Years ago a glass of chilled white as an aperitif was one of the defining marks of a yuppie, along with Ralph Lauren polo shirts and a 300-series BMW. Over time, the wines got better, with sauvignon blancs, rieslings, malvasias and viogniers joining the California chardonnay and Italian pinot grigio.
As cocktail culture made a comeback in the 1990s, with myriad martinis, cosmos, and margaritas in vogue, the idea of sipping a glass of wine other than champagne as an aperitif now seems almost quaint.
I have nothing against drinking a white wine that really does stir the appetite, like a spicy gewurztraminer, a tangy riesling, or an aromatic moscato. The French wine aperitif Lillet is made from white wine, with the addition of 14 percent macerated liqueurs made from orange peel and quinine.
Champagne, of course, has the virtue of bubbles that tingle on the tongue and throat, much as seltzer does in a cocktail. Adding orange juice (a mimosa) or cassis (Kir royale) improves the prospects before dinner.
“We only have very few white wines by the glass,” says Alexandre Petrossian, manager of Petrossian Restaurant in New York. “The dryness of the wine puts the palate to sleep and doesn’t go well with our caviar.”
The only white he recommends is a Pouilly-Fume, whose smokiness helps bind together the flavors. Still, half the guests order Champagne. As an alternative, Petrossian said he serves a Caviar Martini made with a cube of pressed caviar in a glass of very, very cold Russian vodka with cucumber. “Men first order it and when the women taste it, they order one too.”
At the Hemingway Bar at the Paris Ritz, longtime bartender Colin Field says white wine was often the answer when few staff had cocktail-making skills. Now, with the growing excellence of U.S. barstaff and many French employees attending up to three years of hotel-school training, “it would be a shame not to take advantage of the growing talent of bartenders around the world.”
The most popular drink at the Hemingway Bar these days is the Raspberry Martini, made with a maceration of fresh raspberries left in vodka over 3 months, then filtered, frozen and served in a chilled Martini glass.
The word “aperitif,” dating in English to 1894 (“cocktail” appears a century earlier) is from French, meaning to “open up,” specifically to awaken the palate for the meal to come. Wine, white or red, can do that -- some enophiles even insist it’s liquor that dulls the palate -- but they don’t call a cocktail a pick-me-up for nothing.
The idea of adding bitters to a drink was in fact designed to spur the appetite, and bitter/sweet liquors like vermouth, Cynar and Campari are the bases for drinks like the negroni and americano.
“In Italy having a cocktail is a ritual necessary to a civilized meal,” says Pino Luongo, owner of the New York Italian restaurant Morso. “The French and Italians invented the aperitif. A little sweetness, a little acid, maybe some fizz from prosecco; it is extremely pleasant to the palate and very refreshing.”
In New Orleans, cocktail culture has been in full swing since the early 19th century.
“New Orleans is a Southern town with a reverence for rituals,” says Chris Ycaza, general manager of Galatoire’s (opened 1905). “So jumping into dinner without a proper cocktail here is like entering an athletic competition without doing the proper calisthenics.”
At Galatoire’s the favorite cocktail is a sazerac, for Sunday brunch, a brandy-milk punch.
My own drink of choice before dinner is a daiquiri, a mix of rum, lime juice, and sugar, concocted just after the Spanish-American War by Jennings S. Cox, chief engineer of the Daiquiri iron mines in the town of Daiquiri, Cuba. By 1920 F. Scott Fitzgerald made it the rage drink among flappers in his novel “This Side of Paradise.”
Since so many young bartenders these days haven’t a clue how to make one, the recipe is printed on the back of my business card. Try putting your own on your card. You’re pretty much guaranteed a good aperitif.
(John Mariani writes on wine for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)