In Northern Spain, Vermouth Has Made a Bold Comeback - Imbibe Magazine Subscribe + Save

In Northern Spain, Vermouth Has Made a Bold Comeback

Vermouth was born as a big-city drink.

In Italy, it was invented and served in the cafés of 18th-century Turin, the northern powerhouse. In France, it was born around 1813 in Lyon, then the country’s second-biggest city. In northern Spain, an hour and a half west of Barcelona, Reus—with barely 100,000 inhabitants—doesn’t fit the bill.

Yet for more than a century, this sleepy provincial town has been the heart of vermouth production south of the Pyrenees. Vermouth came here later than elsewhere—a good century after Turin. Opportunistic entrepreneurs developed the industry in the 1880s, after a conservative government raised prohibitive tariffs on imported wares, including aromatized wines. In subsequent decades, the vermouth from Reus developed its own identity, eventually spreading all throughout Spain. Today, the region—sometimes called the cradle of Catalonian vermouth—is seeing more activity than it has for the past 50 years. Vermouth’s recent resurgence— playing out in Spain and abroad—is having profound effects, both on historical producers who’d spent decades watching their sales dwindle, and on a new breed of vermouth makers, intent on changing the landscape and bringing the stuff into the 21st century.

Joan Tàpias, a Reus businessman and vermouth enthusiast, has had a front row seat for this second coming of Spanish vermouth. Since the early ’80s, Tàpias has been collecting all things vermouth. “I received my first bottle in 1982, and those were the dark ages: People had stopped drinking vermouth, and when they did, they went for Italian brands,” he says. The decade had started with a dozen producers within Reus city limits, and it ended with just three—“And those who survived, did so because of other products” such as communion wine shipped to Africa, he adds.

So when Tàpias told friends he planned to open a restaurant and bar dedicated to vermouth, they thought he was crazy. In 2014, the Museu del Vermut (vermouth museum), housing his personal collection of more than 6,000 items, opened its doors. “We got lucky: Right when we opened, the market started picking up,” he says.

No one quite agrees on the reasons why vermouth came back—but come back it has, with the national market representing almost 30 million liters growing 5 percent each year, and new vermouths (mostly from third-party producers) increasingly appearing in shops and cafés. Before the COVID-19 crisis swept through Spain, leading to the closure of most businesses, locals and tourists flocked to the Museu to sample some of the bar’s more than 120 vermouths. The favorite is Cori, the house brand, served on tap—and side dishes of olives or potato chips are part of the experience.

Vermouth served on tap is the standard all over Spain, and the sweet, red variety represents more than 75 percent of sales. But Catalonian vermouth is a light, refreshing style, without the intensity or bitterness of Italian rossos, and the Spanish varieties have up to 25 percent less sugar. With a character centered on Mediterranean herbs, citrus peel, and baking spices, the vermouth is eminently quaffable and food-friendly, pairing especially well with salty, savory tapas. “It’s a wine-based product, but you can have it with chips,” says Eric Seed, founder of Minnesota-based Haus Alpenz. As the importer of Cocchi and Dolin vermouths from Italy and France, respectively, Seed has played a key role in vermouth’s modern resurgence in the United States, and he was one of the first to identify Spain’s potential. Since 2015, he’s been the importer of Miró, one of the three remaining Reus vermouth producers (because of trademark issues, the vermouth was recently rebranded as Vermut Timbal in the U.S.). “It’s a defiantly Catalonian family, for over 60 years almost exclusively focused on vermouth,” Seed explains. And Timbal Rojo is a canonical example of the Reus style, important historically and, above all, easy to drink.

Red vermouths from Reus producers are typically offered in two styles. Vermouths such as Timbal Rojo are emblematic of the first; but to understand the second style, look to Reus’ oldest producer, Bodegas Yzaguirre. The company was founded in 1884 by a winemaker from the nearby French Pays Basque, who fled south to avoid the phylloxera plague then ravaging France’s vineyards. Roughly a century later, the producer was sold to Yzaguirre’s current owners, the Salla family. They bought a somewhat backward business: While big Italian producers like Martini and Carpano had adopted the use of stainless steel vessels for holding vermouth, Reus producers were still relying on wooden vats. This turned out to be a fantastic opportunity.

Yzaguirre’s new owners found some very old vermouth still resting in vats, and it turned out to be very good. This inspired them to pioneer a style that all Spanish producers are emulating today: reserva vermouths. “We use a specific blend of botanicals for the reservas. They spend 12 months in barrels and vats of differing sizes, but all of [the vats] are very old,” says Elvira Basteiro, Yzaguirre’s oenologist. “We don’t want the wood to impart flavors or aroma—it’s all about having more depth and balance.”

Their barrel program is basically a semi-solera, she says. “We never completely empty our barrels—we take something out every trimester, and fill with new vermouth.” Slightly oxidative and more concentrated than the other style of Reus vermouths, reserva vermouths have become highly valued, although the regular red—widely available on tap—remains the best seller.

Some French and Italian producers have successfully lobbied for recognition of their vermouths as specific regional styles, defined and protected by law. In Spain, authorities have attempted to create a ‘Vermut de Reus’ IGP (indicación geográfica protegida, or protected geographic indication). These efforts haven’t gone far, in part because the three Reus producers (De Müller is the third) haven’t come to agreement on a basic set of standards, needed for the IGP to gain recognition from the European Union. There’s also a degree of parochialism at play: The initiative only protects vermouths produced within the city limits (Yzaguirre’s facilities are currently outside the city, but they still qualify for historical reasons), while in Italy, the ‘Vermouth de Torino’ IGP includes brands from all over the Piedmont region. A similar openness would make sense in Reus, too, as many producers throughout the surrounding region invoke a similar vermouth tradition.

