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Deep Dive:
Australia's Best Vermouth

Wines Of Now
Words by YGOW. Images by James Morgan.

Vermouth may seem to have had a pretty rough trot in Australia. Aside from a healthy heyday in the 1970s, where it was often sloshed in a highball and topped up with dry ginger or soda, vermouth has been a bit player, mainly used to frugally scent a martini. In truth, vermouth has a more than noble history in this country, and a revolution that is less than a decade old is growing pace, with an ever-increasing selection of local examples challenging perceptions of what vermouth can and should be.

In our latest Deep Dive, we gathered every Australian vermouth we could find, along with a panel of industry specialists to see what makes this new wave of Australian vermouth just so very compelling.

Our panel: Gilles Lapalus, Owner Maidenii; Cara Devine, Bar Manager Bomba Bar; Orlando Marzo, World Class Bartender of the Year in 2018; Naz Fazio, Importer Aperitivo & Co.; Tatiana An, Manager Rascal; Nicky Riemer, Head Chef Bellota Wine Bar; Simon Killeen Owner/Winemaker Simão & Co.; Jess Clayfield, Bartender Gin Palace. All wines were tasted blind.

We set our expert panel the tasks of finding the wines that compelled the most. All wines were tasted blind, and each panellist named their top six wines. Below are the top wines from the tasting.

The Top Vermouth in Australia

2020 Saison ‘Fallen Quinces’ $55

This made the top-six lists for six of the panellists, with both Marzo and Riemer rating it as their prime pick. “Definitely my favourite,” wrote Reimer, “The blush colour reminds me of the oil you can get from roasting the yabby shells. I like the light quince and cherry aroma and a background of something like fennel flowers and basil. …I would drink this neat alongside any shellfish dish.” “Lots of quinces, stewed apricots, hints of cloves,” commented Marzo. “There’s good acidity, and a presence of tannin adds another element to balance the off-dry sweetness, with good balanced bitterness developing to stone fruits and root notes.” Fazio found a “Floral, quince nose, with warming spices that remind me of fruit mince tarts… rhubarb, citrus and musk sticks. Well-balanced vermouth with bitterness and sweetness intermingled, making this quite expressive.” Devine also rated it highly. “An initially slightly musty and yeasty (in a pleasant way!) nose opened up into fragrant dried apricot and mandarin,” she wrote. “Super zesty and bright, but with a slight savoury funk and plenty of structure. The finish was a mouth-watering pithy bitterness. …I could have sat with it all day.” “It was pleasantly invigorating to see a more French approach to the wine selected,” noted Clayfield, “making rosé vermouth with drier almost chalky qualities that allow the bitter components to shine through whilst maintaining its refreshing qualities. Quince and thyme are the playful main stars, with subtle floral sweetness… orange pith, apricot kernel and fresh summery herbs… This vermouth has been so meticulously made and with such understanding of the relationship between wine and botanical. It remains fresh and supple without becoming cloying… simply a benchmark for summer styles of vermouth.”

 

Philip Lobley ‘The Mystic’ Vermouth $42

Five panellists selected this among their top picks, with it topping An’s list for the day. “Hazy amber,” she wrote. “Lavender, thyme, mint-ish, pepperberry, pawpaw ointment on the nose. On the palate, bitter orange, bitter lemon, brine, olive, spice. Breakfast marmalade with a twig of rosemary. Christmas ham glaze. Tannins are grippy but let go fast. Stirred down cocktails with whisky… could work with Islay whisky or as a savoury aperitif on its own.” Lapalus had this one spot back from his top selection. “Cloudy pale orange with a straw hue takes you to a skinsy orange wine,” he wrote. “The nose brings you back into the aperitivo galaxy, with an intense mix of citrus (lemon, mandarin) with more balsamic notes like camphor and incense. The attack is intense as well, sharp with a good acid/bitter balance, followed by a hardly perceptible sweetness. The citrus aroma is dominated by Seville oranges to lead to a bitter finish with complex herbal characters.” “This vermouth had me with its ‘grilled lemon on the barbecue’ nose,” wrote Riemer, also just placing it behind her top pick. “I could see myself grilling red mullet and sardines and making a little butter reduction with this vermouth. I get notes of saffron and also think I would enjoy this alongside roast almonds or an almond skordalia with my grilled red mullet.” “This wine was all about the citrus, but that doesn’t mean it was one dimensional,” wrote Devine. “Juicy, with racy acid leading into a long, pithy and dry finish with just the right amount of bitterness. I also found a lovely minty note which gave it good freshness. All I could think about was using it in a spritz!” Marzo also rated it highly. “An eccentric murky orange colour that intrigues, but a suspicious taste revealed a good new style of vermouth,” he wrote. “fermented oranges, mature apples, bruised funky pears, cider like and lots of clove. Good acidity, good bitterness, bit wild but pleasant, finishes tannic, skinsy and with good presence of gentian and orange peel.”

