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The Evening's Opening Embrace
By Marguerite Thomas
Nov 25, 2014
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I fell in love with vermouth and other fortified aperitif wines long before fancy table wine seduced me.  This infatuation began in my earliest drinking days, when I lived on the coast in western France.  The wine we generally consumed with dinner was for the most part local, generic, inexpensive, simple, and tasty:  Vin Ordinaire.  Did we swirl and swish it and wax poetic over the wine’s attributes, rambling on about what a perfect partner it was for food?  Of course we didn’t--red, white or pink it was wine, so obviously it was good with food.  Occasionally we indulged in a pricy Bordeaux or wine from the Loire, smacking our lips and agreeing that it was tres bon, but for the most part we drank the local stuff, which we thoroughly enjoyed without making a fuss over it.

But ah, the aperitif before dinner, now that was another matter altogether.  We admired the vast variety of jewel-like colors that these fortified wines come in, from topaz to deep garnet, and we discussed whether this one was too sweet, or that one too bitter, and debated whether they should be chilled or enjoyed at room temperature (the rooms were cold out there near the sea).  Mostly we drank the local Pineau des Charentes, a fortified wine based on grape must and Cognac eau-de-vie, and barrel aged.  Pineau conveys definite sweetness balanced by acidity, and can be more or less complex depending on the producer.  Occasionally we strayed from our own backyard to indulge in other French aperitif wines:  St Raphael (sweet with an edge of bitter orange); Byrrh (fruity-sweet, with a tonic-ish bitter finish); Lillet Blanc (floral, delicately sweet with a mere hint of bitter); Dubonnet (Port-like plus an herbal zap and flash of bitterness, said to be a favorite of Queen Elizabeth, who likes it with a splash of gin and slice of lemon). 

We also enjoyed popular French vermouths such as Noilly-Prat and Boissiere, and sometimes we ventured into Italian territory with Martini & Rossi and Cinzano.  We liked all these aperitifs/aperitivi fortified wines (and I still do) for their variety and relative affordability, and for the way they set the stage for dinner by stimulating the appetite and heightening anticipation for the coming meal.  The word, which goes back at least to the 5th century, comes from Latin aperire, “to open”:  Think of the aperitif as a wine-based counterpart to a first kiss, a symphonic overture, or the opening line of a Shakespearean soliloquy (To be or not to be…).
Fortified wine is made by raising the alcohol level of crushed grapes via the addition of spirits, usually neutral grape brandy.  Since the brandy is added to un-fermented (or partially fermented) grapes the resulting wine, called mistelle, is sweeter and fruitier than fully fermented wine because the fructose has not been converted to alcohol.  The grapes, like the brandy, tend to be neutral (e.g.  Trebbiano, Piquepoul, Semillon) and are generally white.  The flavor of Vermouth and other aperitif wines comes from the addition of various botanicals such as bark, flowers, seeds, spices, herbs and fruits.  This list is long, but common botanical ingredient include angelica, orange peel, cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, rhubarb and wormwood.  Wormwood, from which the word vermouth derives, is the common name for one member of the plant family Artemisia (tarragon is another member of this large family), and it’s been a common ingredient in wine-based infusions since at least 400 BC.  Wormwood’s popularity has been based on the belief that it is an effective treatment for digestive disorders (including intestinal worms, hence the name).  Distilled wormwood is the basis for absinthe, which was for a hundred years or so portrayed as a dangerous psychotropic drug.  With that theory now mostly debunked, wormwood has become a popular ingredient in contemporary cocktails.

I am somewhat puzzled by the fact that while Europeans appreciate vermouth on its own, generally chilled or on the rocks, we Americans value it mostly as an ingredient in cocktails.  This attitude seems to be changing somewhat, but many Americans, it seems, dislike that frisson of bitterness that’s inherent in most decent vermouths.  Bitterness is the defining characteristic of Quinquinas, one branch of the fortified wine family.  Quinquinas (pronounced, “keen-keenas”), are generally slightly sweeter and measurably less bitter than Italian amaro.  That bitterness in quinquina, amaro and vermouth is due to the presence of cinchona bark, from which quinine was derived (today quinine is chemically synthesized).  Popular in Europe since the early 19th century, quinquinas were developed as an anti-malarial spirit and, like amari, are still widely viewed as wholesome gastric tonics (my 90-year-old European father-in-law keeps a bottle of Fernet-Branca in his medicine cabinet in case of indigestion).

Among my own favorite vermouths at the moment are the French brand Dolin (both red and white); Carpano Antica (possibly the world’s first commercial vermouth debuting in Italy 1786, it is spicy, sweet and fruity, and of course bitter); Cocchi Americano (a sublime elixir of white Moscato d’Asti wine, fortified and infused with herbs and spices plus cinchona—and  “americano” has nothing to do with our nation but everything to do with the word for bitter); Aperol, ubiquitous on the cocktail circuit, whose bright botanicals include gentian, orange peel, rhubarb, and cinchona bark; and perennial favorite Campari, which resembles Aperol but has twice as much alcohol. 

American winemakers have recently jumped on the serious vermouth bandwagon.  Quady led the way with Vya, and Sutton Cellars also produces a savory dry vermouth.  I was recently introduced to a new California Aperitif wine named Jardesca ($30).  Made from three white grape varieties including Alexander Valley Viognier, which contributes charming floral notes, plus eau de vie from San Francisco’s Essential Alambic Distillery, it is enticing and delicious.  Among Jardesca’s botanicals, bay laurel adds a distinctive California note, pink peppercorns contribute spiciness, and grapefruit peel introduces a citrusy component plus a hint of bitterness, though this aperitiva leans more towards smooth than bitter.  Jardesca is superb on its own, served on the rocks with a squeeze of lemon.  And if you feel like adding a splash of gin, trust me--I know from experience you won’t be disappointed.