Vermouth is the beginning of everything. The pre-meal aperitif. The first stop when leaving work. The start of a chat with your friends. — Más Vermut Málaga
Patrick Mata wrote this in an email to me in September. Via the website for his New York importing company, Olé & Obrigado, I’d sent him a note to ask about the Spanish vermouth brand that carries his name.
As I’ve written about in the previous two columns, I picked up a bottle of Mata Vermouth Blanco back in August at the increasingly eclectic Lawler’s Liquors in Napa and discovered, more or less with my eyes closed, that it marries quite well in a cocktail with Savage & Cooke Tennessee rye whiskey, lemon juice, and a few dashes of bitters. I dubbed it the Tahoe Delicioso, after the lake where it was concocted in August by your vacationing correspondent.
As the Olé & Obrigado name would suggest, Patrick and his partners work in Spanish and Portuguese wine imports. Their portfolio is distributed in California by Chambers & Chambers Wine Merchants, a well-respected company based here in Napa.
“Unfortunately, our family winery was sold in the late 60’s,” he explained in the email. “After some years I was able to find all the recipes [for hundreds] of vermouths and with our partner Bodegas Guerra we started to recreate some of the recipes.”
To vermouth drinkers’ benefit in Spain and elsewhere, Mata Blanco was one of these. Ten years ago, you were more likely to find artisan Italian or French vermouth, or even my friend Carl Sutton’s Brown Label, than something Spanish in a Bay Area bar or well-stocked bottle shop. But recently, through Patrick’s efforts and those of a handful of other importers, some excellent vermouths have crossed the Atlantic from his country and made it all the way to California and to Napa Valley’s front door.
Naturally, these unique fortified wines also land in San Francisco, and a good number of them get delivered to Bellota. Erin Rickenbaker is this outstanding Iberian restaurant’s wine director and oversees its rare, all-Spanish wine program.
Diners can’t exactly partake of the wine list at Bellota these days—except in to-go orders from the South of Market location—but Erin no doubt looks forward to pouring for her guests again when this pandemic is history. Meanwhile, a quick glance at her Instagram feed, where she writes extensive posts about specific regions and bottles, suggests that her enthusiasm for Spanish wines might border on the obsessive.
Under much-missed normal circumstances, she and her Bellota bar staff serve vermouths from points all over Spain’s map: Atxa Blanco from the Basque Country, due north towards the French border; Primitivo Quiles, made in Alicante at the Mediterranean southeast; and Mata, which comes from the comarca, or “shire,” of Bierzo in the northwest province of Léon.
While these wines are poured in traditional fashion over ice with an olive or citrus garnish, or incorporated into classic cocktails like The Bamboo, Erin shared in an email to me (only partially kidding, I think) that, for the sake of on-the-ground, Spanish hora del vermut authenticity, she really wants to “get to the point where we pass out a soda siphon to a table drinking vermouth on the rocks… we’ll see.”
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A couple hours’ drive up the Costa del Sol from the Rock of Gibraltar, the ancient city of Málaga is yet another source of Spanish vermouth. As Patrick informed me, the Mata recipe, along with many others, originated at his family’s winery here before the facility was sold over 50 years ago.
Though he revived its recipe in Bierzo, the fact that the Mata vermouth is now made in this region of northern Spain is almost atypical, according to Carl Sutton.
My friend and I caught up on the phone last month to talk a bit more about Mata Blanco. Carl had tracked down a bottle, and the glass of it he sipped at home in Massachusetts allowed me to get his up-to-the-minute impressions. In keeping with the à la mode tasting format, we did the call on our phones in FaceTime so we could clink glasses, virtually.
“Bierzo doesn’t have a vermouth tradition like Catalonia, or maybe Madrid,” he said of the sub-region within the historical Spanish region of Castile y León. “My observation when I was there—and this was 15 years ago—was that Bierzo had a lot of co-ops. There weren’t very many winemakers that were growing grapes and making their own wine.”
One of the Bierzo wineries in Olé & Obrigado’s large portfolio definitely was around in 2005—and for well over a century before then. Bodegas Guerra is the region’s oldest winery, founded in 1879 by Don Antonio Guerra, who made not just traditional still wines but also sparkling wines, spirits, and vermouths.
As Guerra’s U.S. importer, Patrick enjoys a convenient relationship with his client, whereby the Mata Vermouth Blanco is produced at the Guerra property in the Bierzo town of Cacabelo. He described the wine as “a unique product that we developed. Guerra happens to be the facility that we use, but we could be making this recipe in any other facility.”
