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    What is Vermouth?

    A classic Martini is two ingredient – gin and vermouth.  Gin I’ve talked about for quite a bit (and still have quite a ways to go), but I have yet to bring up just what in the hell is vermouth?

    The short answer is that it is a wine. A slightly longer answer is that it’s a fortified wine, flavored with anything from wormwood to sugar, and nearly any herb and/or spice you may think of.  In fact, the name “vermouth” is an anglicized derivation of the German word “wermut”, which translates into wormwood. From this, we can hypothesize that wormwood had at least a small chapter in vermouth’s history.

    Way back in 2005, I wrote up a brief history of Vermouth, and I proclaimed:

     Vermouth is an aromatized wine, created at some point in the 1700′s. “Aromatised” means that various additives, such as herbs, flowers and other botanicals, are macerated into the wine to add to the flavor.

    I was wrong. Oh was I wrong.  Or, more to the point,  the history of Vermouth is not the same as the history of aromatised wine.  People have been putting various additives into wine since probably the beginning of wine’s history, and the idea of adding wormwood would not have been that novel of an idea in the 1700′s.

    As with the history of anything alcohol-related, the first place one should look as to why something came into being is its perceived physical benefits.  Vermouth is no different, and the addition of items such as wormwood would have been seen as a quick and easy way to get some medicinal benefit out of the fortified wine.  We see this across the entire history of bitters, cordials, apertifs, and liqueurs, so much so, that a fair number of the older liqueurs out there can trace their heritage to apothecaries rather than distillers.  Vermouth is no different.

    So how was Vermouth made? Interestingly enough, one can get some insight into the process in the Congressional Record of 1889-1890 of all places. In there,  where they report on the Universal Exposition of 1889 held in Paris, they document:

    Various quantities of absinthe, germander, hyssop, sage, centaury, saffron, enule, galauguen, aromatic cane, gentian, benzoin, calisaya, quassia, cinnamon, zedorcia, cloves, coriander, aniseed, mushroom, and orange peel are put into a linen bag and hung in a white wine which is kept at a temperature of about 150 F. for four or five days; The bag is then squeezed into the wine and replaced, and the steeping continued for a month, the bag being squeezed at intervals of five or six days. The vermouth is then filtered and put into casks or bottles for shipment. The various bitters of trade are made much in the same way.

    So, to put it bluntly, Vermouth is flavored wine.

    Today, it has changed a bit from how it was created and sold in the late 1800′s. There are, generally speaking, two types of vermouth recognized: White and dry, or Red and Sweet, with different herbs and spices meant to support whatever outlook one has for their vermouth.  Each producer of vermouth will have a different recipe for their product, and no two vermouths should be considered to have the same flavor profile (and neither should good gins, I’m finding out, but that’s a different post).

    Over the next few months, I’m going to revisit various types of vermouth. I had done a bit of this in 2005, but this taste testing eventually faded away into the background. With my goal of finding the best Martini, my hope is that I will be more driven to complete this task.



    I’m not the first to say it, but –

    Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrive!

    Yeah, I know anyone who’s written anything in the last two weeks about this year’s Beaujolais Nouveau has titled their post Le Beaujolais Nouveau est arrivé! but it’s just so fun to say. (You do it. Put some real guttural hork into the “arrive“… see? Wicked fun.)

    So, for those you who aren’t oenophiles, the third Thursday of November — which was November 16th this year — is la fête du Beaujolais, although here in the US we generally get by with just calling it Beaujolais Day. It’s the first official day Beaujolais Nouveau wine can legally be sold under French law and some people — both French and not (but yeah, mostly the French) — wait all year for this wine to arrive, to drink immediately and/or have with their Thanksgiving dinner.

    However, despite my affection for (and for saying) la fête du Beaujolais, I know pretty much nothing about wine. Like, at all. So, rather than embarrass myself in my first big Accidental Hedonist post by picking some clunker of a wine, I figured I should do some online research.

    I started with the only bit of information I knew already: the #1 selling brand of Beaujolais Nouveau is Georges Duboeuf. So, I started with his Beaujolais Nouveau site.

    First, a quick science lesson, because I’m nerdy and I like science:

    Unlike other wines, Beaujolais Nouveau is made from uncrushed grapes. Instead, they pile all the grapes up and let them ferment in their skins. (The process is known as semi-carbonic maceration. Drop that into your next wine tasting party conversation and you’ll totally get laid.) Some of the grapes at the bottom get crushed a little (hence the semi-), just because they’ve got all the other grapes on top of them, but because most of the grapes aren’t crushed, the wine ends up low in tannins — the stuff that makes your mouth go all puckery — and makes the wine taste fruitier. The downside is, low tannins means it’s not going to age well, so drink it now.

    But how’s it taste? Rather than try to get an assessment of all the various Nouveaus out there, I tracked down what people had to say just about the 2006 Georges Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau.

