California Wine: Margerum Amaro -- When Bitter Is Better


There's the old saw "It takes a lot of beer to make good wine," but Doug Margerum, owner of and winemaker at Margerum Wines, suggests, perhaps, a new saying: "It takes a lot of Amaro to recover from prodigious good wine consumption." Margerum first got interested in Amaro -- the bitter yet beloved Italian digestif -- at wine events. "A lot of sommeliers drink a lot of Amaro, especially Fernet-Branca," he says. "But my interest in Amaro really peaked visiting Italy and tasting homemade Amari. After a huge meal and staying up all night and indulging, the evening always ended with Amari." He knows he is on shaky medical grounds, but wants to insist the Amaro helps settle one's system. If nothing else it shows the insight of the Italian culture with their words for love (amore) and bitter (amaro) so close in sound they're practically a slip of the tongue.

Back in the States Margerum decided he wanted to make his own. For his first batch he started with Sangiovese grapes from his Cent'anni project, but that's just the beginning, as you have to be part apothecary to make Amaro. Recipes are prized and passed down generation to generation in Italy, and can contain over 20 botanicals, from angelica to zedoary, with gentian, lemon verbena, and wormwood in between. Then you need to add some bark and roots, and perhaps citrus peel. "We made small, medium, and large test batches, and I'm talking about the quantity of herbs," Margerum explains. "It was like the Three Bears -- one had too much, one had too little, and then what was just right? I've been doing it for five years now, so the process is pretty consistent, slightly modified over time."

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He also uses a solera system to age and even out the product. "I drain it off and put new stuff in, so it's always full," he says. The barrel-aging mostly takes place outdoors as that helps "maderize it. It can be one-hundred during the days and in the thirties in the nights, and that really ages the wine." Since Amaro is nothing if not complex, those deeper, richer flavors work to the drink's advantage. Plus at 23% alcohol for Margerum's latest batch (earlier batches have been a bit higher), the drink can take a bit of a "beating" milder unfortified wines can't. No matter, Margerum's Amaro isn't as bitter as some of in the wide-ranging category (Fernet-Branca often leaves tasters sputtering expletives, for instance).

And while Margerum still likes his Amaro neat after an evening of eating and drinking, he's also partial to the Margerum Manhattan, which is on the cocktail list at the Intermezzo and Wine Cask, which he co-owns in Santa Barbara. Adding Amaro to cocktails was certainly one of the trends at Tales of the Cocktail conference in New Orleans last year, and while Averna and Nonino and Montenegro are all delicious, it's fun to have a U.S. brand to enjoy. "Even my dad, a Manhattan drinker in his late eighties, who has been drinking them for sixty years the same way with Angostura bitters, now drinks them with Margerum Amaro," he states. "It really fleshes out a Manhattan ... also, he gets it for free."

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