Our favourites to order this month
hand-picked wines by our Master of Wine
The Little Fine Wine Company was founded in January 2018, to provide reliably delicious wines from authentic, good wine producers, with a difference!
“A friendly and efficient service offering a good selection of old favourites and new finds. Was really impressed with the helpful tasting notes accompanying the wines. I’ve already bought my next batch! Keep up the good work.”
Lucy W, London
As you may be able to tell from our wine range, our favourite red grape variety, by far, is Pinot Noir. Its combination of red berry perfume, fine texture on the palate and excellent balance is extremely alluring. The grape is tricky to grow and tricky to vinify (which means it is never the cheapest wine offered) but is found widely around the world and is reliably consistent; those who are keen on ‘blind’ wine tastings rarely struggle to spot a Pinot Noir!
The Pinot Noir family
Pinot Noir is often abbreviated to Pinot and therefore could be confused with Pinot Grigio and Pinot Blanc. These grapes are in fact all related (Pinot Gris/Grigio, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Meunier are likely variants, or clones, of Pinot Noir). But, for avoidance of doubt, if Pinot is mentioned, assume Pinot Noir is meant, i.e the red grape.
As an aside, it is a prodigious variety, being the parent (along with Gouais Blanc) of other famous grapes Chardonnay, Aligote, Melon de Bourgogne (the grape now found in Muscadet), Gamay, Pinot Precoce (often found in the UK’s cool-ish climate) and many others. So, if there is one grape to know, it’s Pinot Noir!
Styles of Pinot Noir
Generally, Pinot Noir is one of the few grapes you can spot from the colour in the glass. It’s noticeably lighter in colour than other wines found in the same region/country. It’s possibly confused with a Beaujolais or Valpolicella, but otherwise, the low colour intensity is a bit of a giveaway.
Pinot Noir tends to have red fruit aromas and flavours in the glass. Think strawberries, raspberries, cherries and cranberries. Warmer climates might provide black fruit characters such as blueberries or cherries, or even some dried fruit characters. But red fruit notes are the telltale sign you may have a Pinot noir in your glass.
In addition to this, Pinot Noir wines are often aged in oak barrels, but are not usually in new oak barrels. The new oak is what gives the wine a particularly spicy or toasty character, and often this is reserved for Cabernet, Merlot or Syrah, the fuller-bodied red grapes.
With age, Pinot Noir’s character becomes even more interesting, taking on earthy, mushroom or gamey characters. And when the ‘whole-bunch’ technique is used in the cellar (where the stems of the bunches are kept in the fermentation vats for several days), a lovely herb/lavender character can present itself in the glass. Pinot Noir is never dull!
It’s also a thin-skinned grape which translates into wines with low tannin. This is why you may hear winemakers suggesting you chill your Pinot Noir in summer. Wines with low tannin such as Grenache or Pinot tend to chill down well, whereas thick-skinned, high-tannin grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon taste bitter at cooler temperatures.
Pinot Noir is also a grape which has high natural acidity, so there is frequently a fresh quality to the wine, a lightness and elegance relative to other good reds. It makes a delicious food match. Try a fruity Pinot Noir such as Ata Rangi’s Crimson with duck, turkey or chicken, with mushroom risotto or a charcuterie platter, and it will wow! It’s extremely versatile and tends to be the wine that will please a crowd over a Christmas dinner, for example.
Where do you find Pinot Noir?
Pinot Noir remains the sixth largest red grape variety in the world. But, Burgundy is Pinot Noir’s homeland, where it’s the largest red grape by far, and is responsible for 39.5% of all grapevine plantings. You can also find good examples of Pinot Noir in Alsace, the Loire Valley (where it tends to make very good Sancerre Rouge and Rose) as well as the Languedoc (see our Altugnac Pinot Noir for a light, refreshing and remarkably good value Pinot).
Head into Germany and particularly the Ahr and Baden regions for further fine Pinot (it is known as Spatburgunder in Germany). Or to Eastern Europe for light, fruity and ultimately more simple versions. But for serious Pinot Noir outside of Burgundy, the most exciting areas, in our opinion, are the following:
Victoria, in South Australia: Curly Flat, Bindi, Kooyong and Yarra Yering are all great examples.
New Zealand: Central Otago and Martinborough such as Valli, Felton Road or Ata Rangi
Generally, the high acidity of Pinot Noir is valued for sparkling wines. So, it’s a major component of almost all great Champagnes, as well as many of the English traditional method wines that have broken onto the wine scene of late, such as Exton Park or Nyetimber. Plus, Franciacorta (try Ca del Bosco), Tasmanian and Californian Sparklings, Cape Classique from South Africa and others.
