Thursday, September 19, 2019
After my last post titled “Voilà!! Valise!!” I guess it was inevitable that today’s post would begin with “v,” too.
Several of Dave and Claire’s co-owners here in Cruzy had recommended the tour at Maison Noilly Prat in Marseillan; so, yesterday, we decided that should be our destination. None of us had been there before.
After a tiny hiccup that involved getting on the toll road going in the wrong direction, we made good time to the little coastal town. We had enough time before the English language tour began to enjoy lunch by the water. Claire had the oyster, shrimp and whelk starter. Oysters and shrimp got two thumbs up but the whelks were less appealing. Once you managed to extricate them from their largish, snail-like shells, you were confronted with a corkscrew-shaped piece of discolored, rubbery stuff. I think you have to be hungrier than Claire was to really appreciate them.
I had the gazpacho starter.
Marseillan appears to be a lovely little town but we were there for the vermouth. Therefore, directly after lunch, we beat-feeted it over to Noilly Prat, conveniently located directly across a little inlet from our luncheon stop.
The guide for our tour was Pascal, a charming French fellow whose fluent English was delivered with a wee bit of a Scottish accent. What we (that would be Michael and me . . .Claire and Dave may have known volumes) didn’t know about vermouth would have filled one of Noilly Prat’s enormous vats. In fairness to us, I have to say that vermouth has never been a subject about which I was particularly concerned. Not being a drinker of martinis nor sophisticated aperitifs, vermouth didn’t figure too prominently in my universe. But now? There’s a new star in my firmament . . . hmmm, that doesn’t sound very nice. Oh, well, let’s just continue on.
Okay, vermouth. It isn’t wine even though it has to be at least 75% wine. And, in the case of Noilly Prat, the two white wines they use are Picpoul and Clairette, both of which are grown and made locally. The wine sits in used oak barrels, many of which are repurposed Scotch barrels, outside of the facility where it is subject to the sea air, wind and sun of the environment. Evaporation occurs; topping up the barrels does not.
After a suitable period of time, the wine is pumped to large vats where the two varieties are blended and then sent into smaller vats where mistelles (sugars from slightly fermented grape juice) and botanicals are added. And this is where vermouth is sort of like gin; many different botanicals are used in different combinations and amounts to make the various types of vermouth (extra dry, dry, red and amber). However, all of the varieties share at least four botanicals: Coriander, cardamom, gentian root and artemisia absinthium. In fact, “vermouth” is thought to derive from “vermut,” the German word for wormwood (absinthe).
The wine mixture macerates with the botanicals and mistelles for 21 days (being stirred, by hand, for two minutes every day) before having the big chunks of stuff removed and then being sent off for final stabilization, filtering and bottling.
See how smart we have become!
The penultimate step of our tour was, naturally, tasting, which was revelatory. I think I like vermouth, pretty much all four of the varieties that Noilly Prat produces. I like it so much that at the last stop of the tour, the boutique, I purchased one bottle of the very special Noilly Prat Ambre to take home.
The drive back to Cruzy through iconic lanes of plane trees was completed without any missteps and we arrived back to our lovely accommodations moments before a rather fierce thunderstorm broke over us.* But we didn’t care; we had a fridge full of food and bottles full of vermouth.
*It is pouring rain as I type this. And, as it is pouring rain, the streets of this tiny village are being swept by large, water-spewing machines. The racket is incredible!