Over the course of a decade, between his former San Francisco apartment and the cavernous Dogpatch warehouse space that housed his winery, he created and produced a vermouth recipe under similarly adaptable circumstances. It happened through lots of trial and error, playing with combinations of base wines, brandies, and botanicals, and solving the all-important question of sweetness. Like I did, he thought the Mata Blanco was on the sweet side, but as the winemaker in him likes to say, “Sweet is a number and fruity is a flavor”—meaning sweetness can be quantified, but fruitiness is a subjective impression of the individual taster. Throw in some Tennessee rye, I thought to myself, and things get even more subjective.
I mentioned that Patrick’s email only included “sugar” as the sweetening agent in his vermouth, without specifying what form it took or what its origin was. Out of politeness, I hadn’t pressed the importer on this detail, though a closer look at the Olé & Obrigado website clarified that grape must is used. Circling back to the Tahoe Delicioso and my happy accident of a recipe, I simply reminded Carl that the sweet-bitter characteristic in the Spanish vermouth was what made the cocktail work so well.
He took another sip, then summed up his thoughts on it: the verbal tasting notes of a guy whose internal monologue might sound like an herb gardener conferring with a spice merchant. “I believe there’s some sort of thyme, and there’s definitely wormwood,” he ventured. “The sweetness is refreshing. You know, it complements the herbal-ness. It benefits to balance the bitterness. And there’s a citrus characteristic, which is really nice.”
In counterpoint to its citrusy sweetness, he picked up a bitter orange component in the Mata Blanco’s flavor, an accentuation of the fruit’s sharper profile. “You think, ‘Oh, an orange. That’s a fruit. It’s fruity, and it’s sugary. But with oranges, if you’re using the peel and the pith, it can add bitterness.”
Many peels, piths, and other ingredients have, according to Carl, gone into his own winery bins and tanks over the years to macerate with base wines. He listed “herbs, roots, barks, fruits, seeds, and flowers”—a kitchen sink of botanicals that found their way into some extraordinarily complex fortified wines. Once, on a stopover in the Dogpatch a few years ago, I helped him crack green walnuts, which he macerated with red wine for his Brown Label Vin de Noix, one of the colorful spinoff concepts from his vermouth bottling.
That signature vermouth was produced under the Sutton Cellars label, and for the last couple of years a very similar version has been made at T.W. Hollister, the Santa Barbara County winery for which he consults as a bicoastal winemaker. While tasting the Mata Blanco, he guessed at the process behind it and compared it to his own.
To capture the range of flavors inherent to vermouth, Carl explained, “you back-sweeten with whatever your sweetener of choice is, whether it’s sugar, whether it’s caramel, whether it’s honey. You’re back-sweetening to balance the bitterness of the different botanicals. And to make the wine or the vermouth palatable, to encourage people to want to have more than just one sip.”
He recounted that, out of the two and a half years he spent developing his vermouth recipe, the first year consisted of “playing around” with both sweet and dry versions. The final decision to sweeten it—ever so slightly, to my palate—was influenced by a couple of bartender friends who counseled him bluntly. “It needs sugar,” they told him.
At first, he said, he resisted but confessed that “after adding some sweetness, back-sweetening it, I realized how much it makes different flavors pop, and that balances things like astringency and bitterness. So, that is exactly how I think almost every vermouth producer does it, whether they’re using some sort of a grape must or, you know, a fortified grape juice that has enough alcohol in it that it won’t ferment—but that also has a bunch of sugar in it.”
“Ultimately,” he said, “you’re working to have everything balance out.”
Though his tastes run European, Dave Dennis carries the title of Portfolio Manager for domestic wines at Chambers & Chambers, the distributors of the Olé & Obrigado Spanish and Portuguese selections here in California. As one of this venerable company’s longest-tenured employees, Dave has had a hand in selling across its broad European map of suppliers. But these days, he’s only indirectly involved in sales of Spanish wines to Erin Rickenbaker, or to Peter Ibrahim, the owner of the Napa shop where I first came across the Mata vermouth.
Of course, being a career wine guy, nothing is stopping my friend and north Napa neighbor from delving into the trove of his employers’ imported wines. Like I did with Carl, I figured I’d get a few vermouth impressions for this story from Dave… except he had yet to taste it.
“Frankly,” he told me a couple of weeks ago, “I’ve probably only tried a vermouth or two in the last 25 years. I mean, it could have been that long.”
