Without sounding like a broken record; vermouth is BIG business.
Slowly but surely it has climbed out of that outdated pigeonhole it was once placed in, and rather than just picking up any old bottle at the supermarket to make our manhattans and martinis, we’re now paying more attention to what different brands are out there, and more importantly, what the different brands taste like.
Although it’s still seen as being more of a cocktail ingredient, as opposed to a decent drink in its own right, this seems to be changing (see Laura’s Belsazar review). Tom Higham wrote a piece about it early last year, so are we still undergoing a vermouth revival? I’m pretty certain it’s a 2015 trend, but after seeing a number of high-end bars concocting their own vermouths, is it now not just a trend, but trendy? Who knows? All I do know is that it gets the big thumbs up from me.
On my hunt to find new booze to share with you all, I came across some rather lovely looking bottles, with a beautiful lady adorning each label. Contratto is its name, Italian alcoholic goods are its nature, and (rather generously) they’ve sent me their vermouth range to review.
I won’t go into all the ins and outs of vermouth - we know what it is - but to recap; it’s a wine, fortified with spirit, aromatised and flavoured with various botanicals, such as herbs, seeds, roots, flowers, tree barks and spices... Capiche?
Now, Contratto Vermouth actually comes from a winery – from that fact alone, you know it’s going to be good stuff – and not just any old winery either; one that focuses on the production of high end sparkling wine (Champagne Method). Contratto is Italy's oldest sparkling wine house - founded in 1867 - and it has always produced spirits alongside wine; however they have only recently been re-launched, and are currently finding their way onto the back bars at our fave watering holes.
The three vermouths – Vermouth Bianco, Vermouth Rosso, Americano Rosso – are artisanally produced following original recipes dating back to the 1890’s, where herbs and spices were used to cover up any unpleasant, oxidised wines. Though all the traditional processes are still used, there’s no such masking these days; Contratto vermouths are sophisticated elixirs that are complex, fresh, and well balanced. (They also make a Fernet, Aperitif and Bitter, but we’ll look at those another time.)
Vermouth Bianco is probably the most familiar of the three varieties, but this one is quite the complex beast. It contains over 50 aromatics, which among many include: mint, ginger, nettle, wormwood, rhubarb, bitter orange peel, hibiscus flower, sage, and so on and so forth. Sweet and silky, and overall quite warming, it is vastly different from your extra dry vermouths like Noilly Prat.
On its own, over ice, this sweet-citrus number would make a wonderful aperitif, particularly on a sunny day, but Contratto also suggest an "Acqua di Neive"; 1 part Contratto Vermouth Bianco, 2 parts Fever Tree Tonic Water, on the rocks, garnished with lemon and sage leaves. Give me a herby fish/chicken/pasta dish and this would be PERFECT... On another note, if you like the idea of a Martini, but tend to find them a bit too dry and strong, then perhaps using Contratto might be your answer. It's sweetness is pared down by the crisp gin (I always tend to go for gin in my Martini), and it gives you a much wetter, fuller flavoured drink, that is a bit more user friendly.
This copper coloured vermouth is based on at least 31 aromatics: coriander seeds, bay laurel leaves, yellow sweet clover, cinnamon, nutmeg, sweet orange peel, licorice and sandal wood, to name a few. It has a sweet, musky nose, and there's something that reminds me of bitter chocolate/almonds lingering there too. On the palate, Vermouth Rosso entices you with a sultry tartness, highlighting those citrus ingredients and letting the herbs and spices carry on the party on the finish. I could easily see me sipping this neat with dessert, as opposed to a dessert wine or port, but Contratto recommend it as an aperitif in a "Roma" cocktail; 1 part Contratto Vermouth Rosso, 3 parts Asti Spumante (or other sparkling wine), garnished with a strawberry.
Americano is another version of a vermouth; also based on white wine it draws from much the same pool of botanicals. There are less in comparison to the Bianco and Rosso, though still 25, and include ginger, mint, hawthorn flower, nettle leaves, angelica root and bitter orange peel. The mint is quite prominent in this one, and its fresh menthol taste marries wonderfully with the other herbs and spices. It's sweet, viscous and bitter orange flavours pop in the mouth on the finish. Again, you could drink it neat, or get creative on the cocktail front. Contratto boast the "Napoli"; 2 parts Contratto Americano Rosso, 2 parts orange juice, 3 parts Contratto For England (a rosé sparkling wine). A grand Bucks Fizz!
I'd totally recommend you scout out these "Boutique Aperitifs"; my vermouth eyes have been opened! And keep your eyes peeled for other Contratto reviews coming soon.