For most Americans, vermouth tends to be binary — either red and sweet or white and dry. It’s the stuff on the bottom shelf at the liquor store that’s usually cheap and only useful for martinis and Manhattans. That’s a bit like thinking that all there is to wine is $7 merlot and chardonnay.
It’s just not true — and if you feel that way, you’re really missing out.
At its core, vermouth is wine made with bottanicals like herbs, roots and bark. It is usually fortified to a higher level of alcohol and is sometimes sweetened in some way. It has a long history in Europe and, within those basic guidelines, seemingly infinite combinations of flavoring agents, sweeteners and fortification methods are available.
Winemaker Christopher James Tracy of Channing Daughters Winery isn’t exploring all of those variations in his Bridgehampton cellar, but he’s certainly moved well beyond red versus white.
Tracy makes six different variations of VerVino — the winery’s name for its vermouth program — with red, white and rosé wines as the bases. Each individual vermouth attempts to capture the essence of a particular season — spring, early summer, late summer, etc. — and is made from ingredients grown within a few miles of the winery and harvested during each of those seasons.
Channing Daughters’ VerVino Variation 2 Batch#2, dedicated to the flavors and bounty of early summer, combines a sauvignon blanc with more than 30 botanicals. The botanicals aren’t secret per se — you can see them floating in the base wine on the front of the label. But Tracy lists only a few of them on the winery’s website: Thai green chile peppers, paper lantern habañeros, jalapeños, borage, tarragon, cucumbers, angelica and zucchini blossoms. Fortified with neutral grape spirits, it’s sweetened with local honey, too.
“It comes from Mary Woltz’s Bees’ Needs,” Tracy says. “Many of her hives are on the same farms where we get some of the botanicals, so it’s truly full circle.”
Those chiles do bring some spice, but they won’t wreck your palate. In fact, what they bring instead is a distinct savoriness that’s balanced nicely by subtle honey sweetness. You can taste the sauvignon blanc in the background, too, but mostly you taste a wide array of herbs and flowers. It’s actually not easy to describe, other than to say that it’s unlike anything else you’ve probably had in your glass — and it’s delicious.
It’s also incredibly versatile.
“Straight up is great,” Tracy said about how to best enjoy it. “Tequila and mescal are awesome with it. Fabulous in a dirty gin martini. Really great with lemonade on ice. Makes a fabulous Bloody Mary, either as a low-alcohol option or on top of the vodka for character and spice.”
It’s the kind of libation that invites experimentation. Oh, and make sure that you put your open bottle in the refrigerator. It will keep longer than wine, but not if you leave it in a cabinet or on the counter.
This story was originally published in the spring 2017 edition of the Long Island Wine Press