Making Vermouth: A Trip to Noilly Prat in Marseillan, France
July 17, 2012
Though vermouth as an essential ingredient in cocktails, I never gave much though to its production, figuring it was just a simple infusion of herbs in fortified wine. It turns out there is a lot more to it than that.
This June I visited Marseillan, France, the home of Noilly Prat vermouth. There, it is pronounced "No-ah-lee Pra" or "No-ah-lee Praht".
This brand is considered the first commercial dry-style vermouth in the world, dating to 1813. The recipe was created then in Marseilles by Joseph Noilly. His son moved production to Marseillan in 1850 and his when his grandson-in-law joined the company it became Noilly Prat. In the early 1970s Noilly Prat was purchased by Martini & Rossi, and that company was purchased by Bacardi in the early 1990s.
Marseillan is a small fishing town in the Southeast of France, located near the vineyards of the Languedoc region, which abut the oyster farms separated from the Mediterranean Sea by a small strip of land. Not coincidentally, Noilly Prat Dry is served with oysters in the region, and oysters are served everywhere.
Vermouth is a fortified, aromatized wine. So let's get into how it is made.
The Wines in Noilly Prat
Three kinds of wine go into Noilly Prat Original Dry: Picpoul, Clairette, and muscat for the sweetening mistelle. Many of the wines are grown next to the ocean Mediterranean Sea, adjacent to the oyster farms. What grows together, goes together.
Picpoul is an AOC wine in the area, smelling and tasting citrusy and a little tart. It too pairs with the local seafood. It makes up 60 percent of the wine in Noilly Prat.
Clairette, making up the other 40% of the wine blend in Noilly Prat, is less acidic than picpoul. It is fruitier and less citrusy than picpoul.
These wines are usually harvested in September. Noilly Prat doesn't own the vineyards but purchases them from local cooperatives. In fact, they buy wines, not the grapes themselves. The wines are 12.5 to 14 percent alcohol by volume, and not aged in oak (yet).
The Mistelle is the sweetening agent for Noilly Prat. Is is made from the partially fermented muscat grape juice. Fermentation is stopped by adding spirit (neutral sugar beet spirit) before it fully completes, leaving the wine very sweet at around 100 grams per liter sugar content.
The room where the mistelle ages is filled with huge vats. It dates back to around 1850. The vats were so big they were installed first, and then the building was built around them. In this room the mistelle ages for a year.
Aging The Wines
In the olden days,wines would have been sent out on boats to their destinations, aging in barrels along the way. However with faster transportation the wine was not the same. So Noilly Prat began replicating the aging step with their unique method called L'Enclos.
Behind the front building at the Maison of Noilly Prat is a courtyard, and in this courtyard are 2,000 barrels where the picpoul and clairette wines age separately outdoors for a full year, oxidizing and taking on aspects of the salty sea air.
Before aging these wines are fortified (with neutral sugar beet distillate) to 18 percent for picpoul and 16 percent for the clairette. We sampled wines aged about 6 months from the barrels - the picpoul wine still tasted very citrusy (apparently picpoul means something like "lip stinger") but took on an oxidized smell that reminded me of flan. The Clairette also tasted oxidized and quite salty, reminded me a little bit of manzanilla sherry.
All the wine for Noilly Prat ages in this one courtyard, though they have more room in other courtyards should we start drinking more vermouth.
The barrels used are all more than 30 years old, some of them more than 100 years old. I believe they said they purchase them from scotch whisky distilleries, but they didn't look to me like ex-bourbon barrels but ex-sherry butts and ex-port pipes as they were all larger than the typical 55 gallon barrels of bourbon.
As the barrels are so old (thus quite neutral and won't lend woody characteristics to the wine), there is a cooperage repair shop on site, located in a building where they used to distill absinthe.
Infusing the Vermouth, and One Last Aging
Indoors in the Vermoutherie, the aged wines and aged mistelle are transferred here. Another distillate now comes into the equation: Lemon peels and raspberries are macerated in neutral sugar beet spirit for one week and then redistilled in a pot still to 76 percent alcohol. This flavored distillate is then used to further fortify the wine.
