When the great vermouth establishments refer to their product as ‘the oldest form of wine in the world’, they are not exaggerating. If we could travel in time, we might find many of the wines praised in antiquity to be harsh, sour and coarse to our palates, but the ‘aromatized wine’ that we know as vermouth would then have existed and, even if we drank it for medicinal or preventive reasons rather than for enjoyment, we could recognise it and relate it to the vermouths of today.
Vermouth can be, and often is, made wherever wine is made. The ancient Egyptians used both wine and beer, plus juniper, frankincense, celery, lotus leaves and honey, in the treatment of certain ailments; and it is by a method of infusion, maceration, distillation, or two or all three of these processes that, essentially, vermouth is made today. In Book IV of the Odyssey, Helen throws a drug given to her by an Egyptian lady into the bowl in which the wine is to be mixed and diluted before dinner; this ‘had the power of robbing grief and anger of their sting and banishing all painful memories’ — an efficacious aperitif, assuring good digestion. At the end of the third millennium B.C. what is perhaps the first written doctor’s prescription is recorded in cuneiform script on a tablet from the Sumerian city of Nippur — a physician notes that certain powders should be infused with a type of wine.
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Other families in the drink business were quick to see the possibilities for vermouth, setting up in Turin, Marseilles and Sete (again in proximity to mountain herbs and a quantity of wine), and in Chambray. Many of them are still family concerns, even though they are great empires of the drink business. Martini & Rossi, who were founded about 1840, replaced a much older concern making vermouths and liqueurs at Pessione, near Turin (the head of that firm was the grandfather of Giovanni Angelli, founder of Fiat); the superb museum now established alongside the Pessione installations is a necessary detour for anyone interested in the history of wine from the earliest times.
The Cinzano family began in the drink business in the sixteenth century, and in 1757 the brothers Carlo Stefano and Giovanni Giacomo were invested as Master Distillers in Turin; today their business is gigantic, including, among other things, the Florio concern at Marsala, (itself including the former cantinas of Ingham and Woodhouse). Louis Noilly, in business at the beginning of the nineteenth century in Lyons, set up in the vermouth trade with his son-in-law, Claudius Prat and they enjoyed so much success that by 1843 they moved their headquarters to Marseilles. Madame Josephine Prat, who ran the business after the deaths of the two founders, was succeeded by her two children; and her granddaughter, Vicomtesse Vigier, who entered the firm before 1939, directed it until 1970 when she died, over a hundred years old.
It seems a little odd that, with so many modifications of wine-making and changes in the tastes of drinkers, aromatized wine should still be in demand. But, in fact, it is increasingly so. Whenever people order a straight vermouth they are ordering the oldest wine in the world.