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Natural Wine Sets Its Sights on Vermouth

April 21, 2022

Story: Jordan Michelman

photo: Lizzie Munro

Wine

Natural Wine Sets Its Sights on Vermouth

April 21, 2022

Story: Jordan Michelman

photo: Lizzie Munro

Winemakers are demonstrating that vermouth can be just as variable and expressive of place as wine itself.

Much of progressive wine today revolves around a sort of zero-zero ascetic purity test, a contest of sorts to see who can be the best by doing the very least. To some, it’s a new and vibrant way of drinking; for many others, the zero-zero moment feels like the very apotheosis of regrettable millennial minimalism. 

It should come as no surprise, then, that within the heart of certain natural winemakers there lurks a different impulse: endeavoring to embrace maximalism by way of vermouth, a wine that is both fortified and aromatized. The vermouths of Partida Creus and Laureano Serres in Spain, as well as Dan Petroski, Steve Matthiasson and Kelley Fox out on the U.S. West Coast, to name just a few, are redefining the category and challenging its historic reliance on standardization.

“I had always wanted to make vermouth,” recalls Steve Matthiasson, of the eponymous winery he runs with his wife, Jill Klein Matthiasson. “We wanted to do it even before we started Matthiasson, back in the ’90s [when it was] a radical idea that vermouth could be a farm-to-table beverage.”

He arrived at his own moment for vermouth-making by accident. In 2011, with Matthiasson’s reputation and sales figures on the rise, Steve and Jill found themselves in a situation involving a dessert wine. “We had this wine that had fermented all the way to 16 percent [ABV],” Matthiasson recalls. “It was out of balance but it was fantastic.” A friend suggested it might make for a keen vermouth base. “Holy shit!” he remembers. “I’d wanted to do this for 15 years!”

The Matthiasson vermouth is made almost entirely from botanicals grown on the couple’s working farm in southern Napa, including oranges, sour cherries, cardoons for bittering and homegrown wormwood. The base wine is made from flora (a hybrid of gewürztraminer and semillón bred intentionally for California vineyards), aged via a solera system dating to 2016, with no SO2 added. The spirit used to fortify the vermouth is purchased from other winemakers in Napa who remove alcohol from their wines via reverse osmosis; it is a byproduct that would otherwise be discarded. 

“When we do wine dinners, we serve it with the dessert course,” Matthiasson tells me. Tasted blind, I might guess it was some gnarled dessert wine, a Sauternes gone troppo, perhaps, or a beerenauslese on LSD. “It works great in cocktails as well,” he adds, “particularly [in] a Blood and Sand, thanks to the vermouth’s sour cherry and orange notes.” 

Just up the road, in St. Helena, Dan Petroski of Massican has been making vintage-dated vermouths since 2015. Petroski’s bottlings are inspired by Italian vermouth drinking culture and built for the bar, Martinis in particular, including Petroski’s favorite variation on the classic, the Gin & It. “The No. 1 thing we do better than the big producers is that we use better ingredients,” says Petroski. He bases both his white and red vermouths on tocai friulano before blending with other grapes from the Massican stable. He then infuses just a few ingredients into the vermouths, including orange peel, coriander, nutmeg and quassia bark; no wormwood is used. The wines spend time in French oak barrels, with just a touch of added sugar to complete the blend. Finally, the base spirit he uses to fortify is made from unused wine that he sends to be distilled at the progressive St. George Spirits in the Bay Area. “I make a vermouth that is really vinous in color and texture,” says Petroski, “but with a classic sort of vermouth essence. I want it to be clean and bright and linear, because that’s what you want in a cocktail.”

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In Oregon, a similar attempt to make “vinous” (i.e., very winelike) vermouth is also growing. Graham Markel, of Buona Notte Wines, has offered a vermouth from the very beginning of his label, which launched in 2017. His current bottling makes use of pinot noir from the Willamette Valley as its base, resulting in a dark, luscious rosso. Similarly, winemaker Kelley Fox—whose 2020 vermouth is “redemptive of the vintage,” which was plagued by wind, fires and smoke—makes her rosso entirely from Willamette Valley pinot, including the base distillate. It, too, is a lustrous rosso that plays especially well in a Negroni, but it’s also a symbol of the wider possibilities of vermouth as a node of sustainability for creative winemakers. 

“Vermouth is a great opportunity to use wines that didn’t quite work out as planned,” says Markel. “You can really take something that wasn’t perfect and make it into something delicious.” 