    Good Wine Under $20 found it had “some soft tannins, with silky strawberry and nutmeg flavors.” PhilaFoodie wrote, “The nose and palate show strawberries, raspberries and cherries” and “has a respectable balance between the fruitiness and the acidity.” And Benito’s Wine Reviews said “we get the classic whiff of bananas on the nose with a little cherry behind it… with characteristic light tannins and a short finish.”

    Uh, that sounds good, right? Not wanting to feel even more intimidated by reading more reviews, I popped open my own bottle (from Cabrini Wines, 831 W181st, NYC) and poured a glass.

    And how did I, an admitted wine dork, find it? Did it live up to all the anticipation? Was it worth making my husband go to three different liquor stores on a Friday night when he could have been home watching Battlestar Galactica?

    Well, it was… okay.

    It was tasty: fruity, which I expected, and it also had some sourish tannins to it, which I didn’t really expect. (Honestly, I still don’t really know if that tannin thing is supposed to be good or bad.) It wasn’t overwhelming; it was kind of a nice balance with the fruity flavor. Overall, it was good. I think.

    Y’know, maybe I like saying Beaujolais Nouveau more than I actually like drinking it.

    To all my wine drinking friends…

    Beer is healthier than wine, says Charles Bamforth, chairman of the food science department at the University of California.

    Dr Bamforth, author of Beer: Health and Nutrition, told delegates that beer also provided a valuable resource of soluble fibre, which aids digestion, and that the active ingredient in alcohol – either from beer or wine – helps to counter blockage of the arteries.

    Presumably he’s talking about moderate consumption on beer. If you drink like a bleacher bum at Wrigley Field, it’s probably not as healthy.

    Technorati Tags: Beer, Health

    What is Marsala Wine

    Marsala Wine

    Marsala wine is a type of wine similar to port or sherry. It is said the a English gentleman by the name of John Woodhouse, who, upon a trading trip in 1773, found himself in Marsala, Sicily and “discovered” the people of the region making the thick wine. The reality is less of a British discovery (who love to take credit for everything discovered in the 18th century), and more of a shared wine making process with folks in Spain and Portugal via the trade routes of the Mediterranean. I have no proof for this, but I’d rather the Sicilians get credit for Marsala than a British trader.

    Woodhouse did recognize the commercial possibilities of the wine, and set up the wine making process and made a fair amount of money importing it into Great Britain.

    For a long while, Marsala was seen in equal light as Sherry and Madeira but something happened along the way (namely shoddy winemaking), and by the mid 20th century the wine was seen more as a cooking wine than a drinking one.

    In 1986, the Italian laws for Marsala production were revised to incorporate stricter regulations similar to those that the Portuguese government instituted for Port and predictably the quality improved and people are drinking the wine as a dessert or aperitif wine.

    Marsala is made the following way:

    First, a keg is put down. Subsequent years with similar tastes are placed in kegs above the first. When liquid is drawn out of the bottom keg, it is refreshed with liquid from the next keg up, and so on. In this manner, the taste remains the same throughout the cycle, and every bottle you get has (potentially) some liquid from the very first vintage.

    I’m presuming the brand you see in the picture above is the mass-produced version of Marsala, and better Marsalas can be had from smaller wineries (and for larger wads of cash).

    Today’s Marsala is made in three different forms:

    • oro (golden)
    • ambra (amber)
    • rubino (ruby)

    All forms come in both sweet and dry types, and various categories determined by age. “Fine” Marsala is aged for a minimum of one year. “Superiore” is aged for a minimum of two years. “Superiore Riserva” (often simply “Riserva”) is a vintage wine aged in wood for four years.
    “Vergine” is aged in wood for a minimum of five years although some firms age it in small oak casks for as long as seven years.

    I’m not overwhelmed (or even whelmed) by the Florio moniker, and I am looking to find a better Winery from which to set my wine baseline. I will most assuredly report my findings.

    Technorati Tags: Drink, Wine, Sicilian Wines

    The History of Absinthe

    “After the first glass, you see things as you wish they were. After the second, you see things as they are not. Finally you see things as they really are, which is the most horrible thing in the world.” – Oscar Wilde

    There is probably no alcoholic beverage so misunderstood, yet so mythologized, as Absinthe. After all Absinthe is, at its core, simply a wormwood based liquor with a high proof of alcohol. Why all the hubub? Certainly the baggage that the drink carries is as impressive as it is misguided, but the real questions to me are:

    - Where did Absinthe come from?
    - Why does Absinthe have the reputation that it does?

    The two questions are inextricably tied together.

    Wormwood infused drinks were hardly a new invention when either Dr. Pierre Oridinaire or the Henroid Sister introduced Absinthe in Couvet Switzerland in 1792. Folks during the Renaissance drank wormwood wine. Samuel Pepys is documented to have imbibed wormwood beer. Pliny the elder noted that Chariot race winners were given drinks laced with wormwood in order to remind the winners that every victory has its bitter side. So when Absinthe was introduced, it wasn’t like wormwood was an unknown entity.

