Noilly Prat, a classic yet irreplaceable cocktails’ friend – Meanderings through France n° 95
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
“Shaken, not stirred”, I guess everyone knows these three words, emblematic of James Bond. Since “Casino Royale”, the very first novel written in 1953 by Ian Fleming, 007 is linked to Martini and his very personal recipe, a very strong version mixing gin, vodka and a French white vermouth. Noilly Prat is one of the finest, if not the finest French vermouth, made since 1813 in Southern France and a favourite of many mixologists around the world. From Arma di Taggia, head bartender of the “Knickerbocker Hotel” in New York who declared in 1912 that only Noilly Prat was to be used to make his “classic dry martini cocktail”, to nowadays expert cocktails makers, this unique wine is universally appreciated.
As often with winemaking in France, Noilly Prat is a family business starting in 1813 with Joseph Noilly. He created the original recipe combining local vine varieties with local and exotic herbs and spices. His son Louis invented a unique way to improve his father’s recipe. During the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries French wines travelled the oceans aboard wooden sailing ships to be delivered and drunk all over the world. The casks of wines were stocked on open-air decks and fully exposed to the sun, the rain and the sea spray. This unintentional way to age wine gave it a darker colour and an intense taste. Louis Noilly wanted his wines to gain this rich and complex aroma without having to travel for weeks aboard sailing ships that anyway were being replaced by faster steamers.
To him the equation was simple: wines + sun + sea breeze = Marseillan, a small Mediterranean port surrounded by vineyards. There, with the help of his son-in-law Claudius Pratt, he created the Noilly Prat Co in 1855. They both started up the process that is still used today to make the Noilly Prat Original Dry. It all begins with a white wine made with local grape varieties, the Picpoul and the Clairette that is slowly matured for 12 months in the Mistelles cellar built by Louis in 1850. It quietly ages in huge oak casks containing up to 40,000 litres.
Next the wine is poured into smaller oak barrels placed in a big outside courtyard, “L’Enclos”. For a whole year hundreds of barrels undergo the passing of the seasons and the climate hazards such as rain, wind, low or high temperatures. It is time for the “angels’ share”, this inevitable evaporation that occurs in wooden casks, but here it is four times that of the usual one in a conventional wine cellar! One year later the wine is much more complex and powerful.
The last phase takes place in the Salle des secrets, the hall of secrets, where, still following Joseph’s recipe twenty different aromatic herbs and spices such as Roman chamomile, French gentian, Tunisian bitter orange or Indonesian nutmeg are added to the wine. Of course this recipe is a well-kept secret and the cellar master is the only one to know the right amount of each of these twenty different ingredients. Everyday for three weeks the mixture is slowly hand-stirred to allow the different aromas to perfectly infuse into the wine, creating the unique taste of Noilly Prat.
Today Marseillan still is a lovely village on the Mediterranean shore and the Noilly Prat cellars still are where Louis Noilly built them, next to the little fishing port. If Marseillan is not as famous as the nearby towns of Sète or Agde, it is worth a visit if you spend some time in the area. Many tourists have found here beautiful sandy beaches and, close by, the exceptional Thau Lagoon where the Bouzigue oysters are grown and where many wild birds such as flamingos, grey herons, aigrette or egrets gathered to breed. And of course you can visit the Noilly Prat winery. Going from the “Mistelles” cellar to the “Enclos” and the “Salle des secrets” you will follow the whole process and taste the wine at every step of its making.
You will also discover Noilly Prat Rouge (red) made with the same white wine but with a different blend of spices such as saffron, cloves or cocoa beans and the Noilly Prat Ambré (amber) flavoured with cardamom, cinnamon, lavender… The three of them are very tasty chilled on their own with a twist of lemon or orange and of course you can make numerous cocktails. The visit ends in the cocktail bar where you will be able to try one of these aromatic drinks.
For more information
About Marseillan: http://www.marseillan.com/index.asp?lang=english
About Noilly Prat: www.noillyprat.com
About Herault and Languedoc: http://www.herault-tourisme.com/accueil-1-1.html
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny