Vermouth makes a major comeback in Spain
By Isabelle Escande - Photographs: courtesy of the estates, posted on 12 December 2022
“Fem un vermut?” In Catalonia, an invitation to “have a vermouth” has a much broader meaning than simply the drink itself. That’s because vermouth time is an almost sacred ritual where friends gather around a glass of vermouth (or other drinks depending on everyone’s tastes), before lunch, with crisps and a few olives. The atmosphere is one of casual engagement, shared by everyone, young and old.
It has to be said that since it was introduced in the 19th century, vermouth has always been a staple of bars across Spain. Invented in the Turin region of Italy, and initially sold as a medicinal drink, it is named after one of the plants that gives it its typical bitter flavour – Artemisia (wormwood) aka ‘wermut’ in German. Vermouth is, more often than not, a white, fairly neutral wine fortified with spirits and infused with a wide variety of herbs, roots and spices – such as Artemisia, oregano, orange peel, chamomile, cinnamon and vanilla – that give it its warm, aromatic feel.
All of this makes it an obvious favourite with bartenders. With its wonderfully complex flavours and bitter yet sweet style, it would soon become their go-to choice. Vermouth-based cocktails flourished, including the Manhattan, Negroni and Americano, opening many doors for Spanish bodegas which now export across the globe to countries like Germany, Chile, Switzerland, the United States, Canada, Australia and Cameroon. The bodegas have developed a long, varied list of customers.
But the mixology boom that has swept across the bar world over the past few years – taking vermouth with it – has not just opened up markets internationally for Spanish firms. It has transformed consumption of vermouth in Spain itself. Although it never disappeared from the bar scene, it did become a little dated. Now, though, it has made a major comeback and has been given its own special occasion referred to above. Cultural events where vermouth now takes pride of place are legion and festivals with no vermouth concert are few and far between.
A modern twist
Although deeply entrenched in Spanish social life, the way vermouth is now enjoyed has changed and is slightly more sophisticated than it once was. It is still drunk neat, occasionally with a dash of sparkling water from a soda siphon, but is now served on large ice cubes with a slice of orange and an olive. The influence of the mixology trend has given it a new twist. Also, it has gradually made its way onto the tables of acclaimed restaurants. “The public is increasingly willing to try vermouth and food pairings”, explains Louise Jorgensen from Bodega Padró & Co
Although the success of mixology partly explains vermouth’s present-day popularity, another important factor is the engagement by younger generations who have embraced a drink associated with their grandparents. Its artisanal production techniques meet their standards and their taste for sensitively produced beverages using entirely natural ingredients. Young consumers also have a penchant for lower alcohol appetisers, and with an ABV ranging from 14.5 to 22%, vermouth fits the bill. But it’s probably vermouth’s creative side that has drawn in new consumers keen to indulge their love of freedom and inventiveness. Vermouth is inherently an exercise in style with only vaguely defined rules. Each bodega has its own recipe which is a closely guarded secret. From the choice of aromatic plants to the base wine or maturation techniques, each has its own formula based on its history and preferences. Consequently, every vermouth tasting is full of surprises, and our selection illustrates this to perfection!
Padró & Co, keeping it in the family
The starting point for what would become a successful family venture dates back to 1886.
The fifth generation is now at the helm of the winery, which is located near Tarragona. Since 2016, it has been exporting its vermouths to Belgium, Germany, the United States, Canada, Great Britain, Switzerland and, until the beginning of this year, to Russia, says Louise Jorgensen, the winery's export manager.
Mario García, winemaker at Bodega Padró & Co.
The company’s success owes much to the quality of its vermouths. “From the vine through to the bottle, everything is done at the bodega”, explains Jorgensen, giving it control over every stage of production. The vermouths spend lengthy periods maturing in barrels and are made traditionally yet still sport colourful, innovative designs, which act as a magnet for new generations and newbies.
The market has definitely grown in recent years, comments Jorgensen. In some countries, such as Great Britain, vermouth bars have been established, giving consumers access to a wider choice of vermouths, but also to different ways of savouring them. While the connection with mixology is still strong, vermouth is increasingly enjoyed as a stand-alone drink. “But there is still a long way to go to introduce the world to vermouth as it is drunk in Spain”, concludes Jorgensen. The company certainly seems to have a full agenda ahead.
The Padró family has been making wine and vermouth since the 19th century.
De Muller, the authentic Reus vermouth
Although Bodega de Muller was founded in 1999 through the acquisition of a long-standing Reus wine company, the recipe for its vermouth dates back to 1904. Since then it has remained unchanged and is made from a combination of around 150 carefully selected Mediterranean flowers, roots and aromatic plants. “Wormwood is the main ingredient", explains Elisabet Juncosa, the winery’s export manager. All the ingredients are macerated in neutral white wine.