It’s not an easy grape to grow, which restricts plantings of Pinot Noir to certain wine regions. This, plus the fact that it’s difficult to extract tannin and flavour from Pinot Noir grapes in the cellar, means it’s often referred to as ‘the Heartbreak grape’! It has thin skins and buds relatively early, therefore is susceptible to disease and frost. This usually means low yields, which never pleases the grape grower. It also loses freshness and precious acidity quickly in a warm climate, so you’ll find that most of the climates above are on the cooler side, or at least sheltered from the fiercer temperatures of other warmer wine regions. Making Pinot Noir is a real labour of love, but is definitely worth it!
To try some of these wines, please see our full range of Pinot Noirs here
One of the questions we are asked most often during our wine tastings is how Rosé wine is made. Here, our Director Vicki outlines the basics.
Well… there is an easy way to make Rosé. This is to blend white and red wines together just before the wine is bottled. But, this is not seen as the best way to make a good Rosé wine (exceptions are Champagne and some Sparkling wines).
As is so often in life, the best way is also the hardest way!
In this case, to make good still Rosé, you can extract the colour from the skins of red grapes and use this to turn the juice of the grape (which is almost always white in colour) pink! This happens by pressing the grapes to draw out the red colour from the skins, and/or allowing the grape skins and juice to macerate together (often known as ‘skin contact‘).
In fact, it’s also possible to create a very light style of Rosé from a few different white grapes such as Pinot Grigio. Naturally, this grape has a slight pink tinge to its grape skin. With the right amount of maceration time, it will show a gentle pink or orange hue in the glass. This very light-coloured wine is traditionally called Ramato in Northeast Italy. Ramato literally means ‘copper’, as in a copper colour (rather than the slang for the local police, in case you were wondering!).
However, the complete answer to making Rosé wine is actually more complicated. If that has sufficiently answered your question about making Rosé, we are happy to help. But, if you’re interested in a deeper dive, see below for the long read.
Decisions decisions decisions
Depending on the desired style of Rosé, there are plenty of decisions the winemaker can make. So let’s dive into the technical side of Rosé…
The raw ingredient: great grapes in great places!
For Rosé wine-making, the first thing to look at is the grapes…
Generally speaking, the red grapes that already grow well in an area would also be used to make Rosé. So, you’ll find the red grape Pinot Noir is used for a Sancerre Rosé in the Loire Valley of France (It’s just too chilly to ripen, say, Cabernet Sauvignon or Syrah here). And, Zinfandel is used for many Californian Rosés, as this is a red grape that thrives in much of this that state. In Europe this is often part of the wine laws. The Sancerre appellation is a good example; Pinot Noir can make Red or Rosé wines if the name Sancerre is on the label.
Often a blend is best
There are plenty of Rosés that are a blend of different grapes varieties. One good example is a Bordeaux Rosé, where the red grapes Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot form the main blend. (See our Chateau Haut Rian Bordeaux Rosé for a particularly juicy example).
There are also some Rosés where red and white grapes can be macerated and pressed together at the start of the winemaking process, before fermentation. For example, while red grapes are usually needed for that famous pink Provencal colour, plenty of Cotes de Provence wines also contain the white grape Rolle (known in Italy as Vermentino). This gives a refreshing citrus character to the Rosé. Whispering Angel and Miraval both contain this Rolle grape. And just to the north, the Rhone Valley appellation of Tavel permits up to nine different grapes to be used in the blend, of which three can be white: Picpoul, Bourboulenc and Clairette. Try Chateau d’Aqueria for a great example of Tavel.
The different grapes will give different qualities to the wine. Pinot Noir has thin grape skins and therefore less colour, giving a lighter tint to the wine, along with good natural acidity and freshness. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot have thick grape skins and therefore more colour potential as well as more tannin and structure. And in warmer regions such as the South of France, the white grape Clairette is naturally high in acidity, which balances the richer, fatter character of some of the red grapes in the blend.
In many cases, the grower harvests grapes for Rosé wines earlier than grapes destined for a winery’s red wines. This ensures the acidity level in the grapes destined for Rosé is higher. This is an important component, as we all love the freshness often found in Rosé wines.
The technical bit, there are actually at least four different ways to make Rosé wine in the cellar
Earlier, we talked about pressing the red grapes and/or macerating them to move some of the colour from the skins into the juice. But in reality, the Rosé-making lines are a little blurred (and not because we have drunk too much Rosé, we promise). So, read on….
Method One: Direct Press Rosés (known in French as Rosé de presse)
For this method, the red grapes are harvested, taken to the winery and then pressed, promptly separating the grape skins and juice. There is minimal contact between the juice and the skins, and so only a light pink colour results. This is particularly the case if only the very first juice that flows from the press (known as the free-run juice), is kept.
Note, this is similar to how white wine is made, where the pressing happens early in the winemaking process and there is little maceration.
In most cases the grapes are destemmed (the grape stalks are removed) and crushed gently, before going to the press. This helps the extraction of red colour, although with some of the best Champagnes, for example, even these two steps don’t happen, and the whole bunch of grapes goes straight to the press. This means extremely gentle treatment of the grapes and a pale colour.
You may also see the words Vin Gris (translating to ‘grey wine’ in English; it really does sound better in French!). This is a Rosé with a particularly pale colour. It’s not a legal definition but typically is made from the juice that runs from the grapes after they are crushed, before they reach the press, or immediately after pressing.
Method Two: Skin Contact or Maceration
This really is a variant of the above, however the juice and skins are kept in contact for longer, anywhere from a couple of hours up to two or three days. This means the wines are often slightly pinker and with a little more tannin and structure than a direct press Rosé. This skin contact can either happen prior to pressing, often at cold temperatures with what’s known as a ‘cold soak’ (a maceration at around 10-15 degrees to extract the red pigment from the skins of the crushed grapes) or after pressing, before the juice is separated from the skins.
Method Three: Saignée (pronounced sane-yay, from French word ‘saigner’ meaning ‘to bleed’)
Traditionally, a Saignée Rosé (or Rosé de Saignée in France) is a sort of offshoot of the red winemaking process. The grapes are crushed and then the maceration begins as with a red wine. The longer time of contact and increased extraction between the skins and juice creates a deeper, darker style. Most importantly, around 10-20% of the juice is then separated or ‘bled off’. The separated portion is the Rosé. This leaves behind a much more concentrated red wine, so Saignée is a method of ensuring that your red wine has lots of flavour and structure.
This method was used to concentrate red wine in terms of tannins and flavour in Bordeaux amongst other key red wine regions. Often, because of the length of maceration and extraction, the colour and tannins are also increased in the Saignée portion, i.e the Rosé. Many Tavel Rosés are still made in this way, where the deep red colour, full body and firm structure are part of the style.
Note, Saignée Rosés are usually dry wines. An important point to remember is that a dark colour in Rosé does not, despite some assertions, necessarily equal sweet!
Method Four: Blending
As mentioned previously, blending is the easiest way to create Rosé. This method literally is blending white and red wines together. Contrary to what some might say, this method is allowed worldwide, although, with the exception of Champagne, French wine appellations usually forbid it. The highest profile example of wines that are a blend of white and red are some Champagnes, such as Moet et Chandon or Nicolas Feuillatte (in France you may see a reference to a Rosé d’assemblage). Anywhere between around 5 and 20% of red wine is added to the white before finally sealing the bottle. Some estates such as Louis Roederer or Billecart-Salmon decide against this, and use the skin contact method, as above, or the direct press method such as the English Sparkling estate Exton Park.
Today, much Rosé is made in a dry, light, pink style, in stainless steel tanks at cool temperatures which keep the berry fruit character and freshness. But, there are some notable exceptions:
Try Garrus by Chateau d’Esclans (maker of the aforementioned Whispering Angel) which is aged in oak barrels, or Rioja’s Tondonia Gran Reserva Rosado, which is aged in American oak barrels for four years. Both have a more complex, savoury style and the latter has a brick red hue, as the ageing process is so long and oxidative (i.e. with lots of oxygen swirling around the wine).
For a sweet Rosé, try a Rosé d’Anjou or Cabernet D’Anjou. If you are keen to experiment, the Brachetto d’Acqui from Piedmont is both sparkling and sweet!
Another style, the Rosé blush, can be confusing. Originally it referred to very light colour Rosés; however, it was adopted by Californian wine producers for their sweet Rosés made from the red Zinfandel grape.
If you are feeling thirsty, see our full selection of Rosés here
We’re busy putting the finishing touches to our tasting/Christmas dates and are looking forward to sending these out very soon.
In the meantime, a friend asked recently if we also send cases of wine out as gifts (rather than on a subscription basis)…the answer is a resounding yes! Please see below eight ideas for individual cases for Christmas wine gifts and other occasions. From Champagne and English Sparkling to Bordeaux, Brunello and more, in half bottles and some full bottles too.
Christmas Wine Cases
Merry Mix of Six – This festive gift box features a selection of full-bottle (75cl) seasonal wines to be enjoyed over Christmas. This Hamper includes a Nyetimber Classic Cuvee, A Mano Bianco, a Billaud-Simon Chablis, an Esporao Monte Velho Tinto, a Bourgogne Pinot Noir and an Izadi Rioja Reserva.
