The Apéro File

By Kermit Lynch, August 2002

By actions, not words, Richard Olney taught me the virtues of the daily apéro, which is French slang for an apéritif. My Webster’s defines apéritif as “an alcoholic beverage, especially wine, taken before meals to stimulate the appetite.” Taken? Well, that’s not why I “take” apéritifs.

And there is a French definition from 1750: “qui ouvre les pores, les canaux, les vaisseaux.” Quite physical, that one, the apéro serving to open one’s pores, blood vessels, and assorted other bodily systems. Serving to open . . . an opener, that’s the apéritif. Aperture is from the same root. An apéritif opens the evening, the meal, the festivities, and it might as well also open up oneself.

When I used to drive up the steep, narrow driveway to Richard’s place in Provence, we would embrace in the French style, then sit down under his arbor of grape vines for an apéritif. As the sun sank lower and lower, a bowl of black olives would appear, slices of saucisson, and iced radishes with butter and salt. The wine flowed, as did the conversation.

Often the apéritif was a cheap little dry white or rosé, always well chosen. Richard referred to them as mouth rinse. What a wonderfully unsnobby perspective! He ordered Fontsainte’s Gris de Gris several cases at a time. Once in a while his mood led him to open with something a little grander, like Tempier’s rosé, or a bottle of nicely aged Champagne. “The genius of Champagne seems to me best experienced at the apéritif hour,” he wrote in one of his books.

Jim Harrison quotes Peter Lewis’s remark that white wine “fatigues us and doesn’t promote unbridled lust,” but he must be referring to those kinds of whites that Jim finds syrupy enough to put on pancakes, because a good white starter should relax and stimulate at the same time. You want something dry and crisp, chilled and lucid, with some zing to it.

My reaction to Jim’s article? Never a red without a white to precede it; never a white without a red to follow it. I am convinced that the Creator had a plan, if only in this specific instance.

But before I turn spiritual on you, consider how the arrival of the dread oenologists on the wine scene contributed to Jim’s prejudice against most white wines. Once upon a time (all the way up until around 1970, in fact) wine’s second fermentation, the malolactic fermentation, was not understood. It occurred spontaneously in barrel along with or after the alcoholic fermentation. Once it was understood, this gift of nature (which renders wines more interesting and swallowable) began to be blocked technologically in a lot of white and rosé wines. It is easy to block the malo. You add a good dose of sulphur dioxide (yuck) and you sterile filter (yikes).

Why would anybody want to do that? Stability. Facility. Security. Once the wine is dosed and dead, the oenologists sleep better, because dead wines don’t budge. They might lack depth, smell of SO2 and cut your palate to shreds with untransformed malic acid, but then Pleasure 1A was never a course offering at Oenology U.

Choosing openers, I seem to go through stages. For long periods Tempier’s rosé can hit the spot day after day. Then I’ll go on a flinty, crisp Loire jag: Epiré, Minet, Reverdy, Muscadet, and so on. This year has been a white Burgundy year, and I find myself regularly opening my evenings with a Meursault or Chablis, usually with some but not too much age. I thought it was interesting that besides reds, Harrison specified liking Meursaults, because almost all Meursaults and other white Burgundