Feel of alchemy: Bryan Martin's Americano uses herbs and spices, flowers and bark. Photo: David Reist
I'm going to declare my hypocrisy: I can't quite remember when, but it might have been as recent as last year. I used these very pages to cast aspersions on a growing movement, an underbelly you may say. And no, I'm not talking about hipsters or zombies. They are both real and should be feared. It was the so-called "natural wine" movement. Like most wine makers, having a subset using the term "natural" I took the normal path of attacking it without really understanding what "it" was. Much like "reality television" must have sparked a debate among traditional television viewers. What we know now is that reality TV is just as scripted and mindless.
Natural wine, likewise, isn't that different from your normal everyday wine making. Grapes are grown and harvested, yeast acts on the grape sugars, fermenting them to produce alcohol. Basically this same method has been used for thousands of years. In Georgia, there is evidence that grapes have been used to make wine in amphora-like vessels continuously for six millennia.
How this ended up with me sitting in a restaurant in Griffith at a natural wine dinner is a very long story. Suffice to say, there are people trying to make wine like that of ancient Georgia, Greece and Rome. Mike Bennie, a wine writer who was hosting this dinner, made an interesting point. In the aftermath of World War II, the region of Friuli in Italy was destroyed. When the survivors got to the business of rebuilding, of course, wine had to be made. Only a couple of generations of winemaking expertise had disappeared. The old survivors only knew how to make the old-fashioned wine in amphoras. So that's what they did, made wine like their forefathers.
We certainly tried strange booze on this night at Aubergine, some a little too characterful. One wine stunned for smelling exactly like an armpit after a particularly vigorous jog. Bennie made the point that it's out here on the fringe you are more likely to find amazing beauty. You know that all this wine was made with passion and for the most part shirking modern additives and food was pretty amazing. Ben Willis pulled out all stops and put together a pretty neat menu that was in the spirit of this Canberra Times Good Food Month event: Black pudding and chocolate cannoli; smoked eel with crispy trout skin and cucumber. His second course - wild rice, braised seaweed, wood ear fungus and rice paddy herbs - deserves a mention. Such a delicious umami-rich arrangement, served with a very savoury Jura wine that only accentuated this rich, brothy dish.
Toward the end of the meal, Bennie broke custom, as is his wont. The penultimate course, a sorbet made with shiso, a mint-like Asian herb, was served with a glass of Chinati Vergano "americano". Now this is a nice drink and deserves some discussion. Mauro Vergano, a retired chemist, makes a range of these fortified, aromatised wines. You know them as vermouth, but don't think Cinzano.
The term "americano" has nothing to do with the continents, a country or Lady Gaga. It's just a mispronunciation of the Italian word amaro, or bitter. Also an americano is not a true vermouth. Vermouth, as the name suggests if you are German, means wormwood. The bitterness for americano comes from gentian root: a pretty alpine flowering plant. It's an interesting fact that a lot of these were invented by chemists and doctors. There is a strong apothecary, alchemy feel to these aromatised wines. Of laboratories filled with glassware and tinctures.
Flasks of herbs and spices, flowers and bark. Well, that's what my lab feels like at the moment. After this dinner with Bennie, I had this brain snap: Could I make vermouth, would that not be neat-o? The trick is to get a range of botanicals like (and this is a brief list) bay leaf, caraway seed, juniper berry, cassia bark, vanilla, orange peel; and even dandelion root and chocolate nibs. Macerate these in a high-strength spirit, like Polish vodka or what we call SVR (Spiritus Vini Rectificatus or brandy spirit): This is almost pure ethyl alcohol so you don't need to use much.
These flavourings can be clumped into groups like bitters, flowers, spice and herbs or as a tincture (single flavour in each bottle). Once the botanical(s) have aromatised the spirit, about a week or so, you fortify the wine and generally sweeten it too. So that's my plan, and I'm throwing myself at it, the lab is full of these flasks full of botanicals, and I'm at the point of testing my first batch. However, I thought, this is something you can do at home if you are a keen home alchemist. And who isn't? You could just seek out a bottle of Mr Vergano's americano, but experimenting is so much more fun.
Here's a very rough guide to making a bottle of your own americano but be brave and try your own tinctures or blends. Organise friends to come over and rejoice in the blending process.
1 bottle of good medium weight red wine like pinot noir
200 ml high-strength vodka, about 60 per cent alcohol
1 teaspoon bitter orange marmalade or aromatic honey
a thick-skinned orange
1 teaspoon caraway seed
1 teaspoon coriander seed
6 juniper berries
zest from one orange
6 coriander roots
2 sprigs oregano
2 sprigs tarragon
1 stalk rhubarb
a couple of rose petals
Find a wide-necked bottle and add spirit along with any dried spices. Seal and leave at room temperature for a week. Open and add the other botanicals. Use whatever you can find that smells good. Seal again and leave for another week.
Warm the marmalade or honey until it is runny. Open the bottle of wine and pour out a glass, at least 100 millilitres. Filter spirit through a coffee filter and measure 50 millilitres, add this and sweetener to the wine and gently mix. Top up with the glass you poured and seal. Leave for a few days in the fridge, gently shaking the bottle every now and then.
Set up some glasses with ice, pour in the wine and grate orange zest straight into the glass.
There is a little trial and error needed. You may want the americano sweeter, play around with the botanical mix or use a white wine but main point; it's an awesome summer drink.