The Whisky Exchange
Aged: No age statement
Product of: France
See more Dubonnet Red-style apéritif wines
In 1846 Joseph Dubonnet successfully created his wine based aperitif, by blending Roussillon wines made from five different grape varietals with an infusion of herbs and spices including bitter bark and quinine, then ageing the blend for three years to four years in oak vats.
Joseph Dubonnet developed his aperitif in answer to a call from the French government. In the 1840s, thousands of French colonists were dying of malaria in North Africa. Quinine, from the South American cinchona tree, was known to ward off malaria – but tasted vile. The French government was keen to encourage people to consume more quinine, and pronounced a reward for anyone that produced a palatable drink including the bitter drug.
In 1896 Mrs Dubonnet’s cat appeared on the label, and in 1932 the famous French artist Cassandre created the character of the ‘Dubonnet Man’ with the legendary slogan ‘Dubo, Dubon, Dubonnet’.
Grapes from the sunny Languedoc-Roussillon region including muscat, grenache, carignan and macabeo are pressed and the juice mixed with a neutral base alcohol at 15% alc./vol. to prevent fermentation. This ensures the grape juice retains its flavours, aromas and sugars. (In contrast to fortified wines where the grape juice is allowed to start fermenting before being stopped by the addition of alcohol to kill the yeast.) Capturing the natural sugars in the grape must allows Dubonnet to be produced without the need to add sugar.
The fortified grape juice, which is called ‘mistelle’ is then aged for three to four years in oak. Other flavours are then added to this mistelle by pumping it under pressure through percolators containing cocoa beans, quinine, colombo (mild variation on curry powder), orange peel, Columbian green coffee, cinnamon, camomile and elderflower. Lasting eight hours the process is repeated to fully extract the flavours. The blender then has the task of blending the different flavoured mistelles together to produce Dubonnet which is stabilised by holding close to freezing point at -9°C and then chill filtered prior to bottling.
In the 10-15 years before the Millennium, Dubonnet Red underwent some dramatic changes being first reduced in strength from 18% to 16% alc./vol. and then finally to today’s 14.8% alc./vol.. Each time the alcohol content has been lowered the recipe has also been adapted to maintain the product’s balance. If you want to enjoy a product more akin to the original try Dubonnet 21°. Taking its name from its 21% alc./vol. strength this has a higher quinine content and is altogether spicier and less floral than the standard product.
Dubonnet also produce a green labelled ‘Dubonnet Blanc’ and a gold labelled ‘Dubonnet Doré’. This last line extension is often termed ‘amber’ due to its colour and has an aroma akin to lime cordial and a flavour that resembles oak aged lime cordial.
Many years ago the American rights to the Dubonnet Red brand were sold. The Dubonnet available in the US is now American-produced and is made from California wine that has been fortified with grape brandy. It is quite different from the French made product and is available in red and white styles.
Review and Tasting
Sampled on 11/01/2016
Clear, light-mid burgundy red with purple glints.
Rich fruity notes with raspberry, cherry and jammy blackberry and plum, herbal complexity and faint grass and sawn oak.
Soft red jammy red berry fruits with raisiny, honeyed, sloes, orange, coffee, chocolate, cinnamon and a mild quinine bitterness.
Red berry, plum and zesty orange with light quinine bitterness.
A well-balanced aperitif with rich berry fruit balanced by mild quinine bitterness and spice. A classic cocktail ingredient but equally good simply served on-the-rocks.