 

Herbhaven ‘Coraggio’ Classic White Vermouth $57

Killeen rated this as his wine of the day, while four other panellists also included it in their top-six lists. “On the nose, lemon zest, lovely lemony jammy notes, cooked elderflower, buttery and elegant,” wrote Marzo. “Great balance between sweetness and bitterness, accompanied with a good amount of acidity. The finish is long, developing to preserved lemon with a hint of marzipan.” “I found something new in this wine every time I went back,” noted Devine, “all bound by a nicely balanced weight. The nose was almost amaro-esque, with menthol and wormwood, ginger and baking spice but this led into quite a delicate palate. Silky, bright, lemon curd sweetness with a saline edge and crushed herbs keeping it interesting. The weight and sweetness was such that I couldn’t decide if I’d want it before or after dinner – maybe both!” “Tropical nose with good artemesia and floral notes and slight effervescent mouthfeel,” wrote Fazio. “Similar in style to European vermouths. High sweetness level with cardamom and spices, leading to citrus, pithy coriander notes. Would like to see it in a martini.” Lapalus also registered this among his wines of the day. “The first impression in the mouth is sweetness, followed and refreshed by lemon aroma, again intense, followed by some notes of anise and fennel. The bitterness is then balancing the sweet impression and keeps growing to a clean finish…. Well-balanced medium-dry vermouth.”

 

Cinq à Sept Small Batch Pinot Noir Vermouth $50

This found favour with four of the panellists, with Devine and Fazio both placing it just behind their top picks. “I liked this red vermouth best over all others today,” wrote Fazio. “On the nose, rhubarb vanilla and cloves with panforte spices of white pepper and citrus peel. Fresh style of rosso vermouth. Amarena cherries giving some sweet-sour juiciness and some cocoa flavours with sweet and rounded bitter orange finish. Yum.” “I do think this could be a love it or hate it type scenario,” noted Devine, “but I loved it. The nose was really perfumed and lifted, with orange blossom florals. The palate was deceptively intense – juicy orange, warm baking spices, tangy cola bottles and the wormwood providing a properly bitter backbone. It felt like this was half amaro and half vermouth, but without having an identity crisis – the wine knows itself, and it’s delicious!” Riemer also logged this amongst her top wines of the day. “Imagine the perfect cherry jam with a hint of this vermouth,” she wrote, “just added at the end of making your jam – when it is cold, just pour a slurp or two of this vermouth to give it a good ‘kick’ at the end. Or a perfect caramelised orange tart and a glass of this vermouth lightly chilled would be a great match for me. I loved the young cherry and sarsaparilla taste and aroma.”

2018 Margan Off-Sweet Semillon Vermouth, Hunter Valley $50

This made it into the top selections of four of the tasters. “I don’t know if it was the power of suggestion being on Acland St., but I couldn’t help comparing so many of the wines to baked goods and cakes,” wrote Devine. “This one was straight, boozy Christmas pudding. I got curacao and brandy vibes on the nose, and the palate was all dried fruit and nuts while managing to retain a freshness and liveliness. Candied orange and ginger, a touch (kept in check) of that menthol/eucalypt note and a chewy finish. If that all sounds a bit much, it wasn’t – it had a lovely balance and while its delicious on its own, but I’m also sure it would play well with others in cocktails.” Fazio found it, “Quite well balanced with acidity and freshness with the warming spices of amaro bitterness. I found this to be the most fascinating out of the vermouths tasted today. Think it merges styles. Is it a vermouth, amaro or aperitif? Very drinkable.” “This vermouth drops a huge flavour bomb on you right from the first whiff,” wrote Clayfield. “Fresh overripe raspberry and rich chocolate seemingly battle for the top position, only to be taken over by bold sweet liquorice… developing into warmer baking spice tones with cinnamon myrtle, star anise and pepper. The supple tannins ebb into the back palate bringing with it the flavour of tart raspberry to come full circle. Drier bitterness and even a hint of menthol allow the drinker a gentle descent into the finish. Unexpected and vibrant, this vermouth is certainly adventurous and bold in its character …it’s easy to imagine enjoying this over ice around Christmas time and lends itself to be used in many a cocktail with ease.”

 

Maidenii Dry Vermouth $45

Fazio, Riemer and Killeen rated this amongst their top picks. “Very pretty nose that has fresh fennel, acacia honey and soft floral notes,” wrote Fazio. “The palate reminds me of vanilla, citrus, cardamom and saffron. A clean and refreshing aperitif style. Good summer drinking.” Riemer had it towards the top of her selections. “Pears, apples all roasting with this vermouth, along with lemons and bay leaves. I would love to bake a caramelised apple tart and finish it with a generous splash of this vermouth just before it went to the table. And the coriander seeds I get at the end of this lends itself to curing salmon. And I love the ‘feeling’ of roasting lemons and grilling salmon I also get from tasting this.”

 

Mr Barval Vermouth, Margaret River $45

This found favour with both Fazio and lapalus, with Fazio naming it as his pick of the day. “Vivid Chartreuse yellow,” he wrote. “Oriental spice, savoury nose of coriander, marjoram thyme and rocket. Lovely balanced sweetness and bitterness coming forward from the get-go with citrus (felt grapefruity) and orange blossom. Reminded throughout of gentian savouriness. Finished dry. Made me want more.” “The bright yellow clear and brilliant colour is very attractive. Very reminiscent of Chartreuse jaune,” agreed Lapalus. “The first nose is timid, but with a nice presence of botanicals like roots (gentian, angelica), then floral (chamomile, linden flowers). The fluid texture is the first impression in the mouth, with sweetness balanced by fine acid, low bitterness and refreshing aroma of anise, reminding me of Galliano. This is a great digestif on the sweeter side. Serve chilled and neat.”

 

Adelaide Hills Distillery Dry Vermouth $35

Both An and Riemer rated this in their top six. “Pale lemon, clear, thin legs,” wrote An. “Clove, smoke, dried herb and sweet. Like a Christmas ham. Olive leaf. Off dry, lemon, neutral grape, maybe sauvignon blanc? White pepper, olive, lemon, pepperberry. Lingers with light green note. Interesting contradiction between nose and palate. Definitely a neat sipper, but also wet martinis with a salty gin.” “This one was quite different for me,” noted Riemer. “I kept coming back to the crazy ‘dirty rosemary’ fragrance I was picking up at the start. When I tasted the vermouth, I suddenly wanted a buttery, herby sauce with celery and mussels. I felt this would be my classic ‘mussels and vermouth’ dish must have.”

 

Artemi Vermouth ‘Ambre’ White Dry $40

This made the top-six list of An and it was Lapalus’ wine of the day. “The colour is yellow with a light straw hue, and the limpidity is good,” he wrote. The first nose is very herbal, with a delicate note of chamomile, lifted up by incense and followed by powdery white floral scents. It reminds me of potpourri from Santa Maria Novella. In the mouth the attack is dominated by the mouthfeel, well balanced with low sugar and bitterness increasing. The aromas are again on the herbal side, with strong notes of wormwood and camphor. Very good length but medium intensity which leads this fine vermouth to be served neat.” “Slightly hazy straw colour,” noted An. “On the nose, olive comes through, big barky quinine-like tannin, wormwood, nutmeg, bay leaf. Slightly off-dry but an umami bomb. Orchard citrus. Surprising number. Delivering fair bit of complexity on the palate. Very versatile.”

 

Regal Rogue ‘Bold Red’ Semi-Dry Vermouth $35

This featured on the top-six lists of Killeen and Devine, and it was Clayfield’s wine of the day. “Fantastically complex yet simply refreshing,” Clayfield wrote. “You’re immediately enchanted by the demure blushing red colour and scent of freshly pitted, juicy cherries and bitter milk chocolate. The aroma is layered with undertones of eucalypt and bitter herbs to lead you down into the more intriguing flavours. Upon tasting, the once sweet cherries take on a more tart, almost medicinal quality in an oddly charismatic and nostalgic way, after a moment the true flavours of vermouth become present, the wormwood in all her glory with hints of river mint and hot pepperberry. …Finally, the flavours of dried quandong and orange peel take you through to the finish and prepare you to enjoy it all over again. …from start to finish, this vermouth hits all the marks yet maintains a casual and joyful air about it. Seriously delicious without pretension.” “The colour is a bright light red with good brilliance and limpidity,” noted Lapalus. “The first nose has a medium intensity, where the roasted notes are dominating, reminding me of wattle seed. The second nose is quite vinous with fresh red fruit like cherries, reminding me of young grenache. The attack is on the sweet side, followed by the cherry aroma of the wine. The bitterness comes slowly and progressively and almost balances the sweetness. The botanicals are discrete and the finish comes back to the sweetness. A better option for mixing.”

 

2019 Leura Park Dry Vermouth $35

This was Devine’s top wine of the tasting. “At first, I thought I was smelling a lively and fruity Albarino! A fruit spectrum from green pear through to peach and even slightly tropical (maybe lychee?), but the palate actually had a really awesome savoury and bitter note – it made me think olives and quinine. It was a nice, briny surprise after the fruity nose! A creamy texture but with good acid keeping it fresh, it was really more-ish. I don’t think I’ve ever met a vermouth that I thought would work equally well in a wet martini or a dirty martini – just really interesting and delicious.”

 

2015 JC’s Own Wermut $33

This just missed out on Clayfield’s top selection for the tasting. “A unique take on vermouth that will engross new drinkers and tantalise those more familiar with more traditional vermouth. This number drinks almost like a vermouth’s love letter to Australian fortified wine… The golden colour and sweet notes deceive the drinking into thinking that this will be incredibly sweet vermouth and one to be enjoyed in moderation. However, after the initial viscosity, muntrie and apple flavours, the true colours of vermouth come through. Bitter thyme, river mint, fennel helps to dry out the initial shock, where wormwood and angelica keep the velvety mouthfeel at just the right level that it doesn’t become too chalky. …This vermouth is almost like enjoying a meal backwards, starting with dessert and finishing with a bright and refreshing starter. The complete progression of flavour is playful and executed with incredible precision. It could’ve so easily swung to being too sweet or too dry, but it’s in perfect harmony to allow for a truly creative and imaginative vermouth to shine.”

