Vermouth starts as a base of wine fortified with brandy, to which is added any of a variety of botanicals like citrus peels, wormwood, cinchona bark, juniper, ginger, clove, and allspice; the result, aromatized fortified wine, usually offers intense flavors and aromas. The French, Spanish, and Italians have used vermouth as an aperitif simply on the rocks or with soda for eons and since the advent of cocktails, vermouth has been along for the ride.
You likely know many of the more recognizable brands like Dolin, Cinzano, Martini & Rossi, and Carpano. For me, many of the Italian and French vermouths lean too dry, though I’ve found a sweet spot with red Spanish vermouths—vermút rojo—like Atxa and Yzaguirre. Gallo has long been the mass-market American brand, but in the last decade a number of high-quality U.S. producers like Oregon’s Ransom and New York’s Atsby have entered the game to acclaim. My new favorite among these domestic offerings comes from the Massican winery in Napa, makers mainly of bright Mediterranean-style whites. The operation’s name honors a range of coastal hills in southern Italy.
Massican skews lighter, due to lower sugar content than other vermouths like Carpano Antica. Both the dry white and sweet red start with a base of Massican white wine and the winery’s brandy as a fortifying agent. Herbs and spices include orange peel, coriander, and nutmeg and for bite, the white gets quassia wood and the red sees galangal added. Grape concentrate is added (moscato for the white; petite sirah for the red) for color.
When it arrived, I was initially taken with its gorgeous orange-tinged ruby color, but then really got enamored with its fresh and bright nose, reminiscent of just-squeezed blood orange juice. The flavor sealed the deal— some sweet-sour cherry notes up front with just a hint of bitterness from the herbal botanicals and a lovely long ginger essence on the finish.
Over the course of the bottle, my husband and I enjoyed an array of drinks: simply on the rocks and then also with soda; Manhattans using Legent, Maker’s Mark, and Virgil Kaine bourbons, as well as Templeton rye (not together, mind you); negronis with London dry gins like Fords and Sipsmith. I also used the dry white in 50/50 martinis with Monkey 47, Roku, and Plymouth gins. To say Massican’s vermouths made all of these drinks quite delightful would be an understatement. Both the sweet and dry play well with a range of sprits styles.
I’ve got two more bottles already on the way.