Paso-Vermú, a new hand-crafted Spanish Vermouth made by an English couple in Somontano. The striking artwork is by Matt Sewell
Strictly speaking this isn’t a wine blog: Vermú/Vermut/Vermouth is an aromatised, fortified wine flavoured with herbs and spices (aka botanicals)… But this is a wine blog, because the new-wave Vermuts are recognisably wine-based, whereas the mass-market Italian and French brands that dominated, in fact pretty well constituted, the market for decades bore no resemblance to wine and weren’t intended to. Whatever they were, they weren’t aimed at wine drinkers.
Spanish producers have transformed the Vermouth market. Under the name Vermut or Vermú, it has long been made and enjoyed on its home turf, but it has been given a new lease of life in the last decade in a movement akin to the rise of small-batch gin and craft beer in the UK. New Vermuts have emerged from tiny start-up producers such as Paso-Vermú in Somontano and from established wine producers and revered Sherry houses such as Lustau and Gonzalez Byass.
Paso-Vermú is delicious: spicy, herby, floral, bitter, sweet, smooth and beautifully balanced. But more than that it’s the kind of heart-warming story we all need in February. It’s the creation of a Shropshire couple, Tom Holt and Emma Williams-Holt, who met when they were working in Tanners’ wine cellars in Shrewsbury back in 2006. After Tom graduated in viticulture and oenology from Plumpton College (encouraged to got there by Tanners), they set off to make wine in various parts of the world, including New Zealand, before finally deciding on the Somontano region in north east Spain for their own wine venture, Paso-Primero (first steps). Their first vintage was 2014, a red wine, in 2015 they added a white and now Paso-Vermú is making its debut.
Having discovered Vermú in local bars where, as Tom puts it, they were “spending too much time with other winemakers instead of working in the winery”, the original idea was simply to make a Vermú for their own consumption. They experimented with five-litre batches in the lab when they were supposed to be checking their wines and somehow, in no time at all, they were in full production. “It’s all been a bit of a whirlwind to be honest,” says Tom.
So how do they make it? As naturally as possible is the short answer. Apart from the botanicals, it’s made entirely from grapes and is free from artificial sweeteners and cane sugar. The base is a blend of their Paso-Primero house wines (both red and white) sweetened with grape caramel and fortified up to 15% with grape distillate. This is infused with their chosen bittering agents and aromatics, added carefully over a set period of time. The three key ones around which all their trials were based and which are pivotal in the final recipe are wormwood, orange peel and rosemary – in themselves not revolutionary, but what it did surprise me to learn, considering the complex taste of the finished drink, is that they don’t use many others.
There is, however, a fascinating secret ingredient... but I have promised not to reveal it. If you want to know what it is, you’ll have to get a bottle and see if you can work it out. It is, after all, a Vermú designed to be sipped and savoured on its own, although it makes a fine Negroni, if you’re inclined, and it’s also very good over ice with a slice of orange and a sprig of rosemary. Tanners Wines has just started stocking Paso-Vermú (£15.95). It also stocks, both Paso-Primero Tinto 2016 (£8.50) and Paso-Primero Blanco 2016 (£8.40). My tip for Valentine's Day is Paso-Vermú – original, delicious, heart warming.
Photograph by Joanna Simon