Down in New Orleans last week I was lucky enough to attend a tasting and presentation of Noilly Prat. Noilly was announcing the release of the their European dry vermouth formula to the United States. Apparently all these years we had been getting the touristy version. The presenter claimed American tastes are finally sophisticated enough that they don’t have to dumb the recipe down, but I think it may have to do with wormwood regulations changing. All the presenter said is that the European formula is more bitter which may be because it has more wormwood and that it is aged slightly differently. Well anyhow, the presentation was very well done and I did take some notes which I will elaborate on.
The grapes that Noilly Prat uses are Picpoul from the plains which contributes 60% of the blend and Clairette from the slopes which makes up the difference. I have no experience with Picpoul but it was described as rich in bouquette while at the same time delicate and floral, with a dried fruit character and a creaminess. Clairette was described as delicate, of aromatic character, and floral with notes of honey. I didn’t understand if they buy the wines in October or buy the grapes. I guess by October they could buy already made very young wines. The wines may ring in at 10-12% alcohol and they are immediately fortified to 16% for stability. I imagine this is done with a neutral spirit of very high proof so it takes less acidity diluting volume.
The wine is then put into 40,000 liter, 100 year old Canadian oak barrels which imparts no color on the wine and have very tight pores relative to other oaks. This adds roundness and clarity to the wine which stays there for eight months. The wine then moves outside for 12 months in L’ Enclos which is a large field of 2000 barrels exposed to the Mediterranean elements. The wine loses 6% of its volume to the angel’s share and also oxidizes to a characteristic elegance. Eventually the Picpoul and Clairette are blended with the addition of a mistelle or grape sugar concentrate containing fruit liqueurs of raspberry and lemon peel.
The dry formula contains 20 botanicals of which Noilly Prat will only disclose chamomile, elderflower, coriander, orange peel, and quinine. The wine is macerated with the botanicals in Trieste forest casks (giant Slovenian style cask) for three weeks stirring every day (the dodinage).
The rouge sees extra botanicals of which they disclose: cloves, cocoa, saffron, quinine, and caramel.
The ambre was created in 1986 to explore another direction a vermouth could take. There are forty botanicals including, orange, cinnamon, rose petal, vanilla among others.
When I sat down and tasted the dry vermouth no specific flavor stuck out besides a subtle honeyed tone which probably is the intention. It is very enigmatic. You may not be able to name specific flavors but you can verbally praise the vermouth’s beautiful nose with its subtle androgynous fruit. Everything is very integrated and the dryness of the finish is well within the average of people’s tastes. I did note that I could drink a 6 oz. glass straight and I do know people that do on a daily basis (for every one of those people I know fifty that claim no one likes vermouth on its own).
The rouge didn’t get very many notes because I was in conversation with some people at the tasting. The subtle ever so noticeable bitter is very nice. There is also a cinnamon-like tannic mouthfeel.
At first I thought the ambre was fun, but not the mind blowing product that I’ve heard hyped. I thought that its vanilla was perceivable but perfectly done and it did not act to obscure anything. During the tasting I bounced in and out of conversation with people and eventually I had a moment of clarity while drinking the ambre and I tasted the sexiest shades of chocolate and tobacco I can remember. When I finally was able to take it in I noticed a long finish that lingered with serious depth. The ambre lived up to the hype!