 

Artemi Vermouth Rouge Sweet $40

Killeen pointed this just behind his top pick, while Fazio noted it had a “Dark red colour, with notes of spice, amarena cherries, plums and rich spice on the nose,” while on the palate he thought it was “tasting wonderfully of vanilla, spices, notably cloves, clear rhubarb and citrus characters, with a good balance between sugar, tannins and bitterness.”

Maidenii Sweet Vermouth $45

A sweet vermouth that showcases bright lovely botanical notes,” wrote Marzo, as he placed it just behind his top wine. “Ruby colour with a hint of violet. The nose has strawberry gum and eucalyptus giving it a floral yet fresh aroma, with a hint of spices and mint. The palate shows sour cherry, good acidity, good botanical presence, with a fresh, alpine finish.”

 

Maidenii ‘Nocturne’ Vin Amer $65

An rated this very highly, just missing out on her top spot. “Charred lemon and apple feature on the nose,” she wrote, with “feijoa jam, musky grape and ‘tamarindo’ Mexican candy notes on the palate. This is super interesting, with a bitter note, almost lingering into amaro in style, but yet within the realm of a vermouth. I can see it used in cocktails where a darker, spicier vermouth is needed, or to be served on ice.”

 

Maidenii ‘Classic’ Vermouth $45

Both Riemer and Clayfield included this amongst their top-six selections. “Strawberries and gum leaves along with young stone fruits and watermelon are all in my mind,” wrote Riemer. “And roasted plums would soak up this vermouth deliciously. There was a touch of smoky plums that made me think this would be great in a dessert – like a plum cake or a plum jelly.” “Packed full with so many unique botanicals,” Clayfield noted, “this particular vermouth strives for complete unity amongst a wide variety of flavours. …Mint, apple and warm baking spice come across in its gentle aroma, not too sweet, not too bitter. …The mosaic of funky, fermenting fruit, roasted, bitter wattleseed and energetic aniseed create the backdrop for a myriad of unique botanicals. With hot liquorice, thyme, refreshing coriander all in the mix of flavour… There’s an exceptional texture to the vermouth, almost creamy towards the end, yet with moments of tart berries to keep it from becoming too dense. Distinguishing by its excellence, every facet complimenting each other, ever decision made carefully and backed with a comprehensive understanding of what makes great vermouth.”

 

Turkey Flat Quinquina $22

An placed this amongst her top wines of the day. “Honey gold in colour, viscous legs, clear,” she wrote. “Sweet nose, muscaty, honeyed apricots, Sauternes like but leaning towards botrytis riesling. Apple preserve, honeysuckle. Orange peel, off dry, fair amount of residual with medium plus acid. …Tarragon with barky bitterness. More of an aperitif, reminds me of Lillet Blanc on steroids. Could be very versatile. On rocks, neat, cocktails. Overall, ticks the box into a sweet vermouth. Unique and complex, yet familiar.”

 

Regal Rogue ‘Daring Dry’ Vermouth $35

This featured on the top-six lists of both Clayfield and Lapalus. “This vermouth feels like a summer morning right before the day becomes too hot,” wrote Clayfield. “Bright, fresh, grassy elder, menthol and a peculiar moment of tobacco coupled with its very pale straw colour almost lend cause for concern that this is going to be very one-dimensional. However, notes of honey, elderflower, tarragon, bitter melon and bay create surprising complexity, with the wormwood and anise keeping the vermouth floating just above too dusty and dry yet giving way for a little extra tannin right on the finish. Texturally one of the more interesting Australian vermouths, played well on the palate to be refreshing without using too much sweetness to achieve an incredible effect.” “The nose is very intense with a dominant earthy note of roots (gentian, licorice),” wrote Lapalus. “The attack in the mouth is soft, almost creamy in texture and with a well-balanced herbal repertoire where wormwood is distinctive. The bitterness is complemented by a touch of acid giving a fresh finishing touch. Excellent option for mixing.”

 

Adelaide Hills Distillery Rosso Vermouth $35

“Concentrated citrus character with robust woody notes,” wrote Marzo in adding this to his top picks. “Bright, clean, red in colour. The nose has vanilla, cooked oranges, almond, star anise, strawberries and allspice. There’s a lovely transition from the nose to the palate, with good presence of flavours and good acidity, too, with a great grip – textural. I really enjoyed the balance of bitterness and sweetness.”

 

Regal Rogue ‘Lively White’ Vermouth $35

Marzo included this in his list of the top wines of the tasting. “Reminiscent of a bianco style vermouth that enhances the wine-driven notes and powerful concentration of mature fruits,” he wrote. “Light gold colour, with Danish pastry, brioche, lemon custard and orange on the nose. The palate has good acidity, bitterness is there without being too loud – good balance. It’s concentrated and with lot of texture – I would love this over ice.”

Taking a step back – what is vermouth?

Vermouth is simply a wine that has a bittering extract from plants in the Artemisia family added to it – typically along with a range of herbs and spices to build aromas and to complex that bitterness – and is fortified with spirit to no more than 21 per cent alcohol by volume.

