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March 26, 2020

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Versatile Vermouth, a rice-friendly botanical

Rice and China — the two are intimately intertwined in both history and culture. Based on evidence from carbon dated remains of cultivated rice, the history of rice cultivation began in the Yangtze River Basin about 12,000 years ago. Man’s purposeful interaction with the grain may well be even older. Through successive millenniums, rice spread to Southeast Asia, India, the Near and Middle East and then to Europe.

Today, rice is the world’s third most cultivated crop after sugarcane and maize. It is also ubiquitous in Chinese culture. Earlier this year I wrote about Spain’s signature rice dish, paella, and the kindred wines of Valencia, but the world of rice is so geographically diverse it needs greater coverage.

There are three basic categories of rice; namely short, medium and long grain along with many more subclasses. Short grain rice is less than twice as long as wide and when cooked is quite sticky making it appropriate for sushi, as well as some risotto and paella dishes. Medium grain rice tends to be tender, quite sticky and popular in Europe and Asia. Long grain rice is three to four times as long as wide, and due to its lower starch content is light, fluffy and separate when cooked.

I love all styles but if forced to choose a favorite I’d have to say long grain, especially the Basmati rice of Pakistan and India. Wild rice from North America, though technically not a rice, is also a favorite.

Whatever style or culinary application of rice, all rice dishes taste better when accompanied by a synergistic wine. In today’s column, I’ll introduce a very unusual style of fortified wine that enormously rice friendly.


Except for chefs and mixologists that prize it as an inimitable ingredient for the tastiest of dishes and cocktails, Vermouth remains a rather obscure wine. This aromatic, fortified grape wine is flavored with numerous botanicals that include roots, barks, seeds, herbs and spices.

Italy and France are the most recognized producers of Vermouth and are credited with making the original sweet and dry versions of the wine. The true history of wines augmented by roots and herbs is far older and for those of us living in China, far closer to home.

Records indicate that fruit, rice and grain wines in China were infused with roots and herbs as early as the Shang Dynasty (c.16th century-11th century BC). Wormwood, a key ingredient in Vermouth, was common in India a thousand years before the birth of Christ and by 400 BC wormwood and other botanicals were used to flavor wines in Ancient Greece. Romans and Christian monks continued the traditions of wines augmented by various botanicals, and centuries later the first Vermouth was born in northern Italy.

In the mid-18th century the Piedmont city of Turin was a bustling commercial center with an active spice trade. Using these spices and other botanicals some winemakers started making a style of sweet, fortified red wine. The Carpano company launched the first commercial brand of Vermouth in 1786. In the first decade of the 19th century, a Frenchman named Joseph Nolly made the first pale dry style of Vermouth in Chambery, France. Turin and Chambery remain the most recognized production centers of Vermouth, each with their own officially recognized geographic origins, Vermouth di Torino and Vermouth de Chambery. Vermouth wines are also produced by artisanal makers in the United Kingdom and the United States.

Vermouth is a formidable fortified wine of complexity. This is in large part due to its special production method and ingredients. The wine starts its life as common grape wine that’s fortified with a grape spirit and sweetened with cane sugar or caramelized sugar. However, the true distinguishing qualities of Vermouth are imparted by the botanicals and all producers have secret proprietary recipes.

Commonly used botanicals in Vermouth include wormwood, cloves, citrus peel, cinnamon, quinine, chamomile, coriander, juniper, ginger, cardamom, hyssop, ginger and a host of others. The basic styles of Vermouth are broken down into levels of sweetness — namely, extra dry, dry, semi-sweet and sweet. Alcohol content ranges from 16 to 19 degrees and the wines can be white or red.

Vermouth wines are essential to many of the world’s most popular cocktails, including the classics Martini and Manhattan, as well as many more trendy concoctions. Western chefs prize these wines as they add complexity and unique texture to dishes. I even see some creative Chinese chefs using Vermouth instead of more traditional rice wines. Outside of Europe, Vermouth is seldom enjoyed alone to accompany food. This is unfortunate as this multi-dimensional wine pair beautifully with a wide variety of foods, including many of our favorite rice dishes. In common with other fortified wines, Vermouth does not improve with bottle aging so the wines are ready to be enjoyed after release and like regular wines should be stored in wine cellars, cabinets or cool and dark places. Once opened, the wine should be kept in a refrigerator where it lasts for two to three weeks.

There’s little consensus on serving temperature with some traditionalist preferring near room temperature or slightly chilled. Personally, I believe this fortified wine performs best when chilled to about 10-12 degrees Celsius.

Finding a rice-friendly Vermouth in our fair city can be a challenge but a trio of top brands are available.

The original Italian producer Carpano and premium producer Cocchi Storico both have wines in our market as does the exceptional boutique French producer La Quintinye.

Other less expensive brands that are easily found are Martini from Italy and Dolin from France.

Varieties: Several grapes can be used to make Vermouth from Turin, including Trevigiana, Catarratto, Trebbiano and others.

Key term: A fortified wine is a normal grape wine that has been fortified with a brandy or neutral spirit.


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