First, it was boutique Australian gin; now vermouth is on the make. Max Allen savours the sweet and the dry.
"Here, taste this," says winemaker Julian Castagna, popping the swing-top from a recycled Grolsch bottle and pouring pale-pink fluid into my wine glass. As I bring it to my nose, Castagna leans back on his kitchen bench in Victoria's high country and gives me his serious look.
I sniff. I sip. It's not wine. Well, it is wine - I can smell the grapes, the vinosity, the ferment. But there are other things in here, too: herbs, spices, a touch of drying astringency on the tongue, a bitterness... And then it hits me: Castagna's making vermouth.
He smiles as he sees my face light up in recognition. "I'm still working on the balance of the ingredients," he says. "But when it's released it'll be the first 100 per cent estate-grown Australian vermouth: the base wine, the botanicals, all grown here at the vineyard."
Castagna is the latest Australian winemaker to jump on the local vermouth bandwagon, joining Regal Rogue, Maidenii and Causes & Cures, all launched in the past couple of years. It's no coincidence boutique vermouths have started appearing at the same time as the boom in Australian boutique gins - what better partner is there for gin than vermouth, and vice versa?
Winemaker Steve Flamsteed, who makes a semi-dry white vermouth and a new semi-dry red (not released in time for our photo) under the Causes & Cures label at Giant Steps winery in the Yarra Valley, explains what goes into making this mysterious drink.
Biodynamically grown grapes (viognier for the white, sangiovese for the red) are hand-picked, whole-bunch pressed and undergo a wild ferment to produce a wine at 14 per cent alcohol. Botanicals such as wormwood (the crucial ingredient, Wermut in German, that gives vermouth its name), orris root, gentian and saffron are macerated in spirit distilled from the base wine. This sweetened, aromatised spirit is then blended with the wine to fortify it and produce vermouth with a strength of 17 per cent alcohol.
Winemaker Gilles Lapalus, of Sutton Grange vineyard near Bendigo, started developing his Maidenii range three years ago, in partnership with bartender Shaun Byrne of Melbourne's Gin Palace. The pair make three Maidenii vermouths, Apéritif, Sweet and Dry, using Sutton Grange shiraz, cabernet and viognier, respectively, as the base wines. Lapalus and Byrne use over 30 botanicals, a third of which are Australian, including strawberry gum, river mint, sea parsley and wattleseed. Each of the styles employs key botanicals to emphasise the flavour profile: kaffir lime leaf, nigella and gentian in the Dry, orange zest and bay leaf in the Apéritif, grapefruit, mace and angelica root in the Sweet. For me, they are the most complex, intriguing and harmoniously blended Australian vermouths on the market.
"It's so much fun to play with flavours like this," says Lapalus.
Regal Rogue founder Mark Ward is also having fun with native ingredients in his Bianco and Rosso vermouths. He says the goal with the Bianco, for example, is to create something citrus-led with sweet florals to follow. "So we complement native botanicals such as finger limes and lemon myrtle with chamomile, elderflower and vanilla for natural sweetness."
Ward is keen to remind people new to vermouth that these drinks are made from wine and should be treated like other fortified wines: the Regal Rogue Bianco, for example, is mostly Adelaide Hills sauvignon blanc-sémillon, so it should be kept in the fridge and is best drunk within four weeks of opening.
How best to drink these vermouths? They're all so different, it's worth experimenting to see what works.
I like the super-aromatic, herbal, citrusy Regal Rogue Bianco on its own, over ice, and that's exactly what Ward had in mind when he developed the recipe: "It's designed to be quaffed," he says. "We've flipped the traditional style to bring out the natural aromatics and not overlay it with bitterness."
Maidenii Dry is also good over ice but makes a cracking Martini, and Maidenii Sweet I adore to drink neat: a chilled snifter in a tulip-shaped sherry glass, so I can fully appreciate the seductive, complex aromatics.
Now we need an enterprising soul to produce a local version of Campari and we'll have all the ingredients - with gin and vermouth - for an Australian Negroni.