    After the Absinthe took off, especially since being mass produced by Pernod, it was given to French troops in North Africa to help stave off malaria. When the soldiers came home, they looked up the drink in the various salons and cafes that they frequented. From there it jumped to the middle class who further popularized the drink.

    1870 say the start of 30 years of blight on the wine industry of France. The vineyards were devastated by a bug known as Phylloxera attacked the vinyards and devastated the popular industry. Wine became both scarce. When a high demand product becomes scarce, it becomes very expensive. What better to take the place of wine than absinthe? The golden age of Absinthe can be considered to occur between 1870 and 1900.

    Initially, ettiquette required that a person was to have only one drink of Absinthe a day. To have more than one was seen as a bit of a faux pas. But when absinthe jumped from the middle class to the working class, women, and then the Bohemians, all claims to absinthe ettiquette were ignored and then forgotten. When the Aesthetic/Decadence movement adopted the drink as the liquor of choice, public opinion against the drink began to change. As many of the writers associated with the Aesthetic/Decadence movement were influenced by the Gothic period of the early 19th century, many present day “goths” have also adopted the drink and helped revive absinthe’s popularity. But that is a topic for a different post.

    Both the Bohemians and the Aestheticists were the counter-culture of the day. Many of the names surrounding these movements (such as Oscar Wilde, Paul Verlain, Edvard Munch, and Charles-Pierre Baudelaire) partook, not just of Absinthe, but of many unregulated substances, including opium, cocaine and ether. Some not only imbibed these substances, but outright abused them.

    As with any counter-culture, there is societal pushback. One only need to consider the mainstream perception of “hippies” as well as their opinions on marijuana to see the correlation.

    When the wine industry came back from their pox,, they clearly saw Absinthe as a threat to their industry. The winemakers partnered with the temperance movement to prove that absinthe was responisble for turning good people bad, even to the point of insanity. Their arguments were helped along by the public downfalls of noted absinthe drinkers Wilde (absinthe causes homosexuality!) and Verlain (absinthe causes homosexuality and violence!).

    When an alcoholic by the name of Jean Lanfray killed his wife and children and it was discovered that he had drunk absinthe on the day of the murder (ignoring the fact that he had also drunk creme de menthe, seven glasses of wine, cognac, brandy and another liter of wine during the same day), absinthe’s days where numbered. It was soon banned throughout a fair amount of Europe.

    This ban only added to the mythology of absinthe, creating the illusion that it turned men into murderous criminals.

    Absinthe has the reputation it does because of its ties to the counter culture movement of the late 19th century and it’s subsequent ban. It has a reputation that has been built upon by artists and movie makers as a drink that has something “a little more”. The reality is that absinthe is simply another alcoholic beverage. It’s unique, to be sure, but so are a multitude of other liquors. For me, now the question is “will absinthe every grow beyond its reputation”?

    Technorati Tags: Drink, Absinthe, Absinthe History

    WBW #18: Wine-Searcher.com

    This is your atypical Wine Blogging Wednesday post, as I’m not rating a wine as much as I’m talking about a place from which I purchase wine regularly.

    It’s an interesting challenge that Dr. Vino has put forth, and one in which I was a bit hestitant to participate.

    Here’s the problem: I don’t have a favorite place to buy wine. In the course of research, I often find myself looking for wines from specific regions of a country. Oftentimes these regions don’t have a massive wine exporting industry, and thus it becomes near impossible to find the wines I’m looking for in an area of the world that has a fairly decent wine industry of their own. Head to the vinyards of California and ask for a bottle of wine from Liguria, and you’ll understand the difficulty I face.

    Then a regular reader of this site turned me to wine-searcher.com. Wine Searcher allows me to search for very specific bottles of wine, and see who in the world carries the wine I am looking for. I then click on the discovered links where I can place an order to be sent to my mailing address.

    For example, if I was looking for a wine from the Pfalz area of Germany, Wine searcher would come up with these options. Instead of having to search through the various wine vendors in Seattle who may or may not be able to find what I am looking for, I can typically order a wine I want in less than 10 minutes and have it at my home within a week.

    That Ligurian Wine I was mentioning earlier? I had stopped at seven different wine stores here in Seattle to see if anyone could special order a bottle. None of them had access to distributors that covered that area of the world. Wine Searcher had no such problem. Today, I am drinking a bottle of 2003 Bisson Marea Cinque Terre.

    Have I mentioned how much I love the internet?

    Technorati Tags: Wine, Wine Vendor

    Wine Quiz

    Dr. Vino, a regular participant here, has created a wine quiz for 2005. Every completed and correct entry has a chance to win one of several prizes.

    Here’s the perfect chance to show off to all your friends and perhaps win a case of wine in the process.

    Technorati Tags: Food and Drink, Wine, Wine Quiz