Welcome to Ask a Somm, a column in which experts from across the country answer questions about wine.
San Francisco stalwart Foreign Cinema goes beyond film and food with a comprehensive wine list sporting terroir-driven bottles from around the world. Wine Director Shannon Tucker is the driving force here, ensuring that her juice properly pairs with plates of lavender-baked goat cheese and brown sugar-brined pork. Below, Tucker explores aperitif wines and calls out top picks for holiday imbibing.
Q: I've been hearing a lot about aperitif wines lately. Can you recommend some I can serve before a holiday dinner this year?
Tucker: Aperitifs are such a nice way to start, they whet the appetite without being too alcoholic at the beginning of an evening. They’re a common beginning in Europe, but have never gained much traction in the U.S., although I think they're beginning to become more familiar as craft spirits and classic cocktails have become more prevalent.
Some classic aperitifs are Lillet, Vermouth, Dubonnet, Pastis and Campari, although there are many more out there. For the aperitif novice, white Lillet is a lovely way to begin. It has pretty orange blossom aromatics and a mild taste with bits of sweet citrus. It can be mixed with soda, or my favorite, just on the rocks with an orange twist. There is also red and rosé Lillet ($20), and the rosé was a revelation! So good, a bit more rose petal and raspberry, I like it with a lemon twist for a bit of brightness. A wonderful alternative to the classic white Lillet.
Vermouth on its own with just some ice and a twist is another not often seen drink in the U.S., but is much more common in Europe. However there are some excellent domestic vermouths that are just as good to sip as they are in a Manhattan. American vermouths also often don’t contain wormwood, which adds a bitterness that not everyone fancies. A couple of my favorites are Sutton Cellars Brown Label ($18) and Harris Bridge Vineyard Timber Sweet Vermouth ($25), they offer layers of botanicals intertwined with spice box sweet notes that make them very approachable and a great way to ease into vermouth as an aperitif. They also are super with pumpkin or sweet potato pie, if you’ve reached your red wine fill by dessert.
A few other not as often seen, but lovely aperitifs are Normandin Mercier Pineau de Charentes ($35), Château de Ravignan Floc de Gascogne ($22), and Lemorton Pommeau de Normandie ($25). Pineau similarly to Lillet, can be white, rosé or red, but is from the Cognac region of France, which is also its base spirit. Traditionally drank from a dessert wine glass, I really like it over crushed ice to dilute the richness a bit. My favorite producer is Normandin Mercier, who also makes lovely Cognac. Floc de Gascogne, with an Armagnac base, also in red or white, when done well, has more heady aromatics and a full mouth feel. The flavors lean more to florals and this wine is perfect just chilled on its own. Ravignan makes a delicious version. Last but not least, Pommeau de Normandie, which is made with apple or pear cider plus a Calvados base, has rich spiced sweetness without all the burn of Calvados. Lemorton makes an apple version that lends itself perfectly with all the nutmeg, cinnamon and clove spices in Thanksgiving foods.
Any of these would be a beautiful start to the holiday.
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