Wednesday 30 May 2012

Vermouth & Fortified Wine Classification

Between travel and my new jobs and projects (including writing for other websites) I've lost a considerable amount of time that I would otherwise have spent writing here on my own site. However, I plan to do a little recap of why I loved my recent Seattle visit so much (including a list of the best bars in town), and I'm also going to do a very short vermouth series. This could otherwise be one post, but I just don't have the time to do it all in one sitting, so I'm going to cut it up.

The inspiration for this is both my very recent purchase of Dolin French vermouth and Cocchi Americano (neither of which are available at all in Canada), and also a few separate discussions and debates I've had with bartenders about the definition of "vermouth." I actually work with a couple bartenders who call Lillet a vermouth, which it is not, so I figure a good and quick way to start is by clarifying some products categories.

To start it all off, vermouth belongs to a large family of drinks called "aperitifs" - alcoholic beverages consumed before a meal to whet the appetite. More specifically, vermouth belongs to the family of drinks called "aperitif wines," and for more clarification, "aromatized wines." These are wines that have been macerated/steeped/infused with botanicals of some sort to impart both flavour and colour. This includes vermouths, quinqiunas, americanos, barolo chinatos, and vino amari.

Fortification is also an important aspect of vermouth and many aperitifs and wines, and splits the family of aperitif wines and aromatized wines into further separate categories. To "fortify" a wine, a spirit - usually brandy - is added to the wine at some point during the production process. This not only increases the alcohol content, but in many cases will also cease the fermentation early, leading to higher sugar content in the product. Fortified but not aromatized wines include Sherry, Port, Madeira, and Pineau Des Charentes. Some wines are first fortified then aromatized, such as the aforementioned vermouth, americano, and quinquina. Typically they begin as a white wine or a mistelle, which is when a spirit is added to crushed grapes to produce alcohol rather than using fermentation, that are then either fortified and/or aromatized, and in the case of red aperitifs (such as sweet vermouth) are usually coloured with caramel.

To come back to my debate about Lillet, a further classification of fortified, aromatized wines is the herbs included in the aromatization process. Traditionally vermouth contained wormwood ("vermut" actually means wormwood in German), quinquina contained quinine (ex. Kina Lillet - the original Lillet), and americano contained gentian and wormwood. Over the last 150 years, these definitions and guidelines have blurred, particularly because there are no strict laws governing what can be labelled "vermouth," and so on (at least outside of Europe), so things have gotten quite confusing. Lillet contains no bittering agents, so therefore is not considered any of vermouth, americano, or quinquina by traditional standards, so how do we define it?
Well, it is a blend of Bordeaux wines that has been fortified with citrus liqueurs, but has it been aromatized?
The liqueurs have, so that's up for debate if this counts as actual aromatization.
Does it contain wormwood, gentian, or quinine?
No, no, and supposedly just a little bit. Kina Lillet, the original Lillet whose recipe has been recreated by Cocchi Americano, contained a fair amount of cinchona bark - a source of quinine - but modern Lillet has reduced this to almost nothing. This means that, if anything, Lillet is a quinquina, which is a type of fortified, aromatized wine, but the new recipe, which was redesigned in the 1980's, leaves it somewhat of its own category next to vermouth under fortified wines.

The true bottom lines are just taste and how to use the product in a cocktail, and while Lillet can be used in a vermouth style in a cocktail, it will dramatically change the balance, whereas using Dolin instead of Noilly Prat, or Vya instead of Cinzano will make the drink taste better, but won't disrupt the overall balance. Even using Cocchi Americano, which is fuller and more bitter, won't work the same as just using a dry vermouth, which should hopefully give you pause when trying to substitute one type of fortified wine (in this case quinquina) for another (vermouth).

I'd like to go through the general history of vermouth next time, list the types and their geographical homelands, and then do the same for americano and quinquina. It might also round everything out to briefly go through non-aromatized fortified wines (sherry, port, etc).

Be sure to check out this post on vermouth
and this one on quinquinas and americanos

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