How to taste vermouth

Harry Dosanj of Kelowna, British Columbia and his mobile bar

21 January 2021 We're republishing this free as part of our Throwback Thursday series.

11 January 2021 Arnica Rowan encourages us wine lovers to have a go at something stronger, sweeter and flavoured. See also these tasting notes from her and Tam on possibly the biggest collection of vermouths ever assembled.

‘Hi, Harry.’

‘Hi, Arnica. I’m pretty excited about this.’

‘Me too.’

Harry Dosanj and I grinned at each other through the computer screen. Twenty minutes before, I had dropped a dozen plastic-covered wine glasses at his doorstep, and the samples were now covering our respective desks. As a wine consultant and writer, I often taste a dozen wines in a sitting, but not aromatised wines.

It was my first tasting assignment from Jancis, and I wanted to be as thorough as possible.

After carefully considering various wine friends, I had instead invited a local Canadian bartender to Zoom with me through an initial flight of vermouths. Harry, British by birth, has won numerous bartending awards, pioneered Indo-Canadian cocktails at his family’s Poppadoms restaurant, and now makes his own handcrafted drink mixes in his mobile bar based in Kelowna, British Columbia, where the picture above was taken. He has an exceptionally broad, international repertoire of herbs and spices. I imagined tasting through the first 12 vermouths with him would enrich my tasting notes.

The dozen jewel-coloured liquids sparkled in front of us. Harry commented that vermouth often looks more vibrant that non-aromatised wine, and I had to agree. Perhaps it’s the addition of spirits, herbs and spices, or the sugar itself, but one of those three magic ingredients in aromatised wine must enhance the colour in the vermouth. In the box on my desk, the pale yellow citrine, deep golden topaz, bright ruby, and warm brown agate sparkled at me. (Vermouth is also made as a rosé, but alas, no rose quartz in my samples.)

The aromatised wines filled my office with unfamiliar woody, spiced and herbal notes. Vermouth can seem quite foreign to the uninitiated wine lover, with its elevated intensity of unfamiliar smells. Spirits expert Rob McCaughey from WSET Americas suggests that wine lovers approaching vermouth should have a broader set of expectations than for non-aromatised wines. I had also chatted via Zoom with him in his home in North Carolina.

His advice for the uninitiated? ‘Understand that most vermouths have some degree of sugar. This is a very important element to balance the bitterness and acidity. The bitterness from herbs and barks plays the role you are used to from oak or tannins – it creates tension.’

Formal wine and spirits studies like the WSET teach systematic approaches to tasting, detailing options for appearance, nose and palate. Ever the contrarian, vermouth doesn’t fit neatly into tasting grids for either spirits or non-aromatised wines. Its aromas, flavours and mouthfeel don’t fit either mould.

Some vermouths are made from aromatic grapes such as Moscato or Nebbiolo; the primary fruit aromas from these grapes also show up in Italian-style vermouths. Others are inspired by French or Spanish styles and are made from neutral base wine with the dominant aromas coming from the botanicals added to flavour to the wine.

A vermouth can be assessed as a still wine for its sweetness, acid, tannin and alcohol levels. However, the integration of spirit and sweetness is important to assess the quality, just like when methodically tasting a port or other fortified wine. The WSET definition of balance also needs tweaks for vermouth, considering the components of sweetness, bitterness and acid. The WSET spirits assessment, which is more focused on process and texture, is also helpful.

‘When you are determining the quality of vermouth, you also need to assess the cohesion of the ingredients’, explained Rob. ‘Aromatised, fortified wines of quality have strong harmony – the wine, spirits and botanicals become a symphony that is greater than the sum of the parts.’

When Harry and I got down to it, our tasting approach was much more informal than the WSET approach, and very collaborative. Our very first sample was a Canadian vermouth, made from hybrid grapes and traditional vermouth botanicals, including wormwood.

‘It’s so citrusy’, he mumbles with his nose in the glass, ‘but, like in a weird way. It smells salty.’

‘I know – it reminds me of a household cleaner. Someone who is afraid of chemicals has made it up to polish the furniture.’ I gingerly taste the viscous liquid – and encounter an entirely pleasant meld of lively green herbs, bright lemon, and some woody base notes. It’s delightful.

‘What’s that green stuff?’ I asked Harry while I scribbled my notes. The vermouth’s flavours were really pushing me to think way beyond typical wine descriptors.

‘I think some green olives … and something shrubby.’ 

I racked my brain. ‘Boxwood!’ I exclaimed, pleased with myself.

‘What’s that?’ He inquired, with a quizzical grin.

