It's what you drink
before you drink (or eat)!
Aperitif (actually spelled apéritif) is a French word for a starter drink that opens a meal. More than just an opener, it is a welcome to your guests and an appetite stimulant. Well, I guess it is a lot of things! So lets get back to basics and learn all about how an apéritif can enhance your dinner party or wine tasting.
First of all, what is an apéritif?What is the purpose of the aperitif?
An aperitif is generally an alcoholic drink that proceeds a large meal. Think of it as something like a beverage appetizer or hors d'oeuvre. Occasionally the term apéritif is used to describe the whole intro course that opens up your guest's palate before a large meal to follow. This usually consists of a beverage served with finger foods or "amuse buche" such as olives, bruschetta or other simple appetizers.
- A welcoming drink is a wonderful way to welcome your guests and to let them know they are in for a great night. Who wouldn't like to walk into a dinner party and immediately get handed a nice cold and refreshing beverage to kick things off?
- It introduces a feeling of celebration, relaxation and comfort. Leave your worries at the door!
- The aperitif "wakes up" your guests' palates, stimulating their appetite and preparing them for the food to come. It actually does make you hungry and eager for the next flavor sensation.
What do I serve as an apéritif?
There is no one specific wine or drink that is always served as a starter, it varies tremendously depending on where you are and what cuisine is being featured. However, there are no rules. In generally though, the aperitif is generally light in body, fresh, lively and often served cool. They should be refreshing, not too serious or overpowering. Your goal is to enliven the palate, not clobber it! You want a drink that guests can sip easily while talking and greeting other guests. In general, you do not want something really heavy which will overwhelm your palate.
Of course there are always exceptions to any rule. You can serve whatever you like to drink or you think your guests will like. It can also vary depending on the season. For example, while a cool, crisp wine might be a perfect opener on a hot summer afternoon, in the dead of winter it might not be ideal. You might prefer to welcome your guests with a slightly richer or more alcoholic drink when it is cold out to "warm their bones" before settling in to dinner. But typically the apéritif is just an introduction, a handshake, not a drink you will continue the rest of the night.
When should you serve the aperitif?
We like to greet people at the door with a glass! Either that or as soon as people get settled in and are lounging around before sitting down to the actual dinner. We try to serve a starter drink at every function, whether it is a dinner party or a food and wine tasting or just simple wine tastings. In any situation it is a nice introduction and I haven't known a guest to not appreciate the gesture.
Some examples of drinks often served as an apéritif:
- Champagne or other sparkling wine
One of the most elegant drinks and a classic starter for a great evening, Champagne or other sparkling wines are a great way to usher in a sense of excitement and celebration to your dinner party or food and wine event. Most sparkling wines pair beautifully with a range of foods, so they can also accompany appetizers or other early courses of the meal. Real Champagne (from the Champagne region in France) can be pretty pricey, there are plenty of less expensive options if you are on a budget. For example, Prosecco is a sparkling wine from Italy which makes a perfect aperitif. It is generally in a lighter style with slightly less effervescence than Champagne, making it refreshing and fun to drink. Other inexpensive options are Spanish Cava, sparkling Vouvray, or California sparkling wines.
- Light-bodied white wine
As mentioned above, a cool, crisp wine like a slightly chilled light white wine, is a great intro wine. There are hundreds of wines to choose from but some examples are un-oaked Sauvignon blanc, white Bordeaux, Chablis, Pouilly-Fumé, Sancerre, Muscadet, Vouvray Sec, and German Kabinett Rieslings. Remember, you don't want something too heavy or super sweet to avoid killing your guests palates before they even get to the good stuff.
- Rosé wine
A rosé is a wine which is somewhere between a red wine and a white wine. They can vary from slightly pink to quite dark salmon depending on how they were made. They are generally a relatively simple, but flavorful and refreshing fruity wine that is traditionally served slightly chilled. This is the classic apéritif in the south of France and other Mediterranean regions, especially for hot summer afternoons or evenings. It can be romantic, joyous and fun and is a great match to many simple appetizers. Rosé are made around the world but outstanding examples come from the South of France in areas like Bandol and Tavel. Do not confuse white Zinfandel and white Merlot for true rosé! They are nothing like a great rosé. Find the real thing and you will not regret it!
Sherry is a fortified white wine generally made in Jerez, Spain. They can vary from dry to sweet but for an aperitif you should focus on the drier styles such as Fino and Manzanilla. Even Amontillado, which is a bit richer, could be ok. Very slightly chilled, these lighter styles can be a great apéritif because they are bright and refreshing yet savory and intensely flavored. They can definitely wake up any tired palate! They are also a bit higher in alcohol so they can work well for cool evenings in the fall and winter.
- Flavored liqueurs
In some areas, people prefer more alcoholic, flavored liqueurs to start a meal. Some examples are Ouzo in Greece and Pastis (such as Pernod and Ricard) in southern France. Both are anise-flavored and usually served on ice with some cold water. In Italy, bitter-tinged drinks like Campari and Aperol, either on the rocks or with cola or orange juice, are often served. While the bitterness can be an acquired taste, it can definitely wake up your palate!
- Flavored wine-based drinks
Many regions produce special apéritif wine drinks that are flavored with various botanicals. One of the most common is dry vermouth, which is often used for making a Martini. Alone, on the rocks, it can also be a nice opener. Other examples are Lillet, another flavored wine popular in France, which is slightly sweet and is lovely chilled or on the rocks.
Any cocktail can be an aperitif and many people prefer a stronger drink like a Martini or Manhattan to open the night and let the festivities begin.
- Light-bodied beer
Finally, not all aperitif must be wine or liquor-based. It is very common to offer a nice, cold beer in a less formal setting like a barbecue or casual dinner party. Lighter-styled beers are best for this. Good examples are lagers and pilsners but any lighter refreshing beer will do. Avoid the heavy, dark beers.
Have fun choosing an appropriate apéritif for your next food and wine event. They are definitely an easy way to take your entertaining to the next level. Your guests will definitely thank you and will eagerly await your next dinner party!
Done learning about the Aperitif?
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