Friday, 20 March 2009

Noilly Prat Ambre Vermouth.

Lately, I've been hearing a tired refrain from the staunch traditionalists: Noilly Prat has ruined their packaging with a redesign. Never mind that the  new bottle is more elegant, equally easy to hold, and has a classic look to it. It's curvaceous. It's sexy. 

But to be honest, my mind wasn't on the packaging when I got my hands on one of the new Ambre bottles.  My first thought was, "AMBRE!!!!!" 

Noilly Prat has been producing this wonderful fortified aperitif wine since 1986, which is why it is known as 'the baby' at the distillery. After all, Noilly Extra Dry was born in 1811, and Noilly Rouge came along in 1956. 

The Ambre lands somewhere between the two, with the richness of the sweet, but the dry complexity of the dry without the sharp edges. Underneath, it is distinctly reminiscent of a fine marsala wine. It is superb in a Manhattan or on its own on the rocks. 

If you haven't encountered Ambre, that's because until recently it was only available at the distillery in Marseillan which is from a global perspective the middle of nowhere. You can fly into Montpellier in the south of France. Rent a car. Drive past Sette, home of some of the best oysters in the world. Then you continue down the coast to an enormous lake that fronts onto the Mediterranean Sea, but is far saltier and produces even better oysters. On the downwind edge of this lake, catching a perennial salt-laden breeze is Marseillan and Noilly Prat. The barrels sit out in the sun for decades. The vermouth rests in them for eighteen months of its journey from vineyard to bottle. We lasted twenty sweltering minutes before we begged for shade. Incidentally, over 50 percent of France's annual chamomile harvest ends up in those bottles (which is why French vermouth was also known as chamomile vermouth at one time -- but that's one of those secret parts of the secret recipe so don't tell anyone). 

So, what is it I really like about the new Noilly Ambre packaging? I like the implication that it might become more widely available. They may have been happy selling something like 40,000 bottles (or was it cases? I'd had a few drinks at the time) a year at the distillery, but it's just not fair to the rest of the world. 

Meanwhile, there is a source outside the distillery other than the cafe across the harbor from the distillery (where we once bought it upon discovering after driving all that way that the distillery was closed for a bank holiday). 

(Sun-baked barrels in the Noilly Prat barrel yard.)

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