When to Drink Aperitifs
An aperitif is any drink served before a meal. Ideally, it should fulfil three functions: to refresh; to be easy to drink without food, and to stimulate the appetite.
In order to refresh, a drink usually needs to be cool, and in summer sometimes positively deep-frozen. Most spirits and beers are designed expressly to be drunk without food, but wines that are high in tannin taste unpleasantly astringent if drunk as an aperitif, especially if they have been chilled. This means saving most clarets and many Italian reds until you get to the table.
An aperitif should leave the palate tingling and looking forward to food. This is why some people find that beer can be too filling, while spirits, especially when combined with sweet mixers, take the edge off the appetite rather than sharpen it. A gin and tonic clinking with ice cubes can be the most welcome sight in the world, but the heavily scented spirit and the sweetened mixer can seem to coat and deaden the palate. Whisky and water is the connoisseur’s favourite spirit-based aperitif.
Many wines make ideal aperitifs, because they offer stimulation in a fairly dilute form. The archetypal aperitif is a glass of dry sherry – a Fino or a Manzanilla. These tangy fortified wines leave the palate razor-sharp and clean as a whistle. Sherry-like wines such as light dry Montilla, Chateau-Chalon from the Jura or even the dry Tokay Szamorodni from Hungary work on the same principle. They are light wines that will keep their freshness in an opened bottle for perhaps a week. More sturdy are the richer sherries, such as Amontillado or Oloroso, although perfectionists would want to search out a dry version of each. Sercial Madeira is fairly dry, refreshing, and lasts well.
Most fortified wines are designed as aperitifs, although many of them can be too sweet to stimulate the appetite. Dry vermouth with ice and a twist of lemon zest makes an easy and inexpensive start to a meal. Chambery and Noilly Prat have a more delicate flavour than most. Punt e Mes has an appetizingly herby flavour that you either love or loathe.
The classic, and extremely expensive, aperitif is champagne, Brut or Dry. Bubbles mysteriously add a celebratory ingredient. About half the price of champagne are some very well-made sparkling wines from Saumur, Alsace, Burgundy, Limoux, northern Spain and northern Italy. Many wine shops sell special stoppers that will keep an opened bottle bubbly overnight.
All sorts of still wines make delicious aperitifs. German wines are usefully low in alcohol and need not be too sweet. The Muscat of Alsace is a classic aperitif, and most dryish whites can be enjoyed without food.
Any of the drinks listed above would be fine for parties, but wines that are very high in acid can be difficult to digest without the relief of solid matter, so bone dry white wines such as Muscadet seem very tart, and many Sauvignons are not ideal party wines. Any red provided for drinking over a longish period without food should ideally be something fairly light and soft such as Beaujolais or north Italian Cabernet.