The Christmas Case of Twelve – Celebrate the 12 days of Christmas with this selection of nine different half-bottle (37.5cl) wines full of flavour. There are 2x bottles of Veuve Fourny Premier Cru Champagne, Izadi Rioja Reserva and Bourgogne Chardonnay. There is also a Leon Beyer Cremant, Quinta do Crasto Douro Red, Chateau La Tour de By, Chateau Haut Rian Bordeaux, Carmes de Riuessec, Chateau Rieussec and Vintage Port.
The Christmas case of Six – Another great selection of half-bottle (37.5cl) wines is on offer here inside a rustic wicker basket, great as a gift at Christmas. The hamper has Veuve Fourny Premier Cru, Izadi Rioja Reserva, a Bourgogne Chardonnay, a Chateau La Tour de By, a Chateau Haut Rian Bordeaux and a Chateau Rieussec 2018.
Mainly Red Advent Case – This festive case is ideal for celebrating the 12 days of Christmas with a different half-bottle (37.5cl) wine for each day. This case includes 10 red wines and 2 whites with mystery wines labelled for the 12 days.
Other Wine Cases
Le Petit Tour de France – This Mix of 4 half-bottle (37.5cl) French wines includes varying drinks showing off the great wines of France. This case includes a Domaine Sautereau Sancerre, a Chateau Le Pey Medoc, a Bourgogne Chardonnay and a Delas Cotes du Rhone L’Esprit.
Favourite Whites – Taste the 6 favourite white wines from half-bottle (37.5cl) bottles with wines from Italy, France, New Zealand and Portugal. Includes an Esporao Monte Velho Branco, a Marlborough Sauvignon, a La Giustiniana ‘Lugarara’ Gavi di Gavi and more!
The Champagne Case – A case of bubbly, great for a Christmas party or as a gift all year round. Includes 6 choice half-bottle (37.5cl) of champagne, providing a taste experience for novices and wine-tasting connoisseurs alike.
Tuscan Reds from Bolgheri to Brunello – A range of Tuscan half-bottle red wines, great as a gift for fans of this popular Italian export. Includes a Capezzana Barco Reale, a Tenuta Guado al Tasso II Bruciato, Chianti Classico and more!
Delivery is free at £100 or above (there is a surcharge for Scottish Highlands), and we deliver anywhere in the mainland U.K. Add a personal message at checkout, and we will also handwrite a gift card.
Solely in the UK, there are over 50,00 different variations of wines you could possibly choose from. In turn, this makes it almost an impossibly difficult decision to pick the best and favourite one for you. However, here at the Little Fine Company, our main priority is to provide you with the best of the best half bottles of wine, separating you from the big-name mass-produced brands that can often charge over-the-top prices. From roses, reds and whites to sparkling and even non-alcoholic wines, we are always keeping an eye out for new high-quality variations in which we can add to our fine wine selection.
Coincidentally, the LIttle Fine Wine Company and its dedication to providing tasters with unfamiliar yet outstanding wines has resulted in us winning a number of rewards, including some from the prestigious Decanter World Wine Awards. Take a look below to find out why we continue to be amongst the best Wine Clubs currently out there!
The Little Fine Wine Company wins Decanter World Wine Awards Best Subscription Wine Club for the second year in a row
I founded the company in 2018, the website went live in 2019, and things went a little mad in 2020! The last year and a half have been a rollercoaster, but we’re really proud of the work we’ve done with the wine club and in introducing clients to fine wines in little bottles! We have several subscriptions, including a regional focus (a different wine region each month with an optional, free-of-charge tasting included). Subsequently, we managed to win the Best Subscription Wine Club award at the prestigious Decanter World Wine Awards, something we are incredibly proud of due to the short time period we have been operating. Most of all, big thanks to those who have supported us thus far; it’s been a pleasure!
The Judges Say
‘A category that continues to grow and become ever more competitive yet producing a repeat of the result in the 2021 Retailer Awards. Little Fine Wine champions its niche with aplomb, featuring an excellent range of half-bottles and a highly personal service’.
How does the Wine Club work?
Our Fine Wine Focus club is a monthly subscription. Each month a different wine region is featured. Customers receive wines, tasting notes and a corkscrew on signing up, plus an optional tasting with me (Director of the company/Master of Wine) and one of the winemakers represented.
There is no obligation to take the case every month; you skip the case if you don’t wish to explore a particular region. We always email at least 5 days prior to the next renewal to let customers know the next set of exact wines. They can add further wines with no extra delivery cost, or amend their subscription, or request a quote for 75cl bottles. Delivery is the next working day.
We also have a ‘Classic’ subscription, bi-monthly or quarterly: a more traditional, rolling subscription to try wines from around the world. That is £66.95/6 half bottles and includes tasting notes, a corkscrew, delivery but no zoom tasting.
What are the benefits of becoming a member of your Wine Club?