One of these producers can be found 20 miles east of Reus, in the small village of Bràfim, where Francesc Padró runs Vins Padró, a family business founded in 1886. The family’s always made vermouth, but has done so as a side gig. “We’re winemakers first and foremost, but there’s always been a small local demand and we catered to it,” Padró says.

For more than a century, their vermouth was sold in bulk, until growth led them to bottle it under the name Myrrha. “When we saw it was doing well, we thought … if we’re going to do this, why don’t we do it even better?” In 2016, they introduced their premium line, called, fittingly, Padró.

For the premium line, Padró and oenologist Mario García established no constraints on themselves beyond maintaining a local focus. This part of Catalonia is known for mistelles, rancio, and natural sweet wines, which provide the base of some of their vermouths. Unlike the big three producers in Reus—who aren’t winemakers and, due to the needed volume (more than 10 million liters), have to source most of their wines from central Spain—Padró uses their own regular table white wines, made with Xarel-lo and Macabeo grapes.

Fortified with grape spirit aged in ex-brandy casks, these wines are matured outdoors in 225-liter barrels for a year. Once the wines are blended with botanical extracts and sweetened (when appropriate), the vermouth undergoes further aging. And here again, anything goes: Their Rojo Clásico spends 12 months in ex-sherry casks, while their Reserva Especial, partially based on a five-year-old sweet wine, ages a further 18 months. Their Rojo Amargo (extra bitter) spends 24 months in barrels made of chestnut, which until very recently was the most common type of barrel locally. Finally, their Dorado rests in ex-rancio casks, while new oak barrels have recently been filled with what they hope will become a six-year-old Gran Reserva.

Although Padró vermouths have sold very well over the last three years, García still describes them as a work in progress. “We’re not making a Reus-style vermouth,” he says. “We wanted more bitterness and other nuances. But at this stage, we’re still looking to create our own path. Our vermouths are in constant evolution.” The 100 percent mistelle-based Blanco Reserva and the Rojo Amargo are particular highlights, intense yet distinctly Catalonian. “Hopefully, in 10 years—or sooner—people will recognize our style as our own,” García says. To this end, Francesc Padró, who’s passionate about citrus, is currently planting a grove to grow fruits he hopes to use in the coming years. And García is experimenting with more aging techniques: clay and glass vessels.

No one quite agrees on the reasons why vermouth came back—but come back it has, with the national market representing almost 30 million liters growing 5 percent each year, and new vermouths (mostly from third-party producers) increasingly appearing in shops and cafés. 

That such innovation is coming from newcomers to the vermouth ranks isn’t surprising. More established players have other priorities, but this doesn’t mean they’re standing still. Timbal Extra Dry, for example, was completely reformulated several years ago, and drew inspiration from the herbs used locally to brine olives. At Yzaguirre, a new rosé really stands out in an otherwise lackluster field, and they’ve also released an extra-aged, more balsamic red called ‘Herbal Vintage’.

While most of these innovations are market-driven, some producers are aiming to be ahead of the curve. This is the case with the Priorat B&D Lab. Located in picturesque Bellmunt, right in the middle of the Priorat wine region southwest of Catalonia, the B&D Lab was opened last November by Àlex Illa, an importer with a passion for vermouth. But Dos Déus, Illa’s flagship product, has been in circulation since 2014. When it was launched, it caused quite a stir: The vermouths (one aged for a year, the reserva for at least four) had been matured in an old sherry solera that Illa had bought and moved to Catalonia. At the time, sherry and vermouth didn’t quite mix. “Sherry is an incredible product, absolutely unique, and I wanted to open new paths for vermouth, respectful of tradition but different,” he explains.

Illa wants to follow this initial success with other innovations. To this end, he was joined by production manager Pau Matias-Guiu, a chemical engineer with a PhD in the science of distillation and experience in wine making (Editor’s note: Matias-Guiu has since left the organization). Together, they’ve focused on a new line of products showcasing, as Illa puts it, “old formulas for new moments.” Two winters ago, they released two limited editions that can be served warm—a vermouth-Glühwein mash-up.

Matias-Guiu is also currently finalizing a new intermediate range of vermouths, aged for six months in barrels of different origins. The backbone is still provided by the vermouth aged in ex-sherry barrels, but some of the barrels in the new range come from Scala Dei, a legendary Priorat winery located in an old monastery, while others have been previously used for the fermentation of wines earmarked to become cava. The base wines are local, and Matias-Guiu is playing around with oxidative aging in demijohns. His most exciting project, though, may well be the study B&D Lab has commissioned in order to identify all the herbs they can use to aromatize their vermouths that can be found in the surrounding, biologically diverse hills. The desired plants will then be cultivated in a nearby garden. “We’re in a privileged location, magical almost,” says Illa. “We have to make use of what we have around us.”

Despite its 150-year-long history, Catalonian vermouth has only recently gained an audience outside Spain. While many drinkers are discovering this vermouth’s glorious past and present, some of Spain’s producers are busy writing its future.

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