In 2050 liter oval pine wood vats, the aged picpoul, clairette, and mistelle, plus the flavored distillate, are infused with the custom blend of herbs and spices for three weeks.
Every day during this period a person stirs the macerating wine for two minutes with a special sickle-shaped tool for the purpose.
After maceration, the vermouth is filtered in a big rotary filter to remove the herb particles. The vermouth is then further aged 3 more months in the same sized vats that hold the mistelle.
In tomorrow's post, I'll discuss the different herbs and spices (plus a few other production differences) used in Noilly Prat Original Dry, Rouge, and Ambre.
But I hope this post makes it clear that producing vermouth (at least this vermouth) is no simple business. I no longer just twist open a bottle and dump it into my cocktails- I now pour a bit into a glass with a single ice cube and savor it on its own first. Props.
Next Up: Read about the differences between Noilly Prat Original Dry, Rouge, and Ambre.
Then read about the new Extra Dry on the US market in summer 2013 and the difference between Original Dry and Extra Dry.
What’s going on with the wall behind the Eiffel staircase?
Posted by: Rowen | July 17, 2012 at 07:23 PM
I think it's just an old cement wall. Does it look like something else? I don't see it.
Posted by: Camper English | July 17, 2012 at 07:28 PM
A local artist in Marseillan painted a picture of those stairs and the wall behind really does seem to evaporate like la part des anges (the angels share) of great alcoholic drinks. Lovely piece, Camper, a cut above the usual reporting of Noilly Prat.
Posted by: [email protected] | July 18, 2012 at 05:15 AM
This is great – thanks for all the information! I was just in France earlier this month to see the Chartreuse distillery. Now I wish we had tried to make it over to Marseillan as well. Next time I guess. Can you see all of this on the regular tour?
Posted by: Christy | July 18, 2012 at 09:58 AM
On the regular tour you don't visit the vineyards but I think you do get to see most of what I've described above. Visiting hours are here:
Posted by: Camper English | July 18, 2012 at 10:08 AM
I have just finished reading The Mixellany Guide to Vermouth & Other Apéritifs and have really started enjoying Vermouths on their own!
Posted by: Digg1es | July 18, 2012 at 01:33 PM
I read that book on the way to the vermoutherie and it helped immensley. Good stuff.
Posted by: Camper English | July 18, 2012 at 08:16 PM
an interesting trip. spectacular photography.
believe it or not, vermouth production has a culture of deliberate misinformation. a couple of facts raise some questions.
it is interesting that one of the base wines is purchased at 14% alcohol. as alcohols creep up that high, acidity drops and aromas develop that typically do not age well. based on the rules of thumb of agebility, i don't think a wine constructed that way could survive if it was tortured in a courtyard like they do.
amerine, in the technology of winemaking, comments that american dry vermouth would benefit from using higher acid (and thus probably lower alcohol) base wines. i suspect his comment relates to aroma stability.
it is also curious that their mistelle ends up being around 100 g/l of sugar. noilly's dry vermouth has about 30 g/l of sugar in the final product so it would take a very large amount of that mistelle in the final blend to end up with a 30 g/l sugar content.
the mistelles i buy from alexanders are 800 g/l. they are concentrated in either really large & exotic vacuum concentrators or reverse osmosis. maybe that is the sugar content of the mistelle before they concentrate it?
raspberry as an aroma source in noilly prat is noted in the technology of wine making, but not disclosed as distillate. the creative linkage between raspberry and the other aromas is really unique. who ever came up with that idea must have been brilliant.
Posted by: Stephen | July 20, 2012 at 09:29 AM
Hi- For the wines used, they fortify them higher before aging to help them survive.
You mention a killing of aromatics but in vermouth aren't they more coming from the added herbs?
Good point about the 100 g/L mistelle - It would take an awful lot to make it 30 g/L at the end unless the base wines also started off pretty sweet. I don't know the answer to that one. 100 g/L is what I wrote down.
