This article originally ran in The Wave Magazine — Silicon Valley’s Finest Entertainment & Lifestyle Magazine and was later reprinted on the Local Wine Events.com site.
Spanish filmmaker Luis Buñuel (1900–1983) wrote in his memoirs, “The decline of the apéritif may well be one of the most depressing phenomena of our time.” Taking anything written by an avowed surrealist and friend of Salvador Dalí seriously may be a stretch, but there is a nugget of truth in what the Spaniard observed.
An apéritif taken at the onset of a hearty meal was, and to some still is, one of life’s more refreshing civilities. Enjoying an apéritif prior to a meal is the ideal time to get better acquainted with one’s dinner companions, to recount the news of the day, or just to blow off some steam. Beyond the refining qualities of a pre-meal beverage enjoyed as one peruses a menu and struggles to recall what goes in sauce gribiche, there are the numerous salutary benefits. Among them, an apéritif stimulates appetite, energizes the palate and salivary glands, and activates gastric juices. Sadly, most forego the ritual of the leisurely apéritif, though it remains in many cultures as important a component of the dining process as dessert.
In many countries the taking of the apéritif has become a ritual. It is usually the first option one is offered when one is seated. Most of us in the United States, if asked at all, respond by requesting a martini or a similarly potent hand grenade on a stem. While certain occasions require some “social lubrication,” a true apéritif is not highly alcoholic, and if one intends to enjoy wine with one’s meal, a strong drink or two before dinner can actually desensitize the palate. (Remember this before sending back that bottle of wine: It may be the vodka or gin you’re still smelling and tasting.)
True apéritifs fall somewhat neatly into two categories: wine-based and spirit-based. Wine-based apéritifs were mostly developed in southern Europe where wine quality was poor. Wines were aromatized with herbs, spices, fruit, and fruit essence to improve flavor or to ward off malaria, as in the case of Dubonnet and Quinquina (both flavored with quinine, the bark of the chinchona tree, known to protect against malaria). As various flavor combinations became more polished and complex, so did methods of manufacture.
One of the more elaborate techniques includes accelerating the aging process of some vermouths by aging them in oak barrels exposed to the elements for two years. Another is to age sweet wines in 20-gallon glass bottles, called bon bons, under the Mediterranean sun, or blending them in the world’s largest oak barrel, which can hold one million liters of the rare-to-these-shores drink called Byrrh.
Famous wine-based apéritifs include sherry in Spain; muscats and vins doux naturels, made in the Banyuls of France; Madeira and port from Portugal; and Carpano Antica and Punt e Mes from Italy.
The most famous of the sweeter apéritifs are the kir and the kir royal – white wine or champagne, respectively, mixed with a healthy dose of Cassis, a black currant liqueur. There are other equally refreshing though lesser-known starters, including white port and soda with a twist of lemon.
There are other approaches to stimulating appetite. In the Larousse Menager, an illustrated dictionary devoted to domestic life that was written in 1926, the authors state, “A bowl of bouillon with the fat skimmed off taken a half hour before a meal is an excellent apéritif.”
Most folks would rather just have a glass of champagne.