Explore fine wines accessible in half bottle, and find favourites
Learn about different regions
Between 1-3 wines monthly are only available to Wine Club members
Subscription offers a saving compared to the value of the wines and delivery (varies every month, usually between 10 and 20%).
The optional tasting is free; we think it’s the best opportunity to spend time, live, with a key winemaker other than visiting the region itself. This year has included Severine Schlumberger (Alsace), Stephen Chambers (Rutherglen), Pieter Walser (Blank Bottle, South Africa). The recording is available afterwards.
Customers can add on wines from our 170-strong range (from £5.95 to £90/half), without paying for delivery. We also provide a quote for the full bottles too when the halves are not enough!
They also find out about limited wines and special offers first
What information do you provide to customers as part of their membership?
- Food & wine matching
- Tasting notes
- Yes, sent out electronically
- Info on regions and producers
- Info on grape varieties
- Wine maps
What is your cancellation policy?
Cancel anytime at all, no problem, and through the website yourself (no need to ring us nor email us and wait for our response). It’s immediate. We always write to subscribers five days prior to renewal so they can decide whether to skip or cancel, but they don’t tend to!
The wines need to be:
- Great quality
- A ‘top ten’ wine of its region/type/price bracket and ideally (O)organic, although this is not always possible
- Typical for where they are from, so you can get to know the region well each month
Do we host any wine events?
Yes, the virtual tastings that I mentioned above. There is now a live/hybrid option as part of this club so that the members can all meet each other (the live event is twice a year). The first was at Christmas and was a success. This is therefore being repeated later in the summer, as sometimes it’s just better to meet face-to-face!
We won Best Wine Club 2021 at the Decanter World Wine Awards, which was brilliant and we couldn’t have been happier. We didn’t want to change what was working, and we have had a low cancellation rate, so believe that customers are happy.
We’ve added bimonthly options to our quarterly club for flexibility and frequency.
Transit cases are cardboard (no plastic airbags/wrap); just one box rather than double-boxing, unlike some subscriptions, with electronic tasting notes. To minimise paper use, there is no paperwork sent (other than a handwritten gift message). Delivery is the next day. There is always an email from the team to confirm that the wine has been dispatched; we find it’s a small but personal way to contact/service customers.
Why choose the Little Fine Wine Company?
We are proud providers of some of the highest quality wines from various vineyards from all over the globe without charging you the sometimes extortionate prices of some mass-produced brands. When it comes to our half-bottled wines, this is where we specialise in picking some of the best vinifications in order for you to expand your palette and test the multitude of grape and terroir combinations.After winning ‘Best Subscription Wine Club’ at the 2021 Decanter World Wine Awards, we aim to repeat this feat at the upcoming Decanter World Wine Awards 2022 after another impressive year of providing our customers with a host of the finest wines out there.
New Wines for Autumn
We’ve stocked the shelves with new wines from France, Portugal and beyond, ready for Autumn drinking.
Below, you’ll find some of the best Autumn wines, such as a traditionally made Cremant sparkling (a great addition to the fridge) and impressive Loire Valley and Saint-Emilion reds. We have added two zesty whites under £10. Plus, full bottles of Louis Roederer Champagne; it’s perfect as a gift or for entertaining. And for something unique: a flavoursome, aged Madeira from the 1999 vintage.
As the nights start to get colder, let’s take a look at some of the great Autumn wines available right now. Autumn wines typically have a warming quality, great for taking the chill out of short Autumn nights. Here are some half-bottle wines you can try out as popular wines shift from chilled Summer flavours to warm, spiced flavours.
Crisps, refreshing Loire Valley Whites
Jean-Francois Baron Muscadet Sur Lie 2020 – Crisp, bone dry and refreshing, with a slight saltiness too. This is excellent value and the ideal wine to match an autumn vegetable risotto or soup.
Domaine des Bruniers Quincy 2021 – A Sancerre-like Sauvignon Blanc at a very good price. Mouthwateringly juicy, a great wine to match butternut squash stew or curry with a chilli kick.
New Autumnal French Reds
Domaine Filliatreau Saumur-Champigny 2019 – Peppery, refreshing red with medium body, delicious forest fruits and herb flavour and firm acidity. Brilliant to match herb-encrusted lamb or nut roasts.
Petit-Figeac Saint-Emilion Grand Cru 2016 – Structured Bordeaux from 41% Cabernet Franc, 36% Cabernet Sauvignon and 23% Merlot. Cellar till 2030, or decant now to enjoy with beef dishes. Alternatively, sip over a cool Autumn evening.
Traditional Method Sparkling & Champagne
Leon Beyer Cremant d’Alsace Sparkling – Traditionally made sparkling at an attractive price. Made from the Pinot Blanc and Pinot Auxerrois grapes, and aged for 2 years. It’s perfect for keeping in the fridge ready for a treat!
