Back to the Future… Again
Aperitifs & Aromatized Wines
It was a perfect storm of sorts: as Americans were becoming increasingly interested and savvier about wine/food/restaurants/ingredients the craft spirits/craft cocktail boom was beginning… at first by all those Brooklyn hipsters and the San Francisco foodie crowd. But it was quickly and widely embraced by ‘regular’ folks too. As these bearded ‘mixologists’ researched classic cocktails, and sought out unique, high-quality ingredients, their searches led to the rebirth* of sorts of a category that was all but dead in this country: Aromatized Wines.
Aromatized wines include a wide range of products traditionally served as aperitifs and digestives, which we as a nation all but walked away from. Who has time for aperitifs and digestives after all? ‘Gimme my dinner and a bottle of wine, and when it’s finished, we’re finished’ seems to be the mindset as the ‘speed of life’ has gotten faster and faster. And what a miss this is: a proper aperitif stimulates the appetite, typically with acidity or a bitter taste; digestives soothe the stomach and aid in digestion. Hats off to the mixologists that have rediscovered these products and have helped us (some of us anyway) to drink civilly again!
Though this genre can include amari, bitters, and herbal liqueurs, the focus here will be the aforementioned aromatized wines. Technically, these can be grouped with other fortified wines, such as Sherry, Port, and Madeira—they are all wine-based and fortified with neutral spirits, but these aromatized wines are in a world of their own; each distinct to itself (as opposed to 20 year tawny ports for example, all brands of which have a very similar persona). Simply explained, they are wines that are infused with herbs, spices and various botanicals—typically a ‘secret recipe’ for each. They can be sweet or dry, red, white, pink or orange. They are fortified and in some cases aged; they are always ready to drink when released. Alcohol levels are between 15% and 22% (according to EU law). The most famous are mostly from the alpine regions of Italy, France and Switzerland, though there are notable examples from Marseille, Barcelona, Germany, and southern Italy… and now the U.S. as well.
There are three main categories of aromatized wines. First would be Vermouth: this one we are all familiar with, and thanks to the martini, the only category that has always been present to some degree in the U.S. Vermouth comes from the German word vermut—the name for wormwood. All vermouths—sweet and dry, red and white–share wormwood as their main flavoring ingredient. Vermouth de Chambéry is the benchmark for dry vermouth; indeed it has its own A.O.C. (the only vermouth in France that has one). These were the vermouths that were around when the martini was invented—and back then the ratio was 2:1 (gin/vermouth). Vermouth di Torino was the original sweet vermouth, and the counterpart to the Chambéry white—the benchmark for its type, and indeed is the only other vermouth with a protected geographical designation. Today, many companies make ‘red & white’ vermouth, indicating they are interchangeable, and that where they are from matters not, but for the real experience, get the real deal.
The second category of historical importance would be Americano. The term has nothing to do with America or Americans—it is derived from the word americante which means bitter. The main botanical in any product that uses Americano in its name is gentian root, known for millennia to have various medicinal uses, particularly those related to digestive system. It should be noted that aromatized wines came about originally to hide the off-tastes in wine: as wines became oxidized/spoiled, the alcohol was still present (which is what people wanted) so they masked the off tastes with stronger tastes, and usually sweetness too. When wines became more stable, hence didn’t spoil so easily, the medicinal benefits of these elixirs was their raison d’etre, and indeed, many products boasted the benefits on the labels, or in those glorious posters from the first part of the 20th century we so often see and admire; such health claims are illegal today. Mary Poppins said it right: a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down.
The third of the classic categories is Quinquina/Kina/Chinato, which refers to products made from cinchona bark (quinine). The beneficial properties of quinine have also been known for centuries; its name is derived from the Incan word for the tree its bark comes from, for it was in Peru it was first discovered. The products using quinine are perhaps the most varied of all the categories: fiercely bitter to bitter-sweet, various types of wine–and sometimes mistelle—are used for the base. One of the best iterations are those known as Barolo Chinato, made in Piedmont from Barolo DOCG, infused with cinchona and various other ingredients, typically aged in wood (of some sort) for several years. Barolo Chinato was so popular in the first part of the 20th century, there were actually Chinato Bars (Cocchi) all over Italy. Once you taste a great Barolo Chinato, you’ll wish someone would start opening them once again!
Happily, the trade’s embrace of this category has been embraced by our consumers as well; there seems to be a rapidly growing interest in products that were on the fringe so to speak. Sherry is getting red hot, both alone and as an ingredient in cocktails (sherry cobbler anyone?). Madeira sales are through the roof (or should we say through the canteiro). And Port is experiencing new interest of late as well. This is great news for restaurateurs and retailers: all of these products are typically at premium prices and they are usually additional sales, not instead of sales. Jump on the bandwagon and teach your guests to drink civilly…
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NOTE: These are aromatized wines. They become oxidized/spoiled after being open a couple of weeks, just as a bottle of Cabernet or Pinot Noir would. They should always be kept in a refrigerator after opening (white and red products—doesn’t matter), and alas, discarded if not used in a timely manner. Why make a Manhattan with $35 bourbon, only to pour spoiled sweet vermouth into it?
* Much of the credit for this rebirth is the importer Haus Alpenz. They represent many (most) of the leading brands and suppliers of these aromatized wines, as well as a cool and quirky crafty spirits range. Check them out: http://www.alpenz.com/