Pick a mountain anywhere and start to climb it. Take in the plant life around you. This is where herbs grow best, thanks to the sloped drainage and the increasing proximity to more sunlight. We can create a sufficient herb garden at our homes, but up here in the mountains, they are happy, energetic, and wild. And they are willing to share themselves with you! Here is where we start the story of vermouth.
Today we understand vermouth to be a fortified wine, flavored and aromatized by herbs/ plants/ spices (botanicals). To think more broadly, vermouth is a result of an understanding humans came to thousands of years ago, that the world around us provides us with everything we need to live. To effectively use these natural resources, each has been studied to identify their different reactions and powers. At some point during the Neolithic Period (6200-5600 BCE) in China these herbs began to be combined with wine with the intention to act as medicine through smell, taste, and through the chemical reaction inside the body. The botanicals were chosen not only to anti- oxidize or alleviate, but also to make a desirable taste; bitter herbs needed a sweetener in order to make the medicine go down, and to add pleasant aromas. Some botanicals were even chosen for their dying properties, such as yellow because of its association with the emperor in China. Around the same time in the present day Iran, these wine and botanical concoctions were not just limited to the royal class, but were a staple in working class kitchens. Over thousands of years everyday people gathered the herbs, fruits, barks, weeds, and plants naturally available to them and steeped them in wine until their properties emptied and united with the fermented grape juice. Some steeped the bundle in hot water first, some developed systems of transferring wine into an herbal extraction and then out again like a ferris wheel. But all of them chose their botanicals to heal, to please, to inspire, and to connect.
If wine tells the story of a region or a culture, then vermouth tells the story of a person. Chosen carefully like words, each botanical is combined with another until you have a sentence and paragraph and then, a story. In the Neolithic period, these stories were mostly those of health, like a doctor’s note. “Drink this for fever” or “May you live into old age”. Today, even with the requirement of wine and wormwood to be present in all vermouth, there is still a lot of room for botanical poetry.
In this edition of Club Caravan, we encourage you to try your vermouths “European style” that is to say “neat” or on the rocks, and really uncurl that page that has been thoughtfully inscribed upon and stuffed in the bottle by someone you will never meet that lives across an ocean.
WINE IS THE PAPER, AND WORMWOOD IS THE INK
Understanding the Staple Ingredients
VERMOUTH MUST CONSIST OF 75% WINE
White wine is the base of vermouth, the paper, upon which a story is being written. Whether vermouth is red or white, sweet or dry, it almost always starts with a white grape. (That inviting red color can be achieved by adding certain botanicals to lend their dye or by adding caramel.) Like their botanical infusers, the white grapes are typically also found growing in high altitudes like the famous mountains of Italy, France, and Spain, the big three in vermouth production. The Pyrenees provide white wine grapes like Clairette Blanche and Piquepol and the Alps lend us Trebiano d’Abruzzo and Moscato d’Asti. All sweet/ semi- sweet friendly blending wines who generously lay down their pale color to be marked, infused, and inscribed by the messages of the chosen herbs, spices, roots, and citrus.
Artemisia absinthium or wormwood has been deemed as necessary for making vermouth as ink is necessary to transfer your thoughts to the page. Without wormwood, the story stays in your head. This is due to many reasons, one being its long history as a medical miracle cure- all herb since the Shang Dynasty (even in ancient Rome, the emperor was presented with wormwood at festivals as a symbol of wishing him good health). Another being its intensely bitter taste. At the time of wormwood’s entrance into the vermouth recipe (1786 CE), bitter mixed with sweet was all the rage in European high society beverages. So if you wanted something to truly impress people who were already hungry for bitterness, nothing could beat wormwood.
BLENDING IT ALL TOGETHER
Like vermouth itself, the story of how this beverage came to its modern incarnation of fortified wine, wormwood, and 30- 50 botanicals, is also a blend of circumstances. The concept of infusing wine with herbs, and infusing wine with wormwood has existed independently for thousands of years, but there is, surprisingly, one person who brought them all together. Meet Antonio Benedetto Carpano, of Turin, Italy, in 1786. He is known as the father of vermouth as we know it, thanks to two interesting coincidences of history.
