I had requested an article from inter library loan to try and learn more about vermouth production. The article was from the 1948 Wines & Vines publication which is really hard to come across. Hopefully some day they will all be digitized and archived on the web but until then I might just have to type them up and break some copyright laws. Tragically, the article is not overly useful and has a secretive tone. I got the reference to the article from Maynard Amerine’s Vermouth: an annotated bibliography and it seemed like the most promising place to start.
I’m going to plagiarize the entire article and retype the scanning that was sent to me for the sake of education.
Bo, M. J., and M.J. Filice
1948. Gold medal sweet vermouth. Wines & vines 29 (8):27.
From Amerine’s abstract:
“The author’s describe their method of flavoring the sweet vermouth that won the Gold Medal at the 1947 California State Fair: acceptable wine base, herbs (from a secret Italian recipe of 1924), and the process (details given). The authors controlled the plant part used, its source, and the effect of plant particle size. Experiments showed that source of herbs was important. Some herbs gave better results when granulated, other when powdered and others at specific particle size. Their process involved leaving the wine in contact with herbs (starting at 60 degrees C and leaving for 24 hours). The finished vermouth was then allowed a further aging period in small cooperage in order to effect a complete “marriage” of the various individual flavoring and aromatic components.”
Gold Medal Sweet Vermouth by Michael J. BO and Michael J. Filice San Martin Vineyards Company
In this article we wish to present the inside story of San Martin Sweet Vermouth, Gold Medal winner in competition at the California, 1947, State Fair, and to discuss the basic principles adhered to in its preparation.
THE WINE BASE
In selecting our wine base we turn to well-aged special dessert type wines only, which are stable, clean and clear. Samples of these wines are taken to the laboratory where a series of small scale blends are conducted. Blending is carried on until a base, balanced as closely as possible in total acidity, volatile acidity, and alcohol, is obtained–and one which is consistent, in flavor and aroma with previous wines used.
We want our wine base to possess a certain delicate aroma and flavor, because we have found that it is complementary to our particular formula. It forms a harmonious blend with the herbs employed both in aroma and flavor. It gives a finished product possessing the characteristics strived for.
Experimentation with several other wine bases obtained through various blends and the use a a neutral wine base in conjunction with our particular formula have failed to give us the same quality and desirable characteristics.
From this we concluded that, in order to bring out the best qualities of a combination of herbs used in any particular formula, the wine base used was definitely an essential factor. Every effort was made to find one that would do most to enhance our herb recipe.
The selection and combination of the herbs used in developing a vermouth formula is almost unlimited.
The plant portions utilized are the seeds, flowers, barks, stems, leaves and roots. Each of these portions taken from the same herb plant, in most cases, will produce from shades to marked differences in flavor and aroma.
During the many years required to develop our formula to its present composition, we had as a basis for our work a secret Italian recipe, obtained through family sources in Italy about 1924. The combination of herbs contained therein gave us to a close degree the characteristics we desired, but not exactly what we wanted.
We sought, therefore, to change the imported recipe to an extent necessary to make it conform exactly with what we had in mind. Through the long experimental process of adding other herbs to the formula, substituting and eliminating, we found that herb recipe that met with our satisfaction.
We then decided to investigate the possibility of improving and refining that which we already had, without making any material changes in the constituent elements. This decision narrowed the avenues through which improvement might be realized to primarily the following three:
1. To conduct experiments using different portions of the same herb plant than the one called for by the formula.
2. To purchase herbs from different reliable botanical firms, both in this country and abroad, compare their qualities and note what effect each would have when exclusively used in our formula and when used in combination with herbs obtained from other firms.
3. To explore the effect of herb particle size in the extraction of desirable flavors to the elimination of those least desirable.
The first mentioned series of experiments brought about one advantageous and desirable change. The portion used, in the case of one herb, was changed from the seed to the root.
In the second series of experiments, results noted in the laboratory proved that the same herb purchased from several different botanical houses did not in all cases afford the same quality in the finished product. We therefore confined our purchasing of individual herbs to those firms whose particular product did more, in our estimation, to improve our vermouth. Such tests have been preserved as an integral part of our vermouth production.
In the third approach, extractions were made of whole, chopped, granulated and powdered portions of the different herbs used in the formula. Results of subsequent comparisons, demonstrated that certain herbs yielded a more preferred extraction when in granulated form, and others when in a powdered form. From that time forward our herbs have been ordered, specifying particle size, in conformity with the above mentioned tests, with the same desirable results in evidence.
Following the determination of the wine base blend in the laboratory, a corresponding large scale blend is made in the cellar, the total amount being based on the quantity of vermouth we have decided to produce.
Approximately 5 per cent of the prepared wine base is pumped in the vermouth processing tank and heated to 140 degrees F. The herbs, accurately weighed, are placed in the hot wine and all openings of the tank tightly closed in order not to lose any of the volatile aromatic constituents. The herbs are allowed to stay in contact with the hot wine for a period of 24 hours, after which the remainder of the wine base, at cellar temperature, is added.
The mass is allowed to stand for 24 hours more and is then circulated daily, by means of a small pump, for a period of seven days. On the seventh day, a sample is drawn and checked for flavor and aroma. This procedure is followed daily until the desired flavor and aroma have developed. Under no circumstances do we allow a complete extraction of the herbs, because with our particular formula we have found that partial extraction of the herbs gives us a much smoother vermouth, free from harsh tannins, etc.
When the maceration is completed, the sugar content is adjusted to 10 Balling by the use of concentrate and pure cane sugar. It is then filtered and, if necessary, stabilized in the usual manner.
The finished vermouth is then allowed a further aging period in small cooperage in order to effect a complete “marriage” of the various individual flavorings and aromatic components. When this condition is considered, through periodical tastings, to have been accomplished, the vermouth is bottled and held in storage as a backlog for future market requirements.
So I see how they are very analytical and systematically tried many different options but I could have figured that out myself. I would love to find more logic to particle extraction like maybe powder things that can be fully extracted like an orange peel and go upwards in particle size as you want to minimize the extraction like your wormwood or overly bitter roots.
What I’m looking for is a language that was used to describe the shades of difference producers sorted through. How do you describe the different shades of something elemental like orange peel? and what is the difference between quality within herbs and terroir?
What are the mechanics of the wine base and how do they function relative to particular herb formulas. Perhaps formulas with less fruit modifiers rely less on a high extract wine base and neutral wine bases came to be because producers would build more fruit modifiers into their herb formulas and therefore streamline their massive productions as well as hedge against year to year variance. Does the language in these articles ever get more useful than “it forms a harmonious blend”?