Louis Roederer Collection 243, 75cl bottle – For great Champagne, Louis Roederer has always been our favourite. A brilliant wine never disappoints, with finesse and flavour from 70% Pinot Noir and 30% Chardonnay. A fine gift and great for entertaining.
From Muscat to Madeira
Chambers Rutherglen Muscat – Full, fruity and decadent! This luscious fortified wine gives Tawny Port a run for its money. Try with a cheese and fig or nut board (particularly blue cheese), chocolate desserts or meat plates.
Justino’s Madeira Colheita 1999 – Decades old, this mellow, layered Madeira is the perfect gift when looking for something unique. Sweet but with plenty of acidity to prevent it from being heavy. Try with chocolate torte, shortbread or coffee desserts, or as a digestif
Those looking to try out any of the Autumn wines mentioned can find them available here at The Little Fine Wine Company. Whether you want to try a taster with our selection of half bottle wines or to get a full size bottle for an upcoming dinner party, you can find some of the best Autumn wines here.
Welcome to The Little Fine Wine Company’s guide to vermouth! An unknown gem beyond the cocktail world, this distinctive, artisanally-made wine is a great addition to your drinks collection. Plus, it makes a delicious aperitif or mixer with soda. And it’s an essential ingredient for a variety of cocktails, most famously the Martini and, even more fashionably, the Negroni (now the most popular cocktail in the world*).
Vermouth is a fortified and aromatized wine (the name is related to the Wormwood family of herbs, rather than our infamous prison Wormwood Scrubs, whose name comes from the old English for snake, ‘wyrm’!). It begins life as wine grapes which the winemaker ferments into a base wine and fortifies by adding a spirit. So far, so like Port or Sherry. However, like gin, the spirit is flavoured (aromatized) by infusing it with botanicals: herbs, spices, peels and occasionally nuts from the leaves, seeds, fruit, stems, roots, flowers or bark of plants or trees. The essential botanical is Wormwood, which legally must be part of the infusion for the final wine to be called vermouth, and which provides a flavourful, herby character. Vermouth is found worldwide but it was Italy and France who first developed the styles of vermouth that we know today.
There has also been a surge in English and Welsh vermouths as wine grapes are more widely grown in the U.K. The Little Fine Wine Company have added Knightor’s delicious vermouths to our website recently. They are made from grapes grown in Cornwall, mostly around Knightor’s base at St Austell. All three vermouths are available as wines in half bottle size (375ml) which is perfect for trying out the style. After numerous questions from friends and family such as ‘what actually is vermouth???’ we were compelled to write this guide to vermouth.
Styles of vermouth
The styles we see on the shelf tend to be bianco (white), and rosso (red). although the rose vermouth is becoming more popular, and makes a great spritz. Red and Rose vermouths tend to be sweet, while the white vermouth is either dry or sweet. The grams of sugar per litre are included below, for a more technical definition).
The result of all this is a fairly full-bodied, smooth, dry or sweet wine with alcohol that is commonly around 15% to 17%, i.e more than most still wines and lighter than Port. Importantly, there are an abundance of aromas and flavours from not just Wormwood but many other botanicals. The exact mix of ingredients for any vermouth are a closely guarded secret, although cloves, ginger, juniper, lemon peel, cinnamon, cardamom commonly feature. This gives a heady mix of aromas and flavours that might transport you to a cool, damp English herb garden one moment or to the intense heat of a Mediterranean spice market the next. That’s the beauty of vermouths!
Read on for more detail about the history, the practical bit (including serving, storing vermouth and what it tastes like) and last, but not least, the cocktails!
Guide to vermouth: the history
Pain vs pleasure
These days drinking gin, vermouth or other aromatized drinks is purely for pleasure. However, the tradition of adding botanicals to fermented liquids to cure aches and pains dates back to China around 1100 BC. Partly to make disgusting medicines palatable so people would actually drink them, and partly due to the healing properties of the herbs themselves. Wormwood was found across Europe and was believed to prevent certain intestinal problems before the advent of modern prescriptions. And many botanicals were said to aid digestion, likely why they were popular during the most hedonistic of Greek and Roman times.
The origin of the name
In the mid 16th Century, trade for aromatized wines kicked off in earnest in Piedmont, Northwest Italy where the distinctive herb family Artemisia Absinthium, aka Absinthe Wormwood, or just plain Wormwood, was found widely (it also grew across the border in Switzerland which is where ‘the Green Fairy’, Absinthe was first commercialized). When flavoured with Wormwood, these aromatized wines were particularly popular with the ruling classes across Europe. At the court of Bavaria the term ‘Wermut Wein’ was coined, referencing the German word for Wormwood (Wermut). ‘Wermut’ became ‘Vermouth’ as the drink was drunk increasingly in France.
