Vermouth by the Map: Exploring Regional Styles
Even for the vermouth aficionado, making sense of specific regional styles can be complex. "Categorizing vermouth only gets you so far," explains Martin Doudoroff, creator of the Vermouth 101 website. "These things have always been intensely proprietary, and that has worked against the understanding of it," he says.
Making matters more tricky, today's segmented vermouth categorization was all done after the fact, rather than put into place by groups of regional practitioners centuries ago. "There certainly are some categories, but they're largely retroactively derived," says Doudoroff. "You can point to some exceptions, like for a while, Vermouth di Torino was a heavily controlled, local specialty."
Otherwise though, categories exist more as a means of modern description than original evolution of a particular style. Still, they serve their purpose and it's important to explore them in more detail.
Vermouth di Torino
"Vermouth di Torino would be this rich, sweet vermouth made with wine from the Piedmont (Piemonte) region," says Doudoroff. "It's an approximation of what vermouth began as in the late 18th century perhaps, although the prehistory of vermouth is a bit more complicated ... it probably came from Germany and other places originally, although in a somewhat different form."
Vermouths that are casually lumped together with vague terms such as "sweet" or "red" all likely have their origins here. "In theory all of our Italian red vermouths are more or less inspired by or are members of that class. They are the boldest, richest, darkest in general, often sweetest and most bitter." With vermouth, sweetness and bitterness rise in tandem, balancing each other.
Vermouth di Torino then can be broken down into additional categories as well, such as Vermouth Amaro and Vermouth Alla Vaniglia. "They include things like Punt e Mes, which would be a subgenre of the local tradition," says Doudoroff. Cafes began creating bespoke flavors of vermouth, some of which then became distributed retail products.
Italian bianco and dry vermouths came later, and without the sense of true local tradition. "These are absolutely things that they adopted in response to market change and competition," says Doudoroff. "Their bianco is a response to Chambéry ... the same thing with dry vermouth, they wanted to compete with Noilly Prat, which was phenomenally successful in the export market, so they made their own dry vermouth.
Vermouth de Chambéry
Further complicating regional characterization is that certain key regions are based predominantly on a single brand. "Chambéry is basically a one brand region," says Francois Monti, author of “El Gran Libro del Vermut,” a definitive and exhaustive book on the subject of vermouth (which is sadly not available in English). "Chambéry vermouth is going to be Dolin, and Dolin is going to be Chambéry vermouth. It's difficult because we don't really have anything to compare with anything else."
Monti notes that there is a second Chambéry brand available now, though, and that a century ago, there may have been a dozen. Still, today Chambéry and Dolin are joined at the hip and define one another.
Dolin is also said to have been the first commercialized Blanc vermouth. "The Blanc is still for me the gold standard in terms of Blanc," says Monti. "It's going to be more citrus forward, floral, very fresh and bright."
As for the rest of the Dolin range, "the dry is going to be much lighter than Noilly Prat, quite discreet," says Monti. "And the sweet vermouth is actually quite light compared to the Italian products."
Vermut de Reus
Vermouth production in Spain dates back to the Perucchi brand, which is still produced today. "It came over from Italy in the 1860s," explains Monti. "They decided for whatever reason it would be an interesting place to try and start to make vermouth with local wines."
The heart of vermouth in Spain is the city of Reus in Catalonia, located about 90 minutes south of Barcelona. "The mainstream Spanish style is coming from the city of Reus," says Monti. "There are three big producers who probably produce about 80% of Spanish vermouth at the very least. Those guys are more or less doing stuff the same way."
The three major producers of Spanish vermouth are Yzaguirre, who also produces many other labels such as supermarket brands, Miro and Muller, whose chief label is Iris. As for different styles of Spanish vermouth, beyond Reus, things open up. "Once you take your car and move 20 kilometers out of Reus then you have local properties who may do something very different or very strange," says Monti. For instance, he points to Andalusia, where sherry wine is used as a base for vermouths.
Crucial to understanding Spanish vermouth is how it's consumed. "Spain is very different because of the way we consume vermouth," says Monti. "Because most of the vermouth brands have been developed around cocktails. That is not the case in Spain ... when the industry was born, it was drank on its own. Cocktails came in later."
Therefore, as opposed to producing something predominantly deployed in tandem with other flavors in a cocktail, Spanish vermouth developed to be enjoyed on its own. "It makes the approach of the producer quite different," says Monti.
Further, Monti points out a difference in emerging brands in areas such as Italy versus those in Spain. "If we talk about Italy, they're all about going back to what was the essence of their vermouths years ago," he says. "They're really about, we're going to turn our back on the vermouths the big brands have put out, and return to old formulas, bolder flavors, and are all about staying on the traditional side."
In Spain though, they're looking to explore new paths. "They are trying to put their own spin, and are trying to be modern about it," says Monti. "So they are going to play with the grape, they're going to try to introduce a new source of uncommon botanicals and things like that, so it's quite different."
Marseilles, even more so than Chambéry, is all about a single brand. "Marseilles, as such a thing exists, is the one and only Noilly Prat," says Monti. "Noilly Prat is pretty unique. The thing is, Noilly Prat really invented the style."
Two centuries later, the originators of dry vermouth are still by and large doing the same thing. "If we compare it to Chambéry, we know that what Noilly Prat is doing today is extremely close to what they were doing two hundred years ago," says Monti. "Probably not the same base wine, but in terms of sugar content, we're still looking at the same process, and the same profile."
In Noilly Prat's case, their production methodology is a key point of differentiation. "Noilly Prat has got that oxidative, very strange process, of having the wines rest outside for a matter of months," Monti says. "No one has ever done that. Everyone has been trying to put a dry vermouth on the market to compete, but no one has ever copied the style of production of Noilly Prat."
New World & Modern
Consider this somewhat of a catchall for vermouths that don't adhere to any traditional style, as well as those that come from a number of new locales, whether it's Australia or the United States.
First though, don't make the mistake of calling American vermouth new. "Vermouth production is not actually new," says Doudoroff. "We're in a very new chapter of it, but we had a big vermouth industry in the early 20th century." He points specifically to Tribuno from Vermouth Industries of America, as well as Gallo.
As far as breaking down American vermouths into sub-genres, that doesn't really work either. "No, there are no categories," says Doudoroff. "Everybody is doing their own thing, which is kind of the way it started out probably ... but things are all over the place. It's such a different world now, people have access to all the different stuff, so they use it."
Doudoroff has another bone to pick with American vermouth. "As far as I'm concerned, almost none of it is vermouth," he says. "Flat out, it's not vermouth. It's labeled vermouth, but it doesn't taste like vermouth, perform like vermouth. It has no ties to vermouth in the traditional form."
The bulk of what's being made in the states today falls into a broader realm, then. "All of these things are aperitif wines, and I don't think that's a four letter word," says Doudoroff. "It's a nice big umbrella under which a lot of things can fit, and I'm all for it. I would be much happier if these things were called aperitif wines as opposed to vermouths."
Either way, perhaps the true key to understanding vermouth is acceptance of the unknown. "The most important thing is to have some sense of what you don't know, as opposed to overvaluing what you think you know," says Doudoroff. "I've been tracking this stuff long enough that I've had to completely jettison all kinds of assumptions and conclusions about the category as more information comes available. So it is a moving target."