Great news – the secret formula to a perfect martini cocktail isn’t locked within a bank vault in Monaco.
Neither is it secreted away under the bar in an oak-panelled, members-only club in Knightsbridge, nor exclusive to one of the next-gen, hipster cocktail haunts in ‘Frisco. It is available to all, and every single bottle of it is created in a sunny town in southern France. It is a vermouth called Noilly Prat.
Actually, I lied; the recipe is a closely guarded secret and is probably locked away in a vault, but you can still get your hands on this incredibly labour-intensive, fortified wine pretty much everywhere.
You may need a modicum of skill and some basic rules to create your cocktail masterpiece, but vermouth is the essential ingredient, and Noilly Prat is the original and best. While it’s ultimately all about flavour, the history and process is equally rich and enticing. In order to learn more, I agreed to immerse myself in its culture and home in the Med – needless to say without much of a fight!
Legend has it, and head vintner (or maître de chai) in Marseillan Jean-Louis Mastoro attested to its truth, that the Greeks and Romans discovered the method for fortified wine during their long sea voyages, when they transported barrels of wine on exposed ship decks beneath the glaring sun stimulated by the motion of the ocean. When they tapped into the wine – after their successful campaigns to reclaim the Golden Fleece, kill the Kraken or whatever – they would have enjoyed a darker, stronger, more intensely flavoured wine.
Following the invention of the first French vermouth by Joseph Noilly in 1813, his son Louis replicated the maritime genesis of the wine by keeping the fermenting barrels outdoors. This, together with their secret blend of aromatics, climate and 200 years of refinement going into each bottle, has created a legendary drink that is also a cracking aperitif in both its Original Dry, Ambré, and Rouge incarnations as well.
But let’s start with the main event – the grape. The home of Noilly Prat is Marseillan, deep in the heart of the wine-growing region of Languedoc Roussillon in south-west France, along the Mediterranean coast.
Intense sun, the cool Mediterranean breeze, decent springtime showers and a touch of salty air makes for lovely wine, and one particular grape that favours this area is Picpoul. This variety lends its name to Picpoul de Pinet (Pinet being a village 4km from Marseillan), an increasingly popular white wine in the UK. Picpoul, along with other varieties such as Clairette, are the basis of this vermouth. Jean-Louis took me to see them on the vine to get a first-hand look at their terroir – the fancy French word for the environment that gives a grape in a particular region its character.
It was early morning but already hitting the mid-20s at the vineyard when Jean-Louis gave me a taste of the lovely Picpoul, with its scents of grapefruit and elderflower. But enough of this unfortified stuff, let’s get over to Noilly Prat HQ, next to that glorious fishing harbour.
The Maison Noilly Prat is the town’s most famous building and the former home of the Noilly family, the sole production plant, and a museum visited by thousands of fans every year – many of them snaffling up as many bottles of the Ambré (Amber) as they can carry as it’s only available from the on-site shop.
Jean-Louis starts the tour in the room known as the Chai de Mistelles. The vermouth is a blend of grapes, and the first room is where the juice from the sweet grape Mistelles is matured for 12 months in two rows of gigantic oak vats. We try a drop of this straight from the barrel – it’s very sweet but full of character.
We exit through some super-cool siding doors, which Jean-Louis activates with a clap of his hands – Jean-Louis by the way, is an extremely charismatic, genial Frenchman. He is a local celebrity; everybody knows him and almost everyone in the village shouts “bonjour Jean-Louis” as he passes. I like his style!
Through these doors we enter into the full blast of the Mediterranean sun and into an extraordinarily beautiful and iconic space – a walled courtyard containing hundreds of barrels of wine known as l’Enclos.
This is where the magic happens – as the sun’s warmth beats down on the barrels for the 12-month cycle, some liquid is lost (6% to be exact) and it’s this reduction that creates the stronger flavour and fortifies the wine. Incidentally, the liquid that evaporates is called the “angel’s share” because it has gone heavenwards!
As if this process wasn’t unique enough already, to fully replicate the ancient water-borne origin of the drink, they turn on the waterworks twice each day, using cooling sprinklers to regulate evaporation.
After passing through a massive room in which they repair their own ancient oak barrels, we ascend a staircase to the top floor, which hosts yet more gigantic vats holding the batches of Mistelle, Picpoul and Clairette that have now been blended and sent here for the maceration – the process which imparts the distinctive aromatics into the wine.
The three Noilly Prat varieties – Ambré, Original Dry and Rouge – all contain a different blend of aromatics that are evocative of the south of France. While the ingredients are common knowledge, the precise quantities are under lock and key. Included in the mix are gentian root, lavender, cardamom and dried orange zest, among dozens of others.
Jean-Louis lets me taste some of the unfiltered product and it’s sublime, although anything but refined at this stage – the orange zest is a bully in the vat and gives it a strong marmalade tone – I could have dived in.
Once filtered, it’s bottled and unleashed upon its adoring fans around the world.
It’s so many things in a single bottle; history, culture, secrets and class – so how can you do it justice?
Well, if you’re after the singular experience rather than a martini blend, go French and indulge in an aperitif to fully appreciate it.
Pour two parts of the Original Dry straight into a wine glass over a large ice cube, take a strip of lemon zest, twist it over the drink to release some of the oils and then add it to the glass. To make it really special, drink it with oysters.
There you have it folks – the secret to the perfect martini is available to all without having to ram-raid a Swiss bank vault.