Posted by: Camper English | July 22, 2012 at 11:10 AM
fortifying the wines only protects them from bacterial spoilage, it doesn't protect them from oxidation.
aroma compounds in the base wine can still degrade under all those botanicals and become frail, cardboardy, or a gross graham-crackery.
some producers use techniques that essentially "bleach" (my metaphor) the base wine so they have less of the liability of the wine's own aroma degrading on the shelf. these non-vintage wine based products have to survive for years on a shelf. it is typically far longer than an average white wine can survive and thus needs special considerations.
red wines do not age like they used to because they are all two percentage points plus higher in alcohol than they used to be, they are lower in natural acidity, and lower in tannin. they are also less of an acquired taste than they used to be...
we often hear the adage that for wines to be age worthy they need acidity, but it isn't the same with added acidity. correlation does not equal causation. i think it is just that aroma compounds are most resilient to drastic deterioration at a point where acidity is high. madeira maximizes this effect and is why it can live forever in a bottle.
Posted by: Stephen | July 23, 2012 at 08:18 AM
But I think the point is to oxidize the wines, like in sherry. Regardless I was also curious in that the higher acid wine was fortified more than the lower acid wine, if I remember correctly.
You pose good questions, if you'd like to nerd out with the brand ambassador let me know and perhaps he can answer questions that I can't.
Posted by: Camper English | July 23, 2012 at 05:21 PM
not all wines survive oxidation equally well. many wines are left unenjoyable by the process which is why it is most typically avoided and considered a flaw.
so for oxidation to actually improve a wine and take it from the ordinary to the extraordinary, the wine has to be designed a certain way.
your trip reminds me of hannum and blumberg's 1976 book on spirits. i easily dub it the best book on spirits ever written.
Posted by: Stephen | July 24, 2012 at 06:26 AM
This is fascinating stuff.
When you wrote about the difference between white and red Nouilly Prat, you did't mention any addition of sugar or other sweetener. Can we conclude that it's the added fruits and other items that impart the sweetness?
Posted by: scloughley | November 07, 2013 at 07:27 PM
Thanks - My notes are stored away but I've got an expert who will reply to your question in a few days. Good question!
Posted by: Camper English | November 08, 2013 at 12:57 PM
Hi - It is sugar that imparts the sweetness. According to Giuseppe Gallo, a vermouth expert, "The sweetness to all Vermouth as well for Noilly Dry, Amber and Rouge is only from sugar and NOT from fruits or other botanicals. Herbs and spice bring the only perfume and volatile component, the colour then as per Noily Amber and Rouge is due to caramel, super concentrated and very bitter, not to be confused with sweet caramel."
Posted by: Camper English | November 11, 2013 at 08:54 AM
the barrels are bought from Cognac after 3 or 4 years use making Cognac (they say this in the tour)D
Posted by: Doug | April 16, 2014 at 12:44 PM
"Many of the wines are grown next to the ocean, adjacent to the oyster farms. What grows together, goes together."
This is the mediterraneen sea, actually, and not the ocean. You DO NOT want to make this mistake anywhere near Marseillan ;).
I can tell you that much, i come from here.
Anyway, nice trip you've got !
I also learn a few things about vermouth.
Posted by: Niark | August 14, 2015 at 10:55 AM
Thanks! Will fix.
Posted by: Camper English | August 14, 2015 at 11:21 AM
Thanks for this article Camper
I read their website and failed to understand about their fortification agent and believed that the mistelle was their fortification agent
Now I learn, that the wines before ageing are fortified with neutral beet spirit
So the mistelle merely behaves like a wine and not as the fortifying agent
I believe Noilly Prat is perhaps the only vermouth company that integrates flavours directly into the wine-mistelle mix while others create tinctures, extracts and alcoholates and then blend them in sequence and proportion to the base wine or fortified base wine
PS: can you guide me as to where I will get detailed information on the extraction of botanical flavours commonly used in the vermouth industry
Posted by: Sanjit Keskar | March 21, 2020 at 11:59 PM
Hi - Yes the mistelle is a sweetening wine rather than fortifying one.
Extraction of botanicals - I don't know, that would be more of a technical book. For books about vermouth, check out the ones by Adam Ford and Mixellany. One common book on extractions/flavor additives in general is Fenaroli's Handbook of Flavor Ingredients.
Posted by: Camper English | March 24, 2020 at 07:20 AM