Italy, the spiritual heartland vs France
The drink’s success in the area around Turin, Piedmont means it’s seen as the spiritual heartland of Vermouth. In 1786, the first commercially branded ‘Wermut’ was produced by Antonio Benetto Carpano using local Moscato grapes and a high-quality neutral spirit that allowed the character of the botanicals to shine through. Other Italian names now gracing our bars followed Carpano’s lead: Martini & Rossi, Cinzano and Cocchi and others. They mostly made a style of vermouth that was dark in colour (either from the addition of local red wines or caramel) and sweet to the taste.
The use of Wormwood and other botanicals to flavour spirits was just as popular in France as in Italy. They were both natural homes for vermouth production given the plethora of their vineyards. Plus, they have proximity to Alpine mountain herbs and to spices traded via Mediterranean ports. In 1813, the first recipe for French vermouth was recorded in the south of France by Joseph Noilly, of Noilly Prat fame. The combination of ageing the wines in oak casks and in the open air by the coast created a deep yellow colour. This added to a distinctly herbal taste from the number of botanicals used. It was made in a ‘dry’ style and therefore contrasted with the sweet, rich, reddish Italian character. The dry style took hold in France, with Dolin (at Chambery, Savoie, close to the Swiss border) being another famous name that you may recognise today.
Cocktails a gogo!
Vermouth had became a drink to enjoy rather than one to tolerate for its medicinal benefits. But, it appeared to be defined by what it was not: not exactly a wine, not exactly a spirit with 40% alcohol (meaning more longevity on the shelf), nor having the efficiencies of a modern-day medicine. Its identity was reinvented by bartenders across Europe and America who used vermouth as an ingredient in cocktails.
A classic was the Milano Torino cocktail, a blend of Punt e Mes sweet vermouth from Torino and Campari (a bitter liqueur) from Milan. This was watered down with soda water by American soldiers stationed in Italy. Thus the cocktail became known as the Americano. The Italians by contrast wanted something with more oomph; in 1919, a bartender in Florence added gin to a Milano Torino. This was at the request of a guest named Count Camillo Negroni**, and thus the Negroni was born.
Meanwhile in America, the Manhattan (using the native Bourbon alongside a sweet vermouth) and Boulevardier (substituting the Gin in a Negroni for Bourbon) were also becoming fashionable. You can find the recipes for some of these classics below.
Guide to vermouth: the practical bit
How do the different vermouths taste?
The white vermouths tend to be a light to medium yellow colour and the Roses are unashamedly pink. The Rossos or reds are actually more amber or brown than red in colour, as it’s usually caramel that adds colour and body to this style.
Tens of different botanicals, whether herbs, spices or fruit peels, mean the aromas on a vermouth are endlessly fascinating. A cool, herbal note from wormwood, oregano or sage for example, plus cleansing citrus or warmer, spicier notes from cinnamon, cardamom or vanilla as in the case of Carpano’s Antica Formula Rosso. Vermouth is never ever dull! The Knightor Dry White Vermouth is packed with scents and smells from 31 different botanicals, many of which are grown on their own estate in Cornwall. They include wormwood, cardamom, cinchona (quinine), liquorice and orange peel, all of which make an inviting aperitif over ice, or an aromatic addition to a cocktail.
Palate: the wine & spirit
75% of aromatized wines, including vermouths, has to be original base wine itself, fermented from wine grapes. There is, therefore, a ‘wine-y’ quality to all styles of vermouth, although acidity and tannin are moderate compared to many wines. The addition of a spirit means extra alcohol in the vermouth (they are legally between 14.5% and 22% abv, although 15-17% is more common). The added alcohol gives more body and a tiny warmth at the back of the throat, but at 15% this is barely noticeable.
Palate: guide to dry v sweet styles of vermouth
Choose a dry (or extra dry such as Noilly Prat) vermouth if you like a more intense, crisp, dry style, which is usually lighter in body. Or, a (semi-)sweet vermouth for a mellow, fruitier, sweet and rounded style. The Knightor Sweet White Vermouth (simply labelled White Vermouth) is full and sweet on the finish. In common with most vermouths, it avoids being cloying or heavy due to the abundance of herb and spice botanicals used, which provide balance, structure and a slightly bitter, refreshing feel to counter the sweetness. It’s extremely moreish either on its own over ice or with soda and ice as a spritz.
Technically, the driest style of vermouth is Extra-dry (under 30 grams of sugar per litre), followed by Dry (under 50 grams of sugar per litre), Semi-dry, Semi-sweet or Sweet. Sweet vermouths (whatever the colour) are over 130 grams per litre, roughly the same as a Sauternes or other rich, dessert-style wine. Again, you will not notice the sweetness as much as a Sauternes, given the balancing effect of the herbs.
