When having a dinner party and serving several wines, there is generally an order in which wines should be served. Rule of thumb is light-bodied to full-bodied, white to red, dry to sweet, unoaked to oaky and lower alcohol to higher alcohol. Crossing over these boundaries can put your palate off. It is with this in mind that I’ll address aperitif wines.
So what exactly is an aperitif wine? It’s usually served before a meal, often as guests arrive. It can accompany appetizers or not. The key is to get the gastronomic juices flowing – they’re meant to kick-start the palate. In keeping with our proper order of tasting, it should preferably be a dry, unoaked, light-bodied, white with lower alcohol. Those with lively, zesty acidity are the best because they cause salivation, making the taster want for more, either another sip or something to eat. They also allow you to move into bigger, oakier selections as the meal progresses.
Numerous grape varieties fill the bill admirably. Unoaked Sauvignon Blanc from almost anywhere in the world is a great example. Full of gooseberry, herbs, minerality and green tree fruit, its crisp, clean character really excites the palate. Riesling, especially a drier version, is another winner. Petrol, white peach, pear and lively acidity make for a great starter. Very popular today is Pinot Grigio (not the Alsatian Pinot Gris), with its fruity, floral freshness.
Pinot Blanc from France is also a good choice as its fruity, crisp nature adds pizzazz. Italy offers numerous great starter wines. Malvasia and Trebbiano provide floral, fruity freshness that do admirable jobs and Verdicchio delivers floral, bitter almond, crispness in a superb first sipper.
Muscadet from France’s Loire Valley is a gem, especially those bottled “sur lie” (left on the dead yeast or lees for a while). Light, minerally and crisp, the “sur lie” bottlings often have an added carbonic spritz on the tip of the tongue. One of my all time favourites is Vinho Verde from Portugal. Steely minerality, green fruit and bracing acidity excite the palate beyond belief. Soave from Italy is perfecto and even unoaked white Bordeaux is a grand choice.
No list of aperitif wines would be complete without bubbly. The dancing effervescence on the palate, usually accompanied by good acidity, always gets the gastronomic juices flowing. For this purpose, it is best to stick with those that are dry. In bubbly terms this means “Extra Brut,” “Brut Zero,” “Brut Nature” or “Brut.” Excellent choices are found around the world.
The best are crated in the “Champagne Method” similar to the originals produced in Champagne, France. This means the second fermentation, to create the bubbles, takes place in the same bottle. Your second choice could be those created in the “Charmat Method” where the second fermentation takes place in a large tank. The final thing to keep in mind when choosing bubbly as an aperitif is to choose a “Non-Vintage” (no year on the label). Most of these are aged very little, so they tend to be fresher and livelier than a vintage-dated version, making them better starter wines.
All of these selections will be wonderful with oily, fried or salty dishes. Their crisp acidity is just the thing to cut through those foods’ coating action.
Selecting any of the aforementioned vinos as aperitif wines will have your guests pontificating about your wine and food savvy. Enjoy!
Edward Finstein is a wine writer, award-winning author, TV and radio host, educator and judge
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