One being the new access to affordable spices in the 1780s. With the expansion of sea travel, Europeans no longer had to do deals along trade routes for goods from Asia and the Middle East, they could sail there themselves. This drove down the cost of herbs and spices giving Carpano a lot to play with at a low cost. This also made it possible for him to create a recipe that was affordable to everyone. Vermouth could now be commercialized for the first time, which was such an enormous success, it caused his wine shop to stay open 24 hours a day.
The second coincidence was a sudden interest in Italy to begin studying their own history. Through this process of uncovering ancient texts, some of the earliest recorded beverage recipes were being brought back into fashion. And on this wave rode wormwood, a once popular herb in drinks for medicinal purposes, that had fallen into obscurity in between. Now, Carpano had the ultimate bitter herb to make his aromatized wine complete.
Comoz Blanc Vermouth de Chambery
FRANCE, Savoie, Chambery
The region of Chambery is located in the French Alps on the border of Italy and Switzerland. Vermouth from the Chambery region tends to have a clean, light and floral style. They are less sweet and a little more bitter. One of the most widely grown grapes in this region is a white grape called Jacquère, and it is most likely the base wine for Comoz. Wines from this varietal tend to be light, dry, crisp with flavors of alpine herbs and subtle citrus.
Comoz was established in 1856 by Jean-Pierre Comoz and became the second vermouthier of Chambery after Dolin (est. 1821). White vermouth, at the time, was known as Pale Vermouth. In 1881 the Comoz house changed its production process and instead of making a pale vermouth, they created a new category altogether: Vermouth Blanc. The distinctive element was that Comoz now made a clear vermouth rather than the pale straw colored option that was typical up to this point. Jean-Pierre's son, Claudius, was constant in his promotion of their newfound style, and commissioned several different posters in order to promote it (one of which is featured on this bottle). Even the curation of wines, plants and fruits used in this vermouth, many of which come from the hills above Chambery, were because of Claudius.
Comoz remained in the family hands until 1981, after which its doors closed. But it left a strong impression on vermouth history, known for being the first Blanc vermouth, and also being the signature vermouth in the El Presidente cocktail published in 1915. This is because, for a time, it was the only vermouth sold in Cuba, where the cocktail was created. Later, Maison Dolin revived the Comoz house, acquiring the recipe and putting things back into production.
Partida Creus, MUZ Vermouth Rojo 2020
SPAIN, Catalunya, Penedes, Massis de Bonastre
In Spain we often find vermouths that make you feel like you're at the party with your favorite friends. This expression from Partida Creus fits that scene perfectly. Made by two former architects, Massimo Marchiori & Antonella Gerosa, this MUZ Rojo is made with a mix of 2 red wines (1 young, 1 barrel aged) and an oxidized white wine, along with an herbal mixture from Torino in Italy. (Supposedly the herbalist's great-grandfather is Mr. Carpano himself of great Italian vermouth fame!) They've chosen not to fortify this wine, allowing the acidity of the wines to carry the aromatics of the herbs and spices.
This is also a Natural vermouth, meaning the producers have chosen to work without chemical additives of any kind, including sulfur. Because of that, this vermouth should be kept in the fridge once opened, and consumed within a week or two.
Most of the vineyards that were utilized for this bottle had been abandoned and neglected. Massimo and Antonella, when discovering the beauty of where they lived, would see an abandoned vineyard while driving and then attempt to find the owner and either purchase the vineyard, or agree to tend to it organically. The majority of the vines are over 60 years old and producing nicely concentrated fruit.
The actual recipe for the MUZ is a closely guarded secret. This is typical of vermouth producers to not reveal what makes the magic happen. We do know that the grape varieties used change year to year based on the flavor profile that Massimo is trying to create. We also know they are working with several different varieties, including the following: Sumoll, Bobal, Garnacha Blanca, Macabeo, Moscatell, Vinyater, Garrut, and Trepat. And that herb mixture from Torino, Italy is macerated in alcohol for 2 months and then the liquor is blended with the base wine, along with a small addition of sugar.
HERBS & SPICES
commonly used in vermouth
Our aim is to give a glimpse into the many roles wine has played throughout history. All subjects mentioned deserve more attention and research and we encourage you to keep exploring. We are only here to pop the cork.
Many Thanks, Caravan Wine Shop
Flower Prints and Photographs all by Mika Becker