Quin-kee-what? Local winemaker enlightens the masses on aromatized and fortified wines

Local winemaker Ben Jordan has been experimenting with flavors and ingredients to come up with aromatized and fortified wines like quinquina. Photo: Christian Hommel Local winemaker Ben Jordan has been experimenting with flavors and ingredients to come up with aromatized and fortified wines like quinquina. Photo: Christian Hommel

I distinctly remember the aromas of Tanqueray gin and Myers’s rum from my days as a country club bartender in Lynchburg. Despite their potency, I knew how to make the spirits taste as good as they smelled. Then there was the vermouth—cheap stuff, likely sitting open for years, as dry martini-drinking members from the ’80s had avoided the bottle for decades. Yuck. Every few years, I’d pour a nip of vermouth (most likely out of an old bottle), and it reaffirmed my avoidance of this once-essential cocktail ingredient.

About eight years ago, vermouth started popping up on big city drink menus, and I was baffled. How could something so foul, oxidized, and frequently riddled with fruit flies ever enhance a cocktail? My curiosity finally got the best of me and I got my hands on a fresh bottle of Carpano Antica, a higher-end Italian sweet vermouth. Immediately upon tasting it for the first time, I was a convert. It was rich, round, and sweet, tasting of vanilla and caramel, with an aggressive bitter snap for a finish. It was the perfect complement to whisky—it was the reason why the Manhattan cocktail has, despite being made for years with cheap and abused vermouth, withstood the test of time.

Vermouth is essentially a fortified and aromatized wine: It’s fortified with some higher proof alcohol and sugar, and it’s aromatized with bitter herbs and spices. Vermouth is an Anglicization of the German word “wermut,” which means “wormwood.” Wormwood (also the bitter herb in absinthe) is the bitter ingredient in vermouth that balances the sugar that is added to the base wine.

Vermouth is wine, so if it’s left out on the counter for more than a day or two, it goes bad. For optimum taste, it should really go straight into the fridge after being opened, and should be consumed within a month or so.

A few years after my Carpano epiphany, I met Ben Jordan, a local winemaker at Michael Shap’s Wineworks, who makes a Virginia red wine quinquina in his spare time. He invited me to taste his stuff, and, being ignorant of what a quinquina is, I agreed. Jordan’s wine is a little lighter and less sweet than Carpano, with more of a red wine flavor. “Ever thought of calling this vermouth?” I asked naively, completely exposing what little I knew of aromatized and fortified wines. Jordan, being the mild-mannered winemaker he is, indulged my ignorance without judgment. I sat down to talk about aromatized wines, vermouth vs. quinquinas, and how this forgotten class of mixers is making a huge comeback.

What is a quinquina and how is it different from vermouth?

Like vermouth, quinquinas are fortified and aromatized aperitifs (alcoholic beverages served before a meal) with bitter character, usually bottled with some level of sweetness. They can be drunk alone or used as components in cocktails. Quinquinas feature cinchona bark as an important ingredient, and cinchona should have significant impact on flavor and aroma. Vermouth is, in some ways, a more open category, with primary ingredients and intensities that vary across producers. My experience with both vermouth and quinquina is that there is a lot of stylistic difference out there. This makes both categories fun to explore and difficult to generalize.

What prompted you to make this particular style of aromatized and fortified wine?

I started out working on recipes for vermouth and other aromatized/botanical wines with a winemaker from Sonoma County a while back. It was liberating to be able to play with flavors and ingredients, instead of just grapes, but it was also difficult to get the recipes to taste good. Getting all those flavors dialed in and working together was and still is a challenge. We never did anything on a commercial level with those recipes, but during that time I developed a taste for cinchona, and I decided to make something in the style of Barolo Chinato. I immediately swerved from the Chinato technique, and ended up with this concoction. Quinquina is the closest appropriate classification, since we don’t have a word for “American cinchona bark wine.”

What is a solera system, and why do you use one for making your quinquina?

Solera is a system of aging that blends new vintages or batches with older ones. Sherry is probably the most visible product of this system. Some soleras go back a long time, containing vintages older than 50 years. The technique for blending the wines in a solera is pretty specific, so this thing is pseudo-solera, but the goal is similar. Because I am using red wine that has tannins, new quinquina can be raw and disjointed with the cinchona being too aggressive. The older stuff is generally integrated, sometimes too integrated. I like the way new and old interact, and there are textures and flavors that you don’t get with a single vintage.

How do you suggest consuming your quinquina?

I like it after a meal, chilled as a digestif. I also use it in cocktails as a substitute or in tandem with lower alcohol ingredients like vermouth. I tend to use it in combination with Campari or Gran Classico in a gin or whiskey drink. The bitter/sweet matrix is different than the average sweet vermouth, and I find it adds less perceived sweetness.