In addition to its vermouths, De Muller also produces a varied range of wines.
Three versions of vermouth are produced. The red is spicier while the white is more lemony and fruity. The ‘reserva’ is matured using the Solera technique in used casks that have previously contained wine. It is drunk on the rocks with a slice of orange (for the red) or lemon (for the white). This is a classic which, down the generations, has always had a following.
“Although international sales have increased since 2008”, recounts Juncosa, “sales have always remained more or less stable in Spain, where the vermouth culture is well-established”. The tradition is now being exported, according to Bodega De Muller, to the United States, Australia, Ecuador and even Cameroon!
Perucchi, the pioneer
“In the mid-19th century, Augustus Perucchi was the first to produce vermouth in Spain”, says the company’s co-owner Alex Soler. Since then, little has changed within the walls of the bodega, which is located in Badalona, not far from Barcelona. Modern labelling and bottling machines have superseded the techniques of yesteryear, but the antique boilers and barrels are still there. Most importantly, the recipe has not changed either. “It is the company’s most highly guarded secret”, quips Soler.
To make the tradition even more relevant, each bottle of Perucchi contains a small percentage of vermouth that is over 150 years old. The company’s hand-crafted vermouths are made from natural ingredients and guaranteed to be preservative and antioxidant-free. More than 50 varieties of herbs, fruits and roots are used for the maceration process. “It's all about balancing these ingredients," explains Soler. The slightest change in proportions would break up the harmony of flavour.
Perucchi was the first vermouth created in Spain in 1876.
Though mindful of tradition, the company also moves with the times and makes a point of using environmentally-friendly materials, particularly its cork stoppers with wooden heads. And as an added guarantee of quality, Perucchi is a purveyor to the Spanish royal family...
Yzaguirre, very popular
Founded in 1884 near Tarragona, Yzaguirre is one of Spain’s oldest companies. It can rightfully claim to produce one of the country’s most widely drunk vermouths. Since its inception, Yzaguirre has stood out for the quality of its drinks, which are entirely crafted by hand based on a recipe that is kept secret.
“Everything is done at the bodega, with each stage of the production process strictly monitored. This starts with the painstaking selection of wines”, points out export area manager Ruben Canalda. Then come the famous blends of plants and spices produced for infusion, and finally barrel maturation.
One of Yzaguirre’s defining features today is its variety of products, from Clásico, Rosé and Dry Reserva to Herbal Vintage, to name a few. There is something for every taste and every occasion, underscoring the fact that vermouth is much more than just an aperitif!
Yzaguirre vermouths are produced traditionally and crafted by hand.
Cooperativa Falset Marçà, combining tradition and modernity
Founded in 1919, the Falset Marca co-operative cannot be missed with its impressive modernist architecture. It is one of the ‘wine cathedrals’ designed by Catalan architect Cèsar Martinell, an admirer of Antoni Gaudí. Since its beginnings, it has established a name for its wines and vermouths.
True to tradition, the co-operative now makes three vermouths whose century-old recipe has been passed down through generations of the bodega's winemakers. “They stem from a skilful fusion of elements”, explains Núria Vilanova, the co-operative's communications manager. “A flavourful bitter touch in good wine”, produced by infusing more than one hundred and twenty aromatic plants, all from the region.
These are all carefully matured, particularly the Vermut Reserva, which is aged for two years in large, century-old barrels and a further three years in French oak, so that its aromas of thyme, rosemary and green walnuts develop into notes of coffee, vanilla and tobacco. “This is a complex pour, best enjoyed on its own, with a few ice cubes”, recommends Vilanova.
Dubbed ‘the wine cathedral’, the Falset Marca co-operative is located in Falset, the capital of Priorat.
Bodegas Nodus, the Mediterranean touch
With its 540 hectares of vines and woodland located in one of the top areas in the Utiel-Requena appellation (Valencia), Bodega Nodus only began making vermouth five years ago, with a focus on creating a different type of vermouth with distinctive freshness and a Mediterranean accent.
Two native grape varieties, obviously grown on the estate, were used to produce the new drink. These are Macabeu for the white vermouth and Bobal for the red iteration, which lends the nose aromas of Mediterranean herbs, citrus fruits, cloves and cardamom.
Bodegas Nodus produces its vermouths from its own wines made from native grape varieties.
“These aromatic plants are absolutely key to producing a good vermouth”, claims Marisa Donnan of Bodega Nodus. They have to be natural, more often than not dried, and can under no circumstances be replaced by artificial ingredients. “Otherwise, the vermouth would lose its aroma the minute it is served”, she adds. The complexity of the nose aromas is designed to carry through to the palate, with impeccably balanced bitterness and sweetness. The Bodega’s Descaro vermouth certainly ticks all the boxes!
