La Maison Noilly Prat’s location is superb, next to Étang de Thau, a large lagoon in Marseillan, one of the oldest fishing villages in France. A few weathered bars, bistros and shops line the small multi-hued port. It’s a French Provencal postcard town come to life.
The History of Noilly Prat
Pascal, our guide, introduced us to the history of the house of Noilly Prat. The recipe for Noilly Prat vermouth was created in 1813 by Joseph Noilly in Lyon, France. Shortly afterward, he opened a wine and spirits business which eventually became a family business. When his son Louis took up the reins in 1850, he built an enormous production facility, moving the company to its current location in Marseillan. Louis and his son-in-law Claudius Prat became partners, hence the name Noilly Prat.
In 1865, after the death of her husband Claudius and father Louis, Anne-Rosine Prat took over the business. Having a woman run a large company was unheard of then, it was a man’s world. But Anne-Rosine was the right person at the right time. The company prospered under her direction. She was succeeded by her sons Louis and Jean.
In the 1970s the company was purchased by Martini & Rossi who merged with Bacardi. Although the ownership changed, not much else has including the recipe for Original Dry, and the location of production.
Through The Green Door—Chai des Mistelles
A massive arched green door separates the reception area from the vermoutherie. Written in French is the phrase: ‘Behind this door is produced the first French vermouth.’ Crossing the threshold into the original indoor cellar is an impressive moment. Towering over you are enormous oak casks which have been in use since 1859 and which contain the Mistelles wines. Mistelle is fermented grape juice that has a little alcohol added. It is kept in the casks ten to twelve months.
L ‘Enclos—The Outdoor Cellar
Early on in production it was realised that leaving the barrels of wine to age outside, exposed to the elements, created a superior product. So an outdoor cellar was built, L ‘Enclos. 2000 barrels can be stored here. “The barrels are quite old, so there is no transfer of taste. They are hosed down regularly to cut evaporation but, the angels always get their share.” Says Pascal.
In L ‘Enclos, the barrels of local wine age for one year before coming inside to blend with the Mistelles wine, where the two will rest for a few months.
Add The Secret Mixture—Stir—It’s Almost Finished
The addition of a secret mixture of herbs and botanicals signals that the vermouth is almost ready. Gigantic casks located in La Salle des Secrets is where the twenty-one-day maceration process takes place. The maceration is done by hand, called “Dodinage”, a tradition. Once the maceration process is completed, the vermouth is strained and left to rest for six weeks then it’s taken to Beaucaire, about an hour and a half away, for bottling.
Rules Before Sipping
Stepping into the tasting area, Pascal lines up four vermouths for sampling; but first, some rules to ensure a good experience in the future. “Vermouth is fortified wine, once opened you need to refrigerate and drink it within three weeks. Maximum. Do not store a bottle in a cellar for years; if you do, the taste will not be pleasing, and you will be disappointed.”
Magic In The Glass—The Four Varieties of Noilly Prat Vermouth
Extra Dry: A strong hint of chamomile and alcohol content is a hefty 18%
Original Dry: The original, 18% alcohol, smooth and with a hint of chamomile
Rouge: Looks and smells like Christmas. The colour is a brilliant red (it comes from the botanicals and herbs), the aroma spicy from the addition of cloves, the taste is sweet. The alcohol content is a bit lower at 16%
Ambré: 16% and the colour of Autumn, Pascal advises “Ambré is very complex. Many spices, herbs, and botanicals have been added.”
The locals love to pair Noilly Prat with oysters!
Tour hours and prices vary, check online at at.www.noillyprat.com
By Barb Harmon, a freelance travel writer and hopeless Francophile. She and her husband are looking forward to living the good life in France (fingers crossed). She blogs at www.chasingthenextchapter.com