Artemisia is a large group of plants, including tarragon, with most having intense aromatic and often bitter characteristics. To be called vermouth, EU regulations state that plants of the Artemisia genus must be used as bittering agents, but not necessarily Artemisia absinthium, or wormwood, which is the most famous and most commonly used. Other bitter herbs, roots and barks are also employed, including cinchona bark (originally responsible for that quinine flavour in tonic water) and gentian roots and flowers.

In aromatised wines where cinchona takes the lead, the term “Quinquina” can be used, while those that lean more heavily on gentian can employ the moniker “Americano”, but as these variations also contain artemisia, of one type or another, they are still both classified as vermouth.

A Little History…

While artemisia has been infused into wine and other substances since ancient times, vermouth as we know it is thought to have evolved out of a German tradition.

Wormwode is the Middle English name for the wormwood plant and the Germans call it wermutkraut, which ends up simply being wermut as an abbreviation for both the plant and a traditional fortified wine that was infused with it. It’s not hard to see that the French word vermouth is not so distant a relative, even less so the Italian vermut.

In the late 1700s, French and Italian merchants familiar with those infused German wines began making their own interpretations.

It’s perhaps unsurprising that the centres for vermouth production happened to evolve near to the centres of the spice trade, which were in Genoa in Liguria, Italy, and in Marseille, France. The first known Italian vermouths, which precede the French versions, were made in Piedmont’s (Liguria’s neighbour) capital, Turin, by Antonio Carpano, as well as by Carlo and Giacomo Cinzano, who were confectioners – then a skill that also encompassed the arts of making spirits and liqueurs.

Carpano is credited with making the first modern vermouth in 1786, though some point to the Cinzano brothers as being the first, in 1757. However, that date corresponds to the founding of their shop, and not necessarily when they developed their iconic red vermouth – a style that is widely accepted as their innovation.

Regardless of who was first, Turin became the hub for sweet vermouth, while not far across the border, the French developed a specialisation for bitter dry vermouth, such as with Dolin in Chambéray, while further south in Marseille, Noilly Prat created their distinctive dry vermouth by leaving barrels in the sun, wind and rain for a year to develop their unique character.

Carpano is credited with making the first modern vermouth in 1786, though some point to the Cinzano brothers as being the first, in 1757. However, that date corresponds to the founding of their shop, and not necessarily when they developed their iconic red vermouth – a style that is widely accepted as their innovation.

Vermouth in Australia

As with much of the world, vermouth historically served two functions in Australia. Firstly, it was presented as a tonic, a wine dosed with healthful herbal tinctures to cure many ills, though primarily those of the digestive tract. Secondly, it gathered a new audience as cocktails gained popularity towards the end of the 19th century, then exploded into somewhat of a frenzy at the start of the 1900s and through the Roaring 20s.

In the early years of blending herbal essences with wine, various tonics and bitters were made in imitation of European examples, with the emerging local wine industry responsive to consumer trends. Fortified wine as a category was burgeoning in the late 1800s, and vermouth was very much part of that success. As table wine spiralled into an almost fatal nosedive, fortifieds, including aromatised wines, were borne aloft on the updraft.

The leading wine brands of the time – and many that endure today – such as Yalumba and Seppelt, were heavily invested in vermouth, along with a raft of botanical infusions (not to mention various simulations of Port, Sherry and the like – dry table wine being almost universally shunned).

Perhaps the medicinal properties of vermouth helped to build a bridge to its more carefree use, but by the time the 1920s were in full swing, a settled stomach was the least motivation for consumers, with frivolity and conspicuous glamour taking centrestage. But that exuberant buoyancy would not last long.

Though it’s more than a little fair to argue that vermouth was the least significant of victims, nonetheless the most unsettled period of the 20th century saw it sidelined while the Great Depression and WWII wrought global havoc.

But even the decade-long Great Depression didn’t totally quell the appetite for vermouth. F. Cinzano & Cia established a local presence a year after the infamous 1929 Wall Street Crash, building a production and storage facility on Birmingham Street in Sydney’s Alexandria, which they expanded and occupied for over 50 years. (The site is now an apartment building, with heritage-listed vestiges of the building still remaining.)

The writing, though, was on the wall. While the brutality of WWII perhaps didn’t knock the martini glasses out of the hands of the elites, it certainly didn’t see the masses restocking their cocktail trolleys.

However, when the skies brightened, vermouth rallied, becoming synonymous for many with – like a distant mirror to the 1920s – the carefree era of the 1970s. Local production was again ramped up, with brands like Angoves’ Marko and a collaboration between Yalumba and Turin-based Martini & Rossi entering the market, while the limpet-like persistence of Cinzano perhaps paid the biggest dividends, becoming the runaway commercial success of the era.

Bust follows boom, follows bust, though, and vermouth was pushed to the back of liquor cabinets, where – some years later – dusty old oxidised bottles (yes, vermouth oxidises – it is generally, though not always, made from wine that will deteriorate with exposure to air) helped many a teenager form indelibly unpleasant impressions of the stuff through illicit sips.