It’s useful to contrast the big business of vermouth with the comparatively tiny efforts of these winemakers. As cocktail culture took root in the late 19th century, several major brands came to dominate the market share, including Dolin, Carpano, Cinzano and Martini & Rossi. These winemaker vermouths are comparatively microscopic: Markel produces just 75 cases of his Oregon vermouth a year, and Matthiasson, a mere 300 cases of half-bottles annually.

This tiny footprint leads us back to the natural wine bar, where small-production auteur winemaking reigns supreme. Minimal intervention dogma might seem to exclude vermouth—what is it, if not a manipulated wine?—but it was at a natural wine shop, Ruby Wine, on San Francisco’s Potrero Hill, to be specific, that I first discovered Laureano Serres’ red vermouth based on multiple varieties of garnatxa (old Catalan for garnacha), Verre Moose. Then-staffer Kara Fowler sums up its appeal well: “The Verre Moose doesn’t taste like ‘vermut’ that you drink on a plaza on a Sunday around noon,” she says. “It’s highly aromatic, quite heady, kind of inky as well.”  

Verre Moose led me to two other Catalonian vermouths: MUZ, from natural wine darling Partida Creus—an organic vermouth built on both red and oxidized white wines, alongside an ancient herbal recipe sourced from one of the original Carpano family descendants—and Més Que Vi, from winemaker Pep Torres of Casa Pardet, which is built on cabernet sauvignon and trepat alongside more than 80 herbs and botanicals. Like the Verre Moose, both are idiosyncratic in a way that begs to be sipped solo from a wine glass—neat. After all, part of the allure of these bottlings is that they remind the drinker that vermouth is indeed wine. 

Winemaker Vermouths To Try

Matthiasson Vermouth #5

Built on flora, a rare hybrid grape, and made from a solera system that dates back to 2016, Matthiasson #5 is as sweet and complex as any fortified wine made in the world today. It screams to appear neat during dessert, though it could happily be used to make a wildly complex Blood and Sand or used sparingly in a Martinez.

  • Price: $45
  • ABV: 17%

Massican Dry White Vermouth 2018

Think of this as a logical conclusion to winemaker Dan Petroski’s quest, in which a Napa vermouth might meet—and exceed—the unchallenged cocktail realm of French vermouth de Chambéry. It’s great in a basic Martini build, but even better when you up the ratio and allow the vermouth to shine, or blend it into your own house vermouth mélange.

  • Price: $25
  • ABV: 16%

Wild Arc Farm Vermouth

This vermouth, from Hudson Valley natural winemakers Wild Arc Farm, is built on riesling and traminette infused with botanicals grown on Wild Arc’s own property (“like taking a walk through our gardens”). It is natural vermouth for natural wine lovers, no doubt, and ready-set to overpower most traditional cocktail recipes. Drink it instead with an ice cube and a splash of seltzer.

  • Price: $30
  • ABV: 17%

Buona Notte Tramonto

Graham Markel’s vermouth is a tiny triumph: inky, weighty, indulgent, with a particularly piquant mouthfeel and an herbal note reminiscent of chamomile tea. Every bit as much a wine as it is a vermouth, I tried rinsing my Martini glass with a splash of this before proceeding with a 50/50 build using the aforementioned Massican, and it was as though someone had turned up the mid-level EQ on my taste buds’ hi-fi. Otherwise, drink it straight at the end of the night, like you would enjoy a Sleepytime Tea.

  • Price: $24
  • ABV: 17%

Channing Daughters VerVino

This is a broad, ever-changing project from Channing Daughters, the pride of Long Island’s winemaking revival. Every batch of VerVino is markedly different, and should be explored at will; I tried several for this article, and my favorite was the Variation 2 Batch #4, a dry vermouth made using Long Island botanicals and local honey. Give me a half-glass of this on a hot summer day in a goblet filled up with pebble ice, and a nice long straw for sipping.

  • Price: $28
  • ABV: 17.8%

Kelley Fox Wines 2020 Vermouth

Kelley Fox’s Oregon vermouth, made in collaboration with Stephanie Sprinkle and Lynsee Sardell, is a wholly unique product built on 35 Oregon plants and herbs. It’s sweet like the vermouths of Piedmont, but with an avowed pinot noir featherweight construction, aided along by time spent in French oak barrels. If they made vermouth in Burgundy it might taste like this, but we’re in Oregon, and there’s nothing else quite like it.

  • Price: $66
  • ABV: 15.5%

Partida Creus MUZ

This is a party-ready natural winemaker vermouth from Barcelona, ready to make your urban natural wine bar go all the way off. Serve it with rocks, orange peel, olives and a splash of olive juice, and drink at least three of them per person—four if you’re the DJ. Or, treat it like a wine and serve it neat in your best stemware.

  • Price: $26
  • ABV: 13%

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