Oysters and vermouth called us to the sea.
It was one of the last warm days of late summer. Great day for a little road trip to the coast, a fresh shellfish lunch, and a tour of a French vermouth producer’s home base.
First stop was the lagoon-side shellfish cultivator Coqui Thau.
Last summer, we enjoyed an alfresco lunch there, and did again this year. Here’s that blog post. This year, same fresh shellfish, same fresh waterside seating. The brasucade — mussels cooked with peppers and garlic — was as delicious as I recalled.
Coqui Thau sits at the southern edge of the Étang de Thau — the Thau Lagoon — very close to the town of Marseillan.
Marseillan is one of the oldest villages in France. Greco/Phoenicians founded Marseille and nearby Agde (8 km away) around 600 BC; people from Agde probably founded Marseillan soon after. Later, Romans established a port here, close to the Via Domitia. Many legionnaires took their discharge here, and with it a grant of land, on which they established vineyards. There are still lots of vines here today.
We visited at the end of September, on a windy day. All the holiday tourists had departed. We found an attractive little port that opens onto the Étang de Thau. The number of cafés and restaurants ringing the port speak to a popular summer spot. Next year!
Our friend, Carol Etheridge, who organizes tours in Languedoc, Provence, Normandy, and beyond, recommended taking the tour at Noilly Prat. This producer of vermouth is famous around here. We had tried their standard vermouth as a tiny ingredient in our American-style martinis, but found it not dry enough for our tastes. And then didn’t think much about it after that. Today’s re-introduction changed all that.
I had booked an English-language tour. Much easier that way. When we arrived at the attractive facility, which faces the port, it looked like a bus-load of French retirees had just arrived. Quickly, however, a nice woman approached us, seemed to know already that we were there for the English tour, and asked us to wait a few minutes. The mass of French visitors disappeared through the tall doors to the interior, and the lobby calmed down. Only a young couple remained, and a few staff. A young man in a Noilly Prat shirt came over to us. He explained that the other couple is Spanish, but are happy with English; if we didn’t mind, he’d like us to wait a few more minutes in order to allow the French group to move ahead of us. He promised us a cocktail as thanks at the end of the tour. Of course, they always offer a cocktail at the end of the tour! You taste; you love; you buy. OK, I mean: We taste; we love; we invariably buy.
Presently, it was our turn to pass through the pair of very tall heavy doors into a room of immense wooden barrels. Now our guide introduced himself. He is Mexican. He had moved to Marseillan only about six months ago, thanks to his new French wife. So all of us foreigners began the vermouth tour.
We have had the good fortune of visiting quite a few wine producers over the years. We continue to enjoy the standard presentations about the land, the vines, the wine-making processes, the bottling, and, the best part, the dégustation — the tasting. We expected something similar at Noilly Prat. The guide did cover all that, but the quality of the exhibits and artifacts impressed us. Noilly Prat has an interesting story, and they tell it well.
Noilly Prat goes back to the early 1800s. Founded by, big surprise, Monsieur Louis Noilly and Monsieur Claude Prat. Claude married Anne-Rosine, daughter of Louis. That’s how you create a commercial dynasty. A lovely part of the story is that, after Louis Noilly passed away, Anne-Rosine took over the family business. It was during her 35 years of leadership that Noilly Prat flourished and expanded. Imagine how capable — and formidable — she must have been to succeed so well in the fiercely patriarchal late 19th century.
Vermouth is a kind of fortified wine. Three types of ingredients come together to produce vermouth. Each vermouth is unique, depending on all these ingredient variables. Noilly Prat produces four varieties: Original, which is relatively dry; Extra Dry, created specifically for the North American market (this is the one that best works in our own vodka or gin martini recipes); and Amber and Red, both of which are full of sweet and savory aromas and tastes.
At Noilly Prat, the starting place is white wine from local grapes Picpoul de Pinet and Clairette. The grape juice ferments in huge oak casks for about 8 months.
Then it is transferred into smaller oak barrels outside in the large courtyard. There the wine hangs out, through all four seasons, maturing and changing. Whenever we visit wineries, we listen to each place’s presentation about their unique terroir — land, climate, orientation. But this is the first time we’ve encountered a fermentation process that includes influence of the heat and cold, and sun and rain of the seasons directly on the barrels of developing wine. They say that up to 8% of the volume is lost to evaporation, which they call the “angel’s share.”
The next ingredient is some sweet grape juice and some grape alcohol. This is the fortification step. Coming in from the courtyard exposure, the wine is still fermenting. Not all of the sugars of the grape juice have been transformed into alcohol. Adding more alcohol stops the fermentation process, and keeps the natural sugars that are still there. That’s why fortified wines in general, like port and sherry, are sweet. Noilly Prat carefully chooses just how much sugar to retain in the white wine from the courtyard.
The final ingredient set gives vermouths their complex flavors. Herbs and spices are added to the fortified wine. Noilly Prat’s specific mixtures of herbs and spices are closely-held secrets. But the exhibit gives a good representation of the ingredients. For example, the Original Dry version includes coriander, camomile, gentian root, iris root, elderberry, absinthe, thistle, sweet orange, bitter orange, and cardamom.
We were getting into the story of this very French business. Then we learned that the Italian company Martini & Rossi bought Noilly Prat in 1971, which in turn was bought by Bacardi in 1992. In the global corporate world of Bacardi, Noilly Prat is positioned as a top-of-the-line product. The showrooms celebrate Noilly Prat’s French heritage, and barely mention international acquisitions. Anything French can be marketed as haut de gamme – tops. We were a tiny bit disappointed to see all these exhibits as just corporate marketing tools.
All this knowledge is fine, but let’s taste. Our guide positioned each of us behind a four-glass dais. Much to our surprise, each vermouth variety seduced us with amazing aromas and tastes. The Original Dry and Extra Dry are fresh and bright. The Amber and Red are deep and warm, asking for a fireplace next to which to sip. All the exhibits and history are fun; the vermouth speaks for itself.
The next-to-last stop on the tour is a handsome modern bar with eager bartenders. Our tour guide reminded us that he owed us a cocktail in gratitude of our waiting for the delayed start of the tour. Whatever! The cocktail was simple. First, an ice sphere (between golf ball and tennis ball size) because the sphere will melt more slowly than conventional square ice cubes. Then some Red Noilly Prat vermouth. Finally, an aromatic zest of orange. Quite a lovely herby, slightly sweet cocktail.
Perfect for sitting outside on a cool sunny terrace.
Last stop: Boutique. Who would’ve guessed?! By now, we are unable to make decisions — other than buying one bottle of each variety. At the source, these are remarkably affordable: 10€ each.
Winter’s coming: Hurry over for a Red vermouth cocktail at our house!