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February 21, 2009

My Newfound Passion for Vermouth

My parents always had a bottle of dry vermouth sitting on the bar--right next to the gin, of course.  This was the era of the cocktail, and for the most hip among Mom and Dad's social set, a cocktail likely meant a martini.  Those friends who didn't indulge in martinis often sipped a glass of vermouth on the rocks, with a twist.  When I was old enough to drink in public I sampled the vermouth a couple of times, but to my palate the beverage seemed acrid and charmless.  I preferred the martinis.

Flash forward to a couple of weeks ago, when I opened a new bottle of Noilly Prat Vermouth.  I wasn't optimistic about it, merely curious.  And to be honest, what interested me most was Noilly Prat's new packaging, a sleek emerald green bottle with a comfortable, pebbled surface.  I unscrewed the cap, drizzled a little of the elixir over some ice in a tumbler, and took a sniff--and then another.  And another, just to make sure.  It smelled fabulous, exuding a floral, musky, spicy perfume that made my mouth water.  I took a sip and was further amazed to find the taste refreshing, complex and delectable.  What was going on here?  This wasn't the stuff I remembered.

Well, it turns out that there are a couple of reasons I like this vermouth better than yesteryear's.  One explanation, I think, is that although vermouth is a fortified beverage--which should therefore be shelf-stable--it is also wine-based, so will eventually oxidize.  I am pretty sure that's what happened to the vermouth that sat on my parent's bar: after the bottle had been opened for months, possibly even a year or more, it had lost all freshness and developed sharp, off-putting flavors.  At the very least, the bottle should have kept it in the fridge, and no longer than three months.

But another reason the vermouth I just sampled is so unlike the Noilly Prat of my memory is that it is, in fact, a different formula.  Although the company continued to provide the rest of the world with the original formula that it had developed in 1813 (the year Noilly Pratt was invented) it had introduced a special "American formula" to the US market several decades ago.  Now Noilly Prat has brought the original blend back to the US (the special American formula will no longer be available).

Are we told what the exact changes are?  No.  There has always been a certain amount of hush-hush surrounding vermouth, with each company's exact "recipe" a closely guarded secret.  What we do know is that all vermouth begins with wine.  At Noilly Prat, the base wine is made exclusively from grapes grown in southern France, where the company is located (the grapes are mostly Picpoul de Pinet and Clairette).  The light, fruity wine is matured in massive oak casks for 8 months, then transferred to smaller barrels and moved outdoors to be exposed for 8 months to the heat, sun and sea air.  It is fortified with grape spirits and macerated with a blend of herbs and spices sourced from around the world (chamomile, nutmeg, cardamom and bitter orange are known to be in the mix, but the identity of most of the botanicals remain a mystery).

A couple of nights ago I took the bottle of vermouth out of the refrigerator and poured a few inches into a stemmed glass to sip while I finished cooking dinner.  Again, I was enraptured by the beautiful, sultry fragrance, the slight dash of bitter, like sequins scattered across silk, and the fresh fruit flavors that end on an exclamation point of pepper and spice.  When I sat down to dinner I completely ignored the bottle of Chardonnay I'd opened, and just kept drinking the vermouth--which was delicious with the fish filets I'd sauteed.

I am by no means alone in my newfound love of vermouth.  I recently ran into my friend Amy Albert, an editor at Bon Appétit, who mentioned that she is also an enthusiast.  She elaborated by email, writing:

Three ways I love vermouth:

Vermouth Kir:  I don't love Chardonnay, and who the hell has Aligoté in the fridge?  I dare anyone to make a better Kir with weeknight Chardonnay than you can with dry vermouth.  A twist of lemon zest et voila.

Pan Sauce:  After searing a chicken breast, deglaze the pan with dry vermouth, add a knob of butter and a handful of chopped herbs.

Poaching Liquid:  Water, generous splash of dry vermouth, half an onion, peppercorns, parsley stems (and leaves), half a lemon.  Combine all these and you've got a quickie court bouillon for poaching. 

Posted by Marguerite Thomas at 8:14 AM


February 14, 2009

Franz's First Perfect

We virtually never post reviews in this blog space, but this is an exception worth making.  I've been reviewing wines professionally for 16 years, but have never given a perfect 100-point score.  Until now. 

This is largely because I spent most of those years reviewing for The Washington Post, where my reviews didn't include scores at all.  However, during the four years since we launched Wine Review Online, I've just never quite hit a wine that could overwhelm my reticence about awarding a perfect score.  How can a wine be "perfect" anyway?  Couldn't a wine always have a little more of something that would make it better?  Wouldn't another wine of the same type come along eventually that would be just a little more interesting, making the initial 100-point score look erroneous?

Well, I finally found a wine so beautiful that it overcame these barriers to awarding a triple-digit score.  The review appears below, provided here on Valentine's Day because the wine is expensive--and you may need the holiday to help justify a purchase!

Piper-Heidsieck, Champagne (France) "Rare" 1999 ($250, Remy-Cointreau): This deserves its triple-digit score because it is a perfect wine, in the sense that it is utterly flawless and so strong in all respects that I cannot imagine how adding anything could really make it any better.  It is one of the three best Champagnes that I have ever tasted, along with Krug Clos du Mesnil 1979 and Philipponnat Clos des Goisses 1996, and only a few red wines that I've tasted (such as 1982 Cheval Blanc) can match it for intricacy, symmetry, and sheer beauty.  It is really a medium-bodied wine rather than a powerhouse, yet the aromas, flavors and finish are extremely expressive and utterly compelling despite the fact that the wine isn't built for power.  At this point in its development, my bottle (and it pains me to point out that Champagnes do vary from bottle to bottle) was perfectly developed, with layers of secondary aromas but also a wonderfully fresh core of primary fruit.  The acidity was abundant but very ripe and perfectly tuned to the light sweetness of the fruit, and the wine's mousse was abundant but very delicate and, in terms of texture, perfectly tuned to the wine's weight and linear drive.  This is a stunning achievement.  100 Points

Posted by Michael Franz at 12:02 PM


February 12, 2009

Valentine's Day Libations

Valentine's Day is easily one of my favorite occasions of the year. Not only do I have the opportunity to stoke the fires of romance, but it's the best excuse this side of New Year's Eve to open a bottle of rare (and hopefully wonderful) Champagne.

I'll drink to that, and I know you will, too. I will add one caveat, however. Don't imbibe in the bubbly while chomping on a decadent chocolate truffle. It was either a practical joker or a fool that first put forward the notion that Champagne and chocolate are a great match. That's a myth.

If you must have a bubbly with your confection of affection, try a nice Brachetto d'Acqui, such as Rosa Regale. It's sweet and frothy, but refreshing and clean on the finish. And the vibrant aromas of raspberry and strawberry do in fact complement good chocolate.

Valentine's libations are the topic of my Creator's Syndicate column this week. Click here to read the whole thing.

Posted by Robert Whitley at 12:14 PM