First, I decided to write about aperitifs. Then I realized I really didn't know what an aperitif was. I mean, I knew it was something to be enjoyed before dinner, but what exactly? It turns out my ignorance was excusable because an aperitif can be pretty much anything you want it to be.
The first time I went to France (when I was far too young to be enjoying aperitifs myself), I remember hearing someone say they drank a glass of calvados before dinner because it created le trou in their stomach--literally, "the hole." The apple brandy made them feel hungrier, so they could enjoy their dinner more (or enjoy more of their dinner, I'm not sure which). Even as a 14-year-old, I thought this sounded like a good idea.
Calvados is only one of many common aperitifs, ranging from liqueurs like pastis or ouzo, to champagne, dry sherry, cocktails like kir royale, or even a humble glass of wine. Really, the only "rule" is that aperitifs tend not to be sweet. Beyond that, just about anything goes. I suppose since the list of aperitifs verges on the limitless, this is kind of a pointless article. Nevertheless, we will proceed with an exploration of some of the more popular wine-based aperitifs.
While the word "aperitif" exists in literature on alcoholic beverages dating back at least to the 5th century, many of today's common aperitifs came into being quite a bit later. Sherry (an English mispronunciation of Jerez, the region of Spain where the fortified wine is made) depends on the addition of distilled brandy to wine, a process unknown until the Moors conquered the region in the 8th century and brought with them the technique of spirit distillation.
While fino sherry, the incredibly elegant, lightest variety, is the most common aperitif (try it with some marcona almonds and marinated green olives), other dry sherries make wonderful aperitifs as well. Amontillado is probably best known in cask form, from the Edgar Allan Poe story, but shouldn't be relegated to the literary past. It starts life as a fino sherry, but is then exposed to oxygen, lending the wine a rich, nutty character.
NV Pedro Romero dry amontillado ($15) is a classic amontillado. Walnut skin and maple aromas dominate the nose, but on the palate the wine is bone dry, with a distinct saline note, and a slight almond-skin bitterness.
A number of aperitifs begin as wine, but are transformed with the addition of aromatic botanical elements, such as extracts from flowers, roots, and bark, or a variety of spices and herbs. Vermouth lives in this category, as do a special class of aromatized wines called "quinquina." As the name suggests, these "tonic wines" contain quinine, delivered by extracts from the bark of the cinchona tree.
Quinquina were first developed in the mid-1800s as a pleasant way to administer quinine, the effective, but very bitter-tasting, malaria-fighting agent. While malaria is not generally a concern for most of us today, we still enjoy several quinquina aperitifs, with lillet leading the pack. Lillet blanc ($30) starts out as white bordeaux, but with the addition of quinine and a proprietary blend of citrus extracts, is transformed into an elegant aperitif. Served chilled, it is lemony and floral, with a touch of fruity sweetness and only the merest hint of bitter quinine.
In the end, though, if you're not excited about adding brandy or botanicals to your wine, there's nothing wrong with stimulating the appetite with a plain old glass of sparkling wine. And it needn't be champagne; in fact, we have some remarkably good bubbly right here in New Mexico. While it's true that Gruet doesn't get all their grapes from New Mexico anymore, resulting in many of their wines being labeled "American," we can still be very proud of our home state bubbly. NV Gruet Sauvage Blanc de Blancs ($22) is lip-smackingly citrusy, with aromas of fresh green apple and warming baked biscuit.
The term "sauvage" comes (probably apocryphally) from the British demands on French sparkling wine producers to make a drier and drier style wine. First, the French gave in to the brutish Brits and produced Brut bubbly, but that wasn't enough. The Brits wanted the wine drier still -- the savages! Sauvage, also known as brut nature or brut zero, bubbly contains no added sugar and makes a bracing, yet elegantly crisp bubbly sure to create the desired trou in your tummy.