Australian Vermouth Today

For many years, vermouth was almost solely a weapon in the bartender’s arsenal, typically with the faintest whiff perfuming a dry martini, then it made its presence a little more emphatically felt with the rise of the negroni, where equal parts of the holy trinity of sweet red vermouth, Campari and gin are stirred over ice. But to say that vermouth had returned solely on the back of the negroni would be misleading.

Gilles Lapalus and Shaun Byrne, a winemaker and bartender respectively, launched their Maidenii brand in 2012. “In the last eight years of making vermouth,” says LapaIus. “I think we have come a long way. From the grandma drink left to collect dust, to aperitif hour where negroni is king, and now more and more where it is embraced as a standalone option.”

Indeed, the latest instalment in the vermouth renaissance is very much also built on the appreciation for the aromatised wine’s singular properties, rather than solely in combination with spirit, liqueurs or mixers. That approach is very much a European one, as while the Italians, French and Spanish, for example, happily shake, stir and build vermouth with other liquids, they also favour drinking it neat, albeit often chilled.

Lapalus originally hails from Burgundy, France, however his cues for making vermouth were very much local ones. Driven very much by a winemaker’s sensibility of reflecting place, Lapalus primarily uses native botanicals in the Maidenii wines.

“It’s a continuation of the terroir notion,” says Lapalus. “You use what is available in your territory. What they bring is a sense of uniqueness. So many people comment on Maidenii vermouth, saying it’s like walking in the bush. This aromatic profile is very specific, with the eucalyptus in particular, but the spectrum is much wider as soon as we use the native citrus, the strawberry gum or the wattle seed, with their strong roasted component, for example.”

Dave Verhuel, head chef at Melbourne’s Embla and Lesa, takes a different angle, one that is deeply rooted in his experience as one of the country’s best chefs. “I’ve had a love affair with bitter drinks for as long as I can remember,” he says, “and this led to making vermouth to serve in the restaurant a few years back.

“I wanted to create vermouths that centred around vibrant singular ingredients, rather than blends of spices… building complexity in support of the main ingredient in a way that complements. The focus on clear flavours really sits alongside the seasonal variations I am so used to in the food world.”

For Verhuel, that approach is captured in the name of his brand, Saison, or season, and he allies the thought process of a chef building and enhancing flavours with the kitchen skills and tools at his disposal, including the furnace-hot wood-fired oven that burns at somewhere near 500°C.

“Rhubarb root, dried jasmine, blood orange zest that is smoked over the fire at Embla and then dried, lots of saffron…” says Verhuel, talking about his Fallen Quinces vermouth. “I make a few quince infusions, to get a range of flavours, and I use two types of wormwood, so you have two types of bitterness already, and then I age it over a whole lot of quinces that have been burnt in the wood oven. You’d think it would taste burnt, but it doesn’t; it adds another layer of bitterness once it ages, complementing the others, and it also adds the colour.”

Dave Verhuel's 2020 Saison 'Fallen Quinces' Vermouth
Dave Verhuel, head chef at Melbourne’s Embla and Lesa, takes a different angle, one that is deeply rooted in his experience as one of the country’s best chefs.

David Chapman is also a chef (though he hung up his apron some years back), but he’s a trained winemaker, too, specialising in pinot noir for his Mornington Peninsula label, Allies, as well as making vermouths under the Cinq à Cept imprint. “For me, with most vermouths that I’d tasted before, the wine underneath was pretty terrible,” he says.

“It was all about the ‘recipe’, which is fine. But I wanted it to be about the wine, too. Those flavours of cherry, redcurrant, pomegranate and such that we get in our pinot, I wanted those to be part of the vermouth, and then the bitterness and spices that I add are a bit more traditional, but still subtle enough to taste the base. That’s why I put the variety on the front label.”

“It was all about the ‘recipe’, which is fine. But I wanted it to be about the wine, too. Those flavours of cherry, redcurrant, pomegranate and such that we get in our pinot, I wanted those to be part of the vermouth, and then the bitterness and spices that I add are a bit more traditional, but still subtle enough to taste the base. That’s why I put the variety on the front label.”
One of the vineyard sites David Chapman sources his pinot noir from on the Mornington Peninsula. Often with vermouths, the wine can play the supporting act to the recipe, but Chapman's Cinq a Sept is an example of the wine given at least equal billing.

Lapalus agrees that the quality of the base wine is integral, but his fascination is in the endless possibility beyond it. “You still need to make a perfect wine from quality grapes,” he says, “and the addition of botanicals is the free part, as there is no limit here. I like to compare it to the perfume industry, where the number of substances you can access seems infinite, which means the composition is even more endless.”

And while Chapman is pushing wine further to the front, the experimentation that Lapalus describes is also very much a drawcard for him. “When I make wine, I don’t want there to be much of me in it,” he says. “aside from the care I take. With vermouth, I get to tinker, to make it about what I want it to taste like. I don’t get to do that with wine, and I quite like to be able to have that freedom.”

Aside from the three key elements – a wine base, artemisia and mild fortification with spirit – the canvas for those making vermouth is decidedly blank, a vast realm of possibility that is seeing Australian vermouth flourish in ever more exciting and diverse ways.

