Peter Ranscombe samples a pinot noir-driven vermouth that takes drinkers on a trip to the Orient.
ONE of the most exciting aspects of tasting a new drink is pulling it apart to study its components.
Why does this wine taste of lemons, and butter, and vanilla?
Why does this whisky taste of dark chocolate, and spun sugar, and Christmas cake?
Up-and-coming vermouth brand Azaline took that concept to a whole new level last week.
It held a virtual tasting that starred not only its fortified wine but also its component botanicals.
Lined up alongside the elegant – if heavy – bottle of vermouth were eight wee phials containing tinctures of its flavourings.
At its heart, the drink contains 75% pinot noir red wine from the Bourgogne in France.
Steve Drawbell, the brand’s owner, worked with Dijon-based crème de cassis producer Gabriel Boudier to create Azaline Vermouth (£24.95, Master of Malt).
In the footsteps of Marco Polo
The other eight components come from a range of locations spread out along the old spice route, which linked Europe to China via the Middle East.
Tasting an infusion of each botanical in turn gave a fascinating insight into the production process – in a similar fashion to last month’s online blending workshop with Chilean winery Ventisquero.
Blackcurrant – associated with the Bourgogne almost as closely as chardonnay and pinot noir – brought green notes of damp undergrowth on the nose and then spicy heat on the palate.
Gentian, which Azaline uses instead of the traditional wormwood to bring the characteristic bitterness to its vermouth, lived up to its reputation as “liquid bitterness”, but also brought notes of vanilla and lemon.
More woody and herbal notes – along with its telltale aniseed – came from tarrogan.
Better known for gin rather than vermouth, juniper offered refreshing citrus aromas and a drying lemon finish.
Azaline’s secret weapon
Corriander added floral and more woody hues to the blend, while cardamon brought cedar aromas and a squeaky, oily texture.
The star of the show in Azaline is saffron, and it lived up to its culinary reputation, bringing spicy and drying sensations.
Drawbell – who cut his drinks industry teeth at Diageo, Scotland’s largest distiller, and who worked on projects including Johnnie Walker’s Double Black and George V blends – likened the use of saffron to adding salt to food during cooking to enhance the other flavours.
China’s bitter orange rounded off the journey along the spice trail, contributing a hint of dark chocolate alongside its expected bitter and orange notes.
Together, the eight botanicals delivered sweetness and refreshing orange flavours and aromas.
What will appeal most to wine drinkers though is the preservation of the red fruit character of the pinot noir – with raspberry, red plum, and red cherry on the nose leading into fresher redcurrant and raspberry on the palate, alongside sweeter spun sugar and raspberry notes.
I’m all about that base
Aside from the exciting botanicals, it goes to show the difference that a high-quality base wine can make to vermouth.
In a similar way, it’s the manzanilla in the Barbadillo Atamán Vermut (Good Spirits Co) that really shines, with pronounced sherry notes alongside the honey, orange, and strawberry jam on the nose.
It starts off with sweet notes on the palate and then progresses into tangier orange and lemon flavours.
It’s less herby than the Azaline, but still has the same bitter finish, with a twist of milk chocolate too.
Whether you follow the French naming convention of “vermouth” or the more Germanic “vermut”, these are exciting drinks, with plenty to offer wine and gin drinkers – in or out of a negroni.