This both surprised and stymied me; I was in a hurry (until life got in the way of writing, as it does) to finish this column. So, in a somewhat backwards maneuver as the vermouth customer, I took an open bottle of Mata Blanco from our fridge to drop off with the ostensible salesman of this wine at his house. Dave’s big, auburn-haired golden doodle, Arlow, sniffed across the front gate but didn’t bark at the new guy.
When we caught up on the phone a few days later, he added to his disclaimer. “I’m not a cocktail person or, you know, a spirits person,” he said, “even though I’ve been exposed to some of the greatest products in those categories since I’ve been in the business for so long. But it just hasn’t ever been my thing. This vermouth is a little bit different because it’s only fifteen percent alcohol. And I can see it being a really cool, flexible kind of aperitif wine.”
To evaluate it for the first time, he told me, he poured just an ounce or two into a white wine glass without ice or anything else. And again, when we talked on the phone, he had a small amount in his glass while looking at the vermouth information sheet on the Olé & Obrigado website.
“I was trying to pick out both the aromatics and the flavor profile and trying to pinpoint some of those, you know, herbs and spices that they use. I thought it was crazy that they say they add saffron, which is super cool.”
The other ingredients listed among the “various roots, flowers and savory herbs” on the sheet are sage, mint, star anise, and the thyme and bitter orange peel that Carl had correctly identified. However, it mentioned none of the wormwood he’d guessed at: the woody shrub, called Wermut in German, that gives it name to vermut in Spanish—and vermouth most everywhere else.
Dave pointed out that, while the importer coyly claims the exact blend is a secret, the two white grape varieties used to make the base wine, godello and doña blanca, are not. “I love godello,” said the guy who’s tried a Spaniard’s share of them, “but it’s hard, I mean, with all the other things added, plus the sweetness and all the botanicals, I can’t say that I can really identify a specific grape variety. To me, godello typically can be pretty round and viscous. The vermouth definitely is, and although it’s quite bitter, it’s still got some volume. I mean, it’s really pretty rich and mouth-coating.”
He sniffed his glass and took another sip. “It’s wildly complex for the price point. And I’m so far away from being a vermouth expert. Like I said, I rarely ever drink it. So it was pretty cool to be turned onto it.”
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Before wrapping up this story on rye whiskey, Spanish vermouth, and the way I accidentally discovered back in August that they go so well together in a cocktail—with the balancing act completed by some bitters and the juice of a lemon (the fruit with which I’ve had a love-hate relationship for most of my life and will be the subject of a future column)—I checked Erin Rickenbaker’s lively and well-conceived Instagram feed to see what was new.
She’d most recently written about a Canary Islands wine, negramoll, made by a friend of hers on the island of La Palma. I trust this bottle will fit into the unique program at Bellota Restaurant, if it hasn’t already.
To get Erin to serve negramoll, or any other tinto on her list, Bellota customers would be well-advised to first indulge her enthusiasm for the traditional la hora del vermut—the vermouth hour—when, as she shared in her email to me, she and her staff give people “the opportunity to sample various vermouths at happy hour prices. Guests who are new to the vermut vibe seem to love it, and we’ve created a number of addicts, for sure.”
At least by this small sample size, the vermouth culture, ubiquitous in Spain, seems to show potential to catch on in San Francisco and other parts of the Bay Area. I think the coronavirus pandemic is just a hiccup in its development. At Bellota, Erin wrote playfully, they’re attempting to create a standard “by making it fun, approachable and informative. The staff is in fact trained to fervently drop science on it like it’s a new episode of The Mandalorian.”
Then she concluded, with a sheepish “ha-ha,” that, stylistically, Spain makes the best version of this amazingly complex, fortified wine.
“Spanish vermouth ranges from bitter and barky, to musty and pensive, to floral and ethereal. It can certainly do what its predecessors came to do—cure impotence, heal scorpion bites, and take its place in the beverage world as a remarkably delicious way to spend an afternoon. The beginnings of a vermouth and aperitif culture are well under way.”
When we’d talked about it, Dave Dennis used the same word at least three times to describe Mata Vermouth Blanco: he called it “cool.” It’s not a bad word to describe such an old-school beverage with a complex history in Europe and an equally complex range of flavors, no matter where it’s made or enjoyed. The idea of clocking in for the vermouth hour, whether in San Francisco, here in Napa Valley, or somewhere—anywhere!—in Spain sounds pretty cool to me.