist, he was a specialist in flavors and fragrances and it was this training that allowed him to become a master in the art of “aromatized” wine. In an interview with the lovely folks at LDM, Vergano’s importer, when asked whether he views his Chinato as more “traditional” and his Americano as more “modern,” he points out that his Americano draws on the traditions of the region as well, the tradition of Vermouth. Most of the time, Vermouth is based on a low quality white wine; Chinato, however, is based on Barolo, the greatest red wine of northwestern Italy. Chinato takes its name from “cinchona” or quinine, the predominant flavor. Does this make Chinato a kind of sub-category of Vermouth? A valid question.Vergano’s aromatized wines are based on Moscato (Luli), Grignolino (Americano), and Nebbiolo (Chinato). In each case, the resultant Vermouth takes the category to a heightened level of fineness and complexity. Americano is beautifully ruby colored in the glass with the faintest pink gleam. The flavor of quinine is complemented by a note of sweet grapefruit, exotic cardamon, anise, and licorice. Perhaps my favorite part is the tannins on the finish. Grignolino, a wine with lots of zesty tannins from the seeds of the grape, gives a kind of fresh tannic structure to the Vermouth. Thus the wine itself seems to be more then just a base; the wine informs the profile of the aperitif. Drink Vergano’s Americano on its own, with ice, with ice and citrus, with ice, citrus, and sparkling water. Any way you drink it is sheer pleasure.
If every break from wine lead me to something as remarkable as Vergano’s Chinati, I would take more breaks from wine…. Salut! -Sophie