Our vermouth tasting was held at Prince Dining Room in St Kilda (Melbourne). Photo by James Morgan.

Outtakes from the tasting

We gathered every Australian vermouth we could find, along with a panel of industry specialists to see what makes this new wave of Australian vermouth just so very compelling.

Our panel: Gilles Lapalus, Owner Maidenii; Cara Devine, Bar Manager Bomba Bar; Orlando Marzo, World Class Bartender of the Year in 2018; Naz Fazio, Importer Aperitivo & Co.; Tatiana An, Manager Rascal; Nicky Riemer, Head Chef Bellota Wine Bar; Simon Killeen Owner/Winemaker Simão & Co.; Jess Clayfield, Bartender Gin Palace. All wines were tasted blind.

“Fantastic tasting!” exclaimed Lapalus, “It just shows the diversity, the complexity… an analysis like this shows what you should look for in a vermouth. It’s the balance. It’s the complexity … The two main things for me each time was the balance of the sweetness and bitter, and sometimes acid, salty and umami, and then the complexity.”

 

Gilles Lapalus and Cara Devine. Photo taken at Prince Dining Room, by James Morgan.

“From a bartender’s perspective,” said Devine, “there were definitely some that I thought were very cool, but you’d have to drink them by themself. I tend to look for a bit more versatility. Sometimes for me, even if it was a bit monotonal, or just had a few flavours but they were all good and pure, and it was well balanced and had a good weight to it, then I could see how I could use it in different styles of drinks, while some were pretty tasty but pretty delicate, and you’d just drink them by themselves.”

Lapalus noted that this was pretty much how he always drank vermouth. “Because vermouth is mostly used in cocktails in Anglo-Saxon countries, a tasting like this shows that drinking vermouth neat offers a level of complexity that is unique. …You never drink vermouth like this in a commercial context – not many people do. More and more now, it’s coming… The model is Sherry. We should teach people to drink it like Sherry. It shows that vermouth can have amazing complexity in terms of delicateness. Some of them, I would never dream to mix them.”

Lapalus noted that this was pretty much how he always drank vermouth. “Because vermouth is mostly used in cocktails in Anglo-Saxon countries, a tasting like this shows that drinking vermouth neat offers a level of complexity that is unique. …You never drink vermouth like this in a commercial context – not many people do. More and more now, it’s coming… The model is Sherry. We should teach people to drink it like Sherry. It shows that vermouth can have amazing complexity in terms of delicateness. Some of them, I would never dream to mix them.”

While Marzo appreciated their qualities as standalone drinks, he also felt that delicacy was not a barrier to using them in cocktails. “Sometimes it’s the opposite. You can overwhelm a cocktail or change the direction… say the top two vermouth cocktails, being the martini and the negroni… sometimes they can overwhelm the whole experience when there is a bitter [Campari etc.] that is very botanical driven and a gin that is also very botanical driven… so you want that marriage to be perfect. In the case of a martini… I was thinking would I be happy to stir it and get that bitterness? Or would I be happy to stir and get that sweetness? Sometimes I think it’s our job to try things like that, and to make it work… and then it’s the language we use to explain that.”

“I love negronis and I love martinis and things like that,” declared Riemer, “but so many of them I wanted to drink straight. There was some newness that I just hadn’t seen before, and I was thinking I want to drink that with a grilled red mullet or some anchovies, that’s how I was thinking. I’d like to see more of that, of people drinking it straight”

“Overall, I was looking at a balance of sweet, bitter and acid as much as versatility,” said An. “As much as we would love for customers to starts just sipping away neat vermouths, we need to be able to use it in cocktails. I was looking for surprises, like, ‘Oh, doesn’t smell like much, and then bang! It tastes so complex!’”

Orlando Marzo and Jess Clayfield. Photo taken at Prince Dining Room, by James Morgan.

“From the bartending perspective,” said Clayfield, “there were some that sparked inspiration and I was thinking, ‘I want to use that in that specific martini’, but most of them I wasn’t even thinking about cocktails – I was just enjoying them. If I was going to do something, it’d be a large amount in vermouth-based cocktails.”

Being a chef, as well as an avowed lover “of all things drinking”, Riemer approached the tasting from a different angle. “For me, so much for me was how I wanted to use it in a recipe… and not ruin it, not change it. A lot of the time I was thinking that would finish a sauce so well… that perfect grilled piece of fish and you’d splash some of those vermouths in right at end in a little butter sauce, so… I don’t really want to cook them, but I want that flavour that I was tasting today. And then I was drawn to desserts so much… I was getting flavours of roasted strawberries and grilled apples… and Christmas cake… and pavlova on one of them!”

“There was one in there that had so much cloves and spices that I thought it was more of an amaro,” said Fazio. “So, stylistically they’ve tried to take it out to be bitter, but they’ve ended up with an amaro by mistake. Or they were trying to make it into an amaro style. And to me it was a very good wine-based amaro, rather than a vermouth.”