‘It’s the little tree you use to make hedgerows. You know, the short, jolly one.’

Depending on the style, vermouths can be aromatised with between a handful and a basketful of seeds, barks, leaves, bark, berries and citrus. The recipes are, or at least should be, carefully balanced to provide harmonious multilayered flavours and aromas. Typically the older the recipe is, the less discernible the elements are. What you experience in the glass might be the actual spice or herb added to the wine, such as vanilla or citrus peel, but it’s just as likely to be a cumulative expression of the producer’s herbal concoction. Perhaps more than with non-aromatised wines, you taste vermouth based on your memories and experiences, not what is literally in the glass. 

Harry traipses into the woods several times a year, picking berries and plants to make his own drink syrups and bitters. My husband is a veterinary herbalist, and for years I’ve been mixing up his natural remedies. As we tasted through the vermouths, Harry and I repeatedly drew on our wildcrafting experiences to explain the curious flavours we were encountering. My eventual tasting notes include references to rose hips, willow bark, white cardamom and other atypical aromas. 

When I assessed the vermouths, I thought about balance, integration. Another WSET quality factor, complexity, is not relevant to aromatised wines to my mind. A producer can add as many herbs as they like to a vermouth.

It seems to me that the other important element to judging the quality of a vermouth is intent. The fruit character from the base wine, the bitter and aromatic herbal additions and the source of sweetness should paint a specific, cohesive picture. Harry and I tasted a quinquina red wine with quinine and honey called the Esquimalt Kina-Rouge that gave us both the distinct impression of eating a blueberry pie. This relatively simple, but focused, aromatised wine was one of our favourites.

From a bartender’s perspective, vermouth also gets brownie points for flexibility. The more ways it can be presented to a patron, the more likely it is to be served and enjoyed.

Dawn Davies MW echoed Harry’s sentiment from across the pond. As head buyer for Speciality Drinks, the parent company of The Whisky Exchange, she straddles the worlds of spirits and wine, and is just as excited as Rob about vermouth’s reintroduction to the wine world.

Some vermouths can be explored neat – a cooled, straight pour into a wine glass. Depending on concentration, others shine as part of a cocktail. This flexibility is appealing to young, adventuresome crossover drinkers, and The Whisky Exchange’s vermouth sales have doubled since lockdown.

‘People have a lot more confidence making drinks at home’, Dawn explained from her London office on our Zoom call. ‘Two of our top-ten sellers were vermouths during the initial lockdown – Martini Rosso and Cocchi Vermouth di Torino – that’s a lot of people making negronis.’

For wine lovers eager to explore the world of vermouth, Dawn suggested a simple experiment: first sip a cooled bianco vermouth neat, then add a little soda water and give it another taste, and finally mix it with a tonic. ‘You’ll find which concentration you enjoy for that particular vermouth.’

However you drink vermouth, be sure to put it in the fridge afterwards. ‘Its not a spirit, its an aromatised, fortified wine’, cautioned Dawn. ‘If you go to a bar and would like to try a vermouth, ask how long the bottle has been opened. If the bartender doesn’t know, or they pulled it off the shelf instead of out of the fridge, run the other way.’

Rob agreed that vermouth’s previously dubious reputation was due as much to poor storage as poor product. ‘I don’t remember the first time I tasted vermouth, but I do remember the first time I tasted fresh vermouth’, he laughed, ‘not some dusty bottle from the back of the bar. It was in a 50:50 martini, at The Savoy in London, and it blew my mind.’

I related to his comment; my experience in Piedmont sampling craft Chinati Vergano was a game changer. My wine repertoire immediately expanded to include a new category: aromatised wine. I’m hoping this article will encourage more of my fellow wine lovers to expand their palates and give fresh, craft vermouth a try.

And for those who don’t love wine as we do, they might already be falling in love with vermouth. Modern bartenders across the world are driving the growth of craft beverages. Mixed, neat – they are finding ways to introduce aromatised wine to an audience that doesn’t identify as wine drinkers. In fact, both Dawn and Rob mentioned that vermouth can be a bridge from the burgeoning spirits world, back into the shrinking wine world.

My bartender and co-taster Harry agreed with them. As I scribbled my tasting notes, he was dreaming up cocktail recipes out loud: ‘My patrons are going to love some of these. They’ll be so surprised when I tell them it’s wine!’

Over the last few months, I tasted every vermouth I could get my hands on in western Canada, while my talented colleague Tamlyn Currin tasted all the products exclusively available in the UK. See our combined list of tasting notes.