Adolfo de las Heras Polo succeeded his father at the helm of Bodegas Nodus.
Ángela Pardo, the winemaker at Bodegas Nodus.
Martínez Lacuesta, novel maturation techniques
Renowned Rioja bodega, Martínez Lacuesta was established in 1895, but only began producing vermouth in 1937. And it has never looked back. Although it has held onto its original recipe and artisanal production methods, it has constantly tested new maturation combinations, using different wood casks, toasts and lengths of maturation. That’s what comes of being based in Rioja…
Historic Rioja Bodega Martínez Lacuesta.
Family-run since the outset, the company now markets its drinks in Spain, but also in the United States – its main import country – Australia, South Africa and Canada, explains Virginia Ibáñez, adding “mixology accounts for 90% of consumption abroad. Our main challenge is to demonstrate vermouth’s potential as a stand-alone appetiser and not as a cocktail ingredient”.
The Bodega makes a point of constantly innovating, taking consumers by surprise and hitting the right note. It has certainly succeeded, with its barrel maturation and more recently its Extra Dry, a version with very little sweetness that aligns well with the latest consumer trends.
The company's winemaker Álvaro Martínez del Catillo
Altanza, when vermouth rhymes with Rioja and Jerez
Located in the heart of Rioja Alta, Bodega Altanza made a lasting impression on the history of modern-day Spanish vermouth four years ago by launching a range of vermouths made from quality sherries in conjunction with the largest sherry collector in the world. The releases were an instant success and the idea has since been replicated by other wineries.
Carlos Ferreiro, the winemaker at Altanza.
The company’s Amillo vermouth comes in two versions made from a selection of sherries, olorosos and Pedro Jimenez. After blending, thirty or so aromatic plants, roots and flowers macerate in them. Slightly more herbaceous with a trace of sourness, the Reserva Especial matures for 14 months in French oak casks.
Crafted with the utmost care, both Altanza labels have established a pedigree for sherry vermouths. “And that touch of sophistication is exactly what the younger generations like”, explains the winery’s Stephanie Abel Guardia. They show an interest in drinks that require a lot of attention during the production process and appreciate the kind of alchemy needed to craft vermouth. The countless commercially available mixology kits are a testament to this fascination. Vermouth now is synonymous with craftsmanship, rich aromatics and a dash of magic!
Located in Rioja Alta, Altanza stems from a shared dream of producing top quality wines.
Bodegas Alvear, an impressive Andalusian version
We now head for Andalusia, to the heart of the Montilla-Moriles appellation area. Founded in 1729, Alvear is now the region’s oldest, but also its most highly renowned winery. Down through the years, it has successfully proven what a versatile grape Pedro Ximenez – the king of local grape varieties – can be through a very varied range of wines, including Fino, Oloroso and dry white, to name a few.
“At the end of the 19th century, the company began to create a vermouth – obviously from Pedro Ximenez – but it was only in 1955 that it produced the recipe that is used today”, says the winery’s Victor Arroyo.
In 2029, Bodegas Alvear will celebrate its 300th anniversary.
A closely guarded secret, the artisanal recipe is based on Pedro Ximenez Oloroso, painstakingly matured in very old American oak casks then macerated with a range of herbs, plants and spices including wormwood, rosemary, sage, sweet cinnamon and orange peel. And to provide its final softness, fresh and elegant Pedro Ximenez is added. It’s that Andalusian touch that makes all the difference!
Fernando Giménez Alvear, huitième génération de la famille Alvear, est aujourd’hui le CEO de la bodega.
Gordonzello, a promising start
Now we come to the youngest vermouth in our selection. Just an infant, the vermouth by Bodegas Gordonzello, dubbed Pelirrojo, was presented this year. But it has already attracted attention with its innovative, laid-back look – a show-stopping red bottle with its slightly roguish label.
Founded in 1995 by 101 winegrowers determined to give their old vines in Gordoncillo (León) a second chance and resurrect the local wine industry – that was in dire need of aid at the time – the winery has never been afraid of a challenge. Its young head winemaker Sergio Paniagua, who has only just turned 27, would certainly have to agree.
Once again, the winery has proven this with its new-generation vermouth that is bound to appeal to a wide audience. The single varietal Verdejo vermouth – from the winery’s own vineyards, of course – is made from white wine macerated with around fifteen aromatic plants. This delicious pour provides further illustration of the fact that vermouth has a very bright future ahead.
Sergio Paniagua, the young Gordonzello winemaker.
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