Palate: rosso a.k.a. red vermouth
Red vermouths make a great digestif wine, and not just because of the medicinal properties of the botanicals used….The rosso style is sweet so it suits the end of a meal, particularly when served over a large ice cube. They also tend to be slightly mellower than the white vermouths, with notes of caramel and spice.
The Knightor Rosso Vermouth has a mellow, rich, bittersweet finish. 15 different herbs and botanicals are added as part of the infusion, including wormwood, sage and aniseed, and there are also notes of bitter orange, juniper and caramel. It’s not as full or dense as a Vermouth di Torino (the official designation of sweet red vermouths produced in the heartland of Turin, Piedmont, Italy) and for us that is the advantage. It’s just a little less intense than Cocchi’s Vermouth di Torino, for example, and gives a little lightness to the otherwise dense texture of a Negroni. 15% ABV.
How to store vermouth?
Unopened, your vermouths will lasta year or two with ease. You can keep them for longer but there will be a gradual deterioration in quality. Keep them as with other wines at 10-13 degrees C if possible, or otherwise as close to this as possible and away from direct light.
Opened, pop your vermouth in the fridge and it will last 4 weeks.
How to serve vermouth?
Straight, over ice
Serve vermouth as the traditional aperitif in a whisky tumbler over one large ice cube. The Italians would frequently use dry vermouth for this purpose.
The red works well served over ice as a post-meal digestif. At c. 15%, it’s lighter than whisky or brandy, with a touch of sweetness and plenty of flavour and depth. Great to sip into the small hours.
The perfect spritz
No guide to vermouth would be complete without a mention of a spritz! Pour any style of vermouth over a highball full of ice. Add soda, lemon and a sprig of Rosemary or similar. We prefer the red or sweet white vermouth in our spritz but if you like a particularly dry drink, use dry vermouth and soda. If you can find a rose vermouth, this makes a delicious, and eye-catchingly pink spritz in summer!
Guide to vermouth: cocktail ideas!
There are many cocktails you can use vermouth for, both classic and contemporary. With this guide to vermouth, we hope we’ve given you some inspiration to pull out a bottle, enjoy some over ice or explore some of the superb cocktail recipes it can be used in, below…
Dry Martini (and Sweet Martini, Perfect Martini and Gibson)
1. Chill a martini glass. 2. In a separate glass or shaker, stir five parts (60ml) gin to one part (12ml) dry vermouth (or extra dry vermouth for a particularly dry drink) with ice. 3. Strain the cocktail off the ice and into the chilled glass. 4. Add a green olive or few on a stick, or a twist of lemon peel.
To make a Sweet Martini, replace the dry vermouth with sweet red vermouth and garnish with a maraschino cherry. For a Perfect Martini, use half gin, half vermouth: 45ml gin, 22.5ml dry or extra dry vermouth and 22.5ml rosso vermouth with a olives or lemon peel. To prepare a Gibson, replace the olive garnish with cocktail onions on the cocktail stick.
Manhattan (and Perfect Manhattan)
1. Chill a martini glass. 2. In a separate glass or shaker, stir two parts (usually 60ml) bourbon or rye whiskey to one part (30ml) Rosso vermouth with ice. 3. Add two dashes of Angostura Aromatic Bitters, with another stir. 4. Strain the cocktail off the ice and into the chilled glass. 5. Add a maraschino cherry to garnish.
To make a Perfect Manhattan, replace half of the Rosso vermouth (ie 15ml if using the quantities above) with extra dry vermouth
1. Fill an Old-Fashioned glass or whisky tumbler with ice. 2. Pour one part (usually 25ml) gin with one part rosso vermouth and one part Campari over the ice. 3. Stir. 4. Garnish with a twist of orange peel
1. Fill either a Collins or hi-ball glass with 40ml Campari, 40ml rosso vermouth and anywhere between 60 and 80ml of soda water to taste. 2. Add ice. 3. Garnish with a slice of orange
Corpse Reviver No. 1
(adapted from Diffords Guide quoting The Savoy Cocktail Book)
1. Chill a martini glass. 2. In a separate glass or shaker, stir one part (22.5ml) rosso vermouth, one part (22.5ml) Calvados, two parts (45ml) brandy with ice. 3. Strain the cocktail off the ice and into the chilled martini glass. 4. Garnish with a twist of orange peel
And a slightly messier affair:
Knightor’s Clover Club cocktail
1. Chill a coupe glass. 2. Put 10ml Knightor White Vermouth, 50ml gin, 5ml Grenadine, 1 egg white into a cocktail shaker. 3. Dry shake the mixture (without ice) in the shaker to emulsify. 4. Then add ice and shake again. 5. Strain into the glass. 5. Garnish with a raspberry
Guide to vermouth: Sources
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