Marzo question whether there even needed to be a distinction. “We often like to put rules on categories… The history tells us that for European vermouth that the French is wine driven, and the Italian is botanical driven… maybe there is a new category with Australian vermouth…”

“We often like to put rules on categories… The history tells us that for European vermouth that the French is wine driven, and the Italian is botanical driven… maybe there is a new category with Australian vermouth…”

“If there’s something that’s Australian in this tasting, it’s the quality of the base wine,” noted Lapalus. “Maybe it’s one of the markers of Australian vermouth after the native botanicals.”

“Some of the quality of the wine really showed,” agreed Killeen, “and you could see it on the palate – you had beautiful fruit and it matched the aromatics. I also enjoyed the use of spirit; there was a lot of really good clean spirit used. I also really like a lot of the aromatics that were used. One that I loved was so redolent of classic Australian bush. You could see there were a lot of native aromatics, and I thought that was really cool.”

“Native ingredients are powerful in their flavours,” noted Clayffield, “often taking over and masking what they are paired with, and it was such a joy to see the respect and level of care put into using them. To see the flavours and not have them be overpowering really made me happy. Seeing Australian vermouth rise to the challenge of complexity for a very young vermouth industry and doing so with grace and excellent execution is such a pleasure.”

All wines were tasted blind.
Vermouths come in all hues of the wine rainbow.

The Panel

Our vermouth tasting was held at Prince Dining Room in St Kilda (Melbourne). Photo by James Morgan.

Gilles Lapalus is originally from Burgundy, and the third generation of his family to be involved with wine. He studied oenology in Dijon. Lapalus moved to Australia in 2001 to help establish the Sutton Grange Winery, near Castlemaine. In 2011, Lapalus started to experiment with native botanicals, which led to the founding of Maidenii with Shaun Byrne. Theirs was the first vermouth to employ Australian botanicals. After leaving Sutton Grange in 2015, he started his own label, Maison Lapalus. He also co-authored ‘The Book of Vermouth’ in 2018 (Hardie Grant).

Our vermouth tasting was held at Prince Dining Room in St Kilda (Melbourne). Photo by James Morgan.

Nicky Riemer is the Head Chef at Bellota Wine Bar. Having trained under Stephanie Alexander, Riemer was subsequently appointed Head Chef when Alexander opened Richmond Hill Café & Larder. In Hong Kong, Riemer ran the H One kitchen in the IFC tower, and was the Head Chef at the Melbourne Wine Room alongside Karen Martini, before opening her own restaurant, Union Dining, which she ran for several years to much acclaim. Nicky hosts cooking classes at Essential Ingredient and at The NEFF Market Kitchen, and she is also a judge for the ‘delicious.’ Annual Produce Awards.

Orlando Marzo is the curator of the Melbourne Cocktail Festival, the first festival of its kind in Melbourne. Hailing from Modena, Italy, Marzo worked for a number of years for the fabled Rushmore group at The Player and Milk & Honey in London. After moving to Melbourne, he worked for The Speakeasy Group (Eau-de-Vie etc.), as well as heading up the bar at Lumé for a number of years. In 2018, Orlando Marzo was crowned Diageo’s World Class Bartender of the Year. Marzo’s new Drinks Agency is just about to be launched, and he is currently running a pop-up cocktail bar at South Melbourne’s ST. Ali, in the former Smalls site.

Orlando Marzo and Jess Clayfield. Photo by James Morgan.

Jess Clayfield’s love affair of bitterness and botanicals started at a very young age and naturally lead to experiment with Australian flavours, eventually landing as a bartender Melbourne’s iconic Gin Palace. There she is known as the ‘Lady of Botanicals’, regularly researching botanicals down to the smallest details.

Our vermouth tasting was held at Prince Dining Room in St Kilda (Melbourne). Photo by James Morgan.

Cara Devine has been working in the hospitality industry since she was 16, seriously getting into cocktail bartending about 10 years ago. She has since worked in award winning venues in Canada and Scotland before settling in Melbourne. She currently runs the rooftop cocktail bar at Bomba Tapas Bar. She is also the co-creator and presenter of Behind the Bar with Cara Devine, a YouTube channel devoted to providing education on cocktails, good booze and drinking culture.

Our vermouth tasting was held at Prince Dining Room in St Kilda (Melbourne). Photo by James Morgan.

Naz Fazio has spent over 20 years in the wine game, the last decade focusing mainly on Italian aperitifs, vermouths, digestives/amari and spirits with his wholesale business Aperitivo & Co./Vinosita @aperitivoandco).

Our vermouth tasting was held at Prince Dining Room in St Kilda (Melbourne). Photo by James Morgan.

Tatiana An has worked in Melbourne hospitality for the last 11 years, including at Gingerboy and Magic Mountain, before she took on the role running the beverage program at Mamasita and Hotel Jesus. She is currently the manager of Brunswick’s Rascal Wine Bar + Bottle-O.

Simon Killeen is a seventh generation winemaker, producing wines under his Simão & Co. label from fruit sourced across North-East Victoria. The Killeen name has long been a celebrated one in Rutherglen, with some of this country’s finest fortified wines bearing that imprint. Killeen has worked in Burgundy and the Rhône, as well as for stints at the great Port houses of Taylor’s, Fonseca and Croft.