A nip of sherry often evokes memories of a sticky screw-top bottle left to drip on your grandma’s doily-laden kitchen table. Not a slick city bar.
Fortified wines are nothing new: they have roots in ancient Greece. But recent times have seen a renaissance of the habitually misunderstood beverage class. Instead of impulse-ordering beer or wine, bar-goers are revisiting fortifieds such as vermouth and sherry for a crisp, pre-dinner aperitif.
They can even be found on-tap at venues such as Banksii, Australia’s first dedicated vermouth bar, which opened in Sydney last year. “It had a bad rap because of all the grandmas with oxidised vermouth in the back cupboard,” co-owner Hamish Ingham told Broadsheet. “Now everyone is getting into it.”
With separate wine and spirit distribution channels, Adelaide-based Mark Reginato puts people’s misconceptions down to variety (and lack thereof). “Without brand-slagging, we’ve always had poor examples … average quality, mass-produced stuff.” For him, fortified wines – wine to which a distilled spirit is added – go across categories. “I’ve expanded that side of things quicker than something like gin,” he says.
This return to fortifieds, particularly botanical-heavy ones such as vermouth, mimics the gin movement. “Your grandma probably drank gin as well,” says James Roden, co-owner of Adelaide’s Spain- and Portugal-inspired bar Iberia. “Gin was considered an old-fashioned drink ‘til not that long ago.”
Reginato agrees: “People got their heads around aromas and botanicals [with gin]. It’s a good path to understanding why wine can have aromas and botanicals, too.”
As with gin, operating on a small scale allows fortified-wine producers to tap into and “capture styles that bigger producers can’t,” says Simon Denman, co-owner of Melbourne bar Neighbourhood Wine.
“As fortified wines become more widely understood, younger producers come along doing slightly more adventurous things,” Denman says. With increased access to – and understanding of – native botanicals, Australian makers continue to push the envelope, “making hand-crafted, small-batch products that, without a lot of effort, are very well differentiated from standard vermouths.”
Denman sees fortifying as a natural progression for winemakers. “Vermouth is an obvious next step … they already have the base product.” It’s no surprise we’re seeing blends that “feel a bit more wine-based and a little less sweetened.”
The ubiquity of vermouth-forward cocktails such as Martinis and Manhattans hasn’t wavered. As an ingredient, it’s versatile and – particularly when using innovative styles – its botanicals add depth of flavour. “It was always an addition to a cocktail; now it’s becoming part of,” says Reginato. But it’s just as good (“if not better”) enjoyed as is, or with a splash of soda.
Because it’s “more approachable – and with slightly lower sugar levels – than the traditional stuff”, Denman says the products that are part of the new wave of Australian-made vermouths are easily appreciated on their own. He points to Maidenii’s “slurp-able”, unfiltered styles, which err on the classic dry side of things.
“I’m speaking with my wine-orientated hat on,” Denman admits. “But standalone is where [high quality sherry’s] strength is. It’s usually the cheaper, less-interesting stuff that ends up in cocktails.”
“Some people think [sherry] has to be sweet, and that’s a commonly held misconception,” he says, when it’s the dry styles that are now “in vogue”.
That’s due, in part, to their food-pairing qualities. “Dry sherry works with almost any starter,” Denman says. “It’s one of those drinks that heightens the food you’re eating.” Particularly Fino and Manzanilla sherries, Roden adds, which pair well with cured meats, olives, salty fish and pickled vegetables – “anything salty, really.”
Roden suggests non-believers take a European approach: “Don’t go to the bar and have a glass of sherry, straight up. Have it in the context of a meal, or as an aperitif, and it’s ‘gonna make a lot more sense.”
Denman says: “It’s rare I ever come across a bartender or waiter that doesn’t like drinking vermouth or sherry.” If in doubt, ask for a recommendation.