Savoring Italian Vermouth: Vergano and the House of Cocchi

Cocchi VermouthIn my house, no gathering with friends and food is complete without vermouth. On hot summer days, I love an Americano on ice to cool off and prepare my palate for cooking and eating. On chilly winter evenings at the end of a long meal, I love a darker style vermouth to settle a full stomach. Even as a wine lover, vermouths are some of my favorite drinks. Their complex, layered herbaceousness have just the right balance of bitter and sweet. Today, I wanted to talk about two of my favorite Italian vermouths: a classic dark vermouth from the House of Cocchi, one of the original Torino vermouth makers; and the other, a limited production white vermouth from chemist-turned-vermouth producer Mauro Vergano.

First, a little introduction to vermouth. The modern vermouth we know today was born in Turin, Italy in the mid-18th century, however people have been drinking aromatized wines (wine infused with herbs and spices) since as early as 1250 BC in China, and the first recorded recipes date back to 400 BC in Greece.

Vermouth is a red or white wine that is steeped with a collection of botanicals, then “fortified” with base alcohol, and sweetened with cane sugar or caramel (depending on the style). The combination of herbs and flowers used to create each vermouth is typically a closely guarded secret, but frequently includes wormwood (Artemisia absinthium – wormwood is also used to make the green liqueur, Absinthe).  The name vermouth is derived from the German word for wormwood wermut. Other herbs and spices often found in vermouth include gentian root, quinine, cinchona bark, chamomile, cloves, vanilla, coriander, cardamom, ginger, hyssop, juniper, citrus…the list is staggering!

As modern styles of vermouth developed in Northern Italy and France, these complex recipes began to be grouped into two key styles – white, which tends to be more dry and bitter, and red, which is usually sweeter. A good example of a dry white vermouth comes from the House of Dolin, in Chambéry, in the Savoie region of France (to read more about this famous vermouth house and its various bottlings, click here).

Cocchi Vermouth di Torino

Cocchi Vermouth di TorinoBased in Turin, Italy The House of Cocchi was one of the original families producing vermouth in the particular style of the region – by using a base wine from the region’s white grape, Moscato. In fact, Torino is the only other DOC (protected area), for vermouth in the world besides Chambéry, where Dolin is produced.

The House of Cocchi was established by Giulio Cocchi in 1981. Cocchi, a pastry chef, came to produce vermouths through his love of food and wine pairings. Most famous is Cocchi Americano, a bitter, off-dry, white vermouth, laden with gentian, cinchona and citrus. Cocchi Americano is said to be the Italian answer to France’s Lillet blanc (a sweet and lightly bitter French white vermouth from Bordeaux).

Cocchi’s Vermouth di Torino, by contrast, is a dark vermouth, though still made with a base of Moscato. Two years ago, to celebrate their 120th anniversary, Cocchi produces this vermouth according to the original recipe from 1891. Unlike some of the other sweet red vermouths of Turin, most notably Carpano Antica, the Cocchi Vermouth di Torino carries more delicate, cocoa-tinted sassafras notes, with a good balance of sweetness that’s not cloying. It has faintly menthol notes on the nose, along with burdock and dandelion, and shows licorice, rhubarb, and citrus on the palate. As the summer nights cool down, I like these darker, richer flavors. Serve simply with bubbly water on ice, or mix with rye whiskey and bitters for a drier styled Manhattan.

I also have a particular fondness for Cocchi’s red vermouth mixed with a peaty Scotch, as in this recipe adapted by one of my favorite cocktail bloggers “Stir and Strain,” from the book Bitters: A Spirited History of a Classic Cure-all, with Cocktails, Recipes and Formulas:

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The Black Scottish Cyclops – what a great name!

2 oz. peaty Scotch from Islay (I like Laphroaig or Lagavulin)
1 oz. Cocchi Vermouth di Torino
2 Dashes of Angostura Bitters
2 Dashes of Fee Brothers Walnut Bitters

Combine ingredients in mixing glass over ice and stir until chilled. Strain into a chilled coupe and enjoy.

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The peaty smokiness of the Scotch is a perfect dark match for the sassafras and licorice notes of the vermouth. Try this with our Brun de Noix, a cow milk cheese that is washed in walnut liquor, from one of our favorite French affineurs, Pascal Beillevaire. This calls for a dark, windy autumn night and a good Sherlock Holmes story!

Vergano White Vermouth

Vergano White VermouthIn contrast to the traditional vermouth houses of Torino, we have Mauro Vergano, a chemist who spent the better part of his career (15 years) working in perfume houses analyzing the chemical makeup of flavors and fragrances of the botanicals used to make scents. It is not surprising given his family history (his father a pharmacist, and his uncle who produced some vermouths in his own right) that once he retired from the pharmaceutical business, Mauro turned his years of experience and accumulated knowledge to the delicate science of blending vermouths and chinatos. His first experiments from over 10 years ago still sits on the shelves of his laboratory.

Vergano makes four different bottlings – two forms of “chinato,” an Americano, and a white vermouth. He sources the base wine for his vermouths from a handful of natural winemakers who themselves make delightful wines (Vittorio Bera, Giuseppe Cortese, Cascina Tavijn to name a few). For his herbs and botanicals, Vergano works with a few local growers, imports some aromatics from as far off as the Bahamas, and for his chinatos, hand harvests all his chinotto himself. (Chinotto is a variety of citrus whose distinctly bitter sour flavor is an essential component in Italian amari.)

We are excited to be able to offer his white vermouth. This particular bottling is made from a base blend of dry Moscato and Cortese wines, a blend which he says helps to balance acidity and flavor. The main herbs in this vermouth are fresh and aromatic, and run the lines of thyme, marjoram, basil and oregano. The classic, bitter finish is balanced with a particular variety of the wormwood plant called “gentile.” The result is both artistic and individual, but with a practiced, respectful nod to the long tradition of vermouths in this region. This clear yellow vermouth is lovely in the glass and strongly aromatic, with just the right balance of citrus, sweetness, and bitterness. This is vermouth best savored on its own – over ice, with a splash of bubbly water and some orange peel – just the way I love it!

Jessica Smith is the Assistant Wine Buyer and a cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.

  • Elizabeth Coughlin

    What excellent info about vermouth!! Thank you so much…

    • http://www.formaggiokitchen.com formaggiokitchen

      Hi Liz – Thank you for checking out our blog, and for the nice words!