Add a French touch to your cocktails with Noilly Prat – Meanderings through France n° 218
By Annick Dournes & Frédéric de Poligny
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 ever since. Let’s go to Marseillan where it all began.
James Bond’s favourite
Whether in films or in the novels we’ve all heard James Bond say these three emblematic words “Shaken, not stirred”. 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 this famous French white vermouth. 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.
A successful family business
The story begins in 1813 with Joseph Noilly who created the original recipe combining local vine varieties with Mediterranean and exotic herbs and spices. But it was his son Louis that 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 the 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 in those days were being replaced by faster steamers.
Since he was not going to make all his casks travel through the Atlantic Ocean to age his aromatic wine, he chose a small Provencal port called Marseillan. There he was able to expose the casks to plenty of sunshine, sea breeze and in the same time be close to local vineyards. 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.
A unique aging process
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.
Then the time has come for the mysterious part of the Noilly Prat making that takes place in the Salle des secrets, the hall of secrets. Today it still is the same blend of herbs and spices elaborated by Joseph that is used to make the spirit we can drink in our cocktails. All we know is that twenty different plants 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 person in the company 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.
Visit the cellars and discover Noilly Prat in Marseillan,
Today Marseillan port looks quite the same as it did when the company settled there. 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.
Today the Noilly Prat range of wines has been extended. 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 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.destination-languedoc.co.uk
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos ©Frederic de Poligny