My first memory of Vermouth is linked to a wicker basket: one morning I saw my grandfather build a strange basket in his laboratory. He explained to me: “You see, they asked me to make one, able to contain a bottle and some other products in jar, enhance them and also keep the bottle safe; so, here is an oval basket with only the first part of the handle on one side, with an eyelet to insert the neck of the bottle. This way it will be well presented, slightly raised and still”.
This basket was employed then by Carpano and Ballor, it used to contain beautiful bottles that nowadays are history, I keep some of them in our family home with great affection.
It would take a whole book to tell the story of this wine, so I can only mention a few notions.
In ancient Rome there were absinthe wines for therapeutic purposes, while going back to the Sixteenth Century we can find traces and descriptions of preparations used also (and probably for the first time) outside of medicine, that can be considered “ancestors” of Vermouth. The Eighteenth Century, rich of various treatises on the art of liquors and herbal medicine, subsequently lead to the patent filed by Carpano in 1786.
Perhaps we could say that Carpano, rather than inventing Vermouth, defined it in its “industrial” production.
The most thriving period for Vermouth worldwide is placed between the last twenty years of the Nineteenth Century and 1920, when the arrival of American Prohibition severely limited the production of some companies which had reached peaks of export of nine million litres. However, its growth in Italy continued until the Second World War.
More recently, for a long time this aromatised wine has been less considered, but since some years it has been experiencing its “second youth” that, in my opinion, will last for a long time.
The rise in popularity of classic cocktails (Americano, Martini, Manhattan, Milano-Torino) and interest in mixology have helped bring Vermouth back into the limelight.
Many bars and restaurants start including Vermouth selections in their drink lists and many cocktail enthusiasts start (re)discovering Vermouth as a key ingredient for creating new and interesting drinks: it’s enough to visit the producers’ web pages to discover dozens of ideas to put in the glass.
Nowadays the types of Vermouth are: white, red, rosé, dry and extra dry.
The white one is often decisively fruity and very floral, the red – more spicy and tending towards bitterness, the last two are drier and generally linked to a citrus flavours.
There are many “guidelines” and requirements, depending on whether the wine is classified with or without geographical indication, as a superior or reserve; generally speaking, the use of artemisia absinthium and an alcoholic strength of at least 16° is required.
Speaking about Piedmontese Vermouth, there is an accurate and long list of herbs, plants and natural flavouring substances available for production: each time only some of them, never the same, get used to make up the recipe, always secret, of a single label.
In the beginning, Moscato was used as a base wine, followed first by other Piedmontese wines and Apulian, Sardinian and Sicilian then.
Nowadays, with a new and ever-growing appreciation for this product, we can also find Vermouths made of wines such as Nebbiolo, Barolo, Erbaluce, Arneis, Cortese and Timorasso.
Artemisia absinthium also known as wormwood, angelica, yarrow, cloves, cinnamon, coriander, mace, gentianella, gentian, citrus bark, star anise, cardamom, fennel, vanilla, saffron, nutmeg, tonka bean, sage, cinchona, rosemary, oregano, mint, elderberry are just some of the elements that can flavour the basic wine (or wines) used for our Vermouth.
As with any wine, the quality of a Vermouth is evaluated by pondering its taste-olfactory complexity, persistence, finesse, intensity; moreover, the evaluation of the balance among the bitter part (given by the absinthe and the herbs), the spicy part and the sweet part is very interesting; the latter component can be obtained using different types of sugar, honey and concentrated must.
How do we serve a straight Vermouth? In an elegant, small liberty glass (Piedmontese Vermuttino style) or, in a more modern way, in a low tumbler, with or without ice, lemon, orange, olive; the serving temperature can range from 14/16 degrees for the red Vermouth, to 10 for the white one, and up to 4/6 degrees for the drier versions.
This wine’s become increasingly popular not only as an aperitif or digestif, but also as an ingredient in cooking.
It is useful for marinating meat, fish and vegetables, because of a unique flavour it leaves, always different according to the type of Vermouth used. In addition, we can add it in sauces, risottos and desserts.
It’s possible to noodle about many combinations and even to create entire menus involving different types of Vermouth, here are some tips. Butter and anchovies, robiola di Roccaverano, orange peel, chocolate desserts, all of them go well with a classic red Vermouth. Let’s taste oysters, smoked fish or salmon accompanied by a nice dry Vermouth instead, while selections of salami and olives with an extra dry are a really good pairing. Blue and seasoned cheeses such as Castelmagno get enhanced by a Moscato-based white Vermouth; finally, the sweetest Vermouths go well with the large-leavened products such as Panettone.
Another tip: use some Vermouth to create the batter for a small mixed fry, to be served accompanied by the same wine of course.
As I’m writing this I find myself in Spain: here Vermut is produced as well and the Vermuterías are quite popular. I visited some of them in the past and I noticed with great pleasure that several Vermouths from Piedmont, in particular from our Unesco territory, are widespread and much appreciated.
In conclusion, Piedmontese Vermouth is more than just a drink, it’s the testament of a past made of passion, dedication and love for excellence, values that all of us, Knights, safeguard and hand down. It’s a true symbol of our region, a celebration of the beauty of nature, of hand-picked herbs and fruits, spices and aromas that get carefully blended to create a unique experience.
Whether enjoyed straight or as a cocktail ingredient, Piedmontese Vermouth is always an unforgettable sensory experience: so, let’s toast to its beauty, to the tradition and to the spread of our culture.
by Ugo Venturino