One of the things that many of us can learn from the Old World is that there are times when we don’t need to be in such a hurry, times when it is good – indeed healthful – to slow down and relax. Perhaps the best time to enjoy this relaxed ambience is at mealtimes, that happy period when family and friends gather together to share food and drink as well as recent experiences, anecdotes and diversions. Even this kind of convivial communion should not be rushed into, however, and that is where the apéritif comes into play.
What exactly is an apéritif? The most ready definition is that it is a drink, usually alcoholic, that is served before a meal to stimulate the appetite. Because it should entice your palate rather than overwhelm it, the beverage should in most cases be clean, light, dry, crisp and usually served cold (though traditionally without ice).
A simple dry white wine is the most elementary form of apéritif – perhaps a delicious white Rhône blend or a Spanish Rueda, a German dry Riesling, a South African Chenin Blanc or an Italian Vermentino. Champagne or sparkling wine also makes a great apéritif, as does dry vermouth or fino and amontillado sherry. How about a Kir – which is a shot of crème de cassis (blackcurrant) in a glass of dry white wine? Even a light red wine such as Beaujolais-Villages can work splendidly. Some prefer a pastis such as Pernod or Ricard. Others insist on a gin or vodka drink, perhaps mixed with tonic water or as a martini cocktail.
And what about those drinks especially designated as being an apéritif? The first to become popular (after vermouth, which was first created in Italy in the late eighteenth century) was the eponymous beverage invented by French chemist and wine merchant Joseph Dubonnet in 1846. It was originally created as a method of dispensing quinine – which was considered an effective treatment for malaria – to the Foreign Legion soldiers in North Africa. To make the quinine more palatable Dubonnet developed a formula of herbs, spices, peels and fortified wine to mask its bitter flavor. Joseph’s wife became so fond of the drink that she had her friends try it, and the popularity of Dubonnet spread from there.
Other popular apéritifs – or aperitivos – include Campari (created in Italy by Gaspare Campari in 1860), Aperol and the delicious red and white versions of Lillet from Bordeaux. Most aperitifs in this category can be served straight up, with soda water or tonic water or as part of a cocktail.
In a sense the apéritif is more than just a before-dinner drink. When enjoyed thoughtfully and with amiable awareness it becomes a way of life. It becomes a way to put the concerns of the day behind you, a means to relax and enjoy the present moment, and a channel to prepare yourself for the pleasures of the feast and good companionship ahead.
Bill Stobbs, ABC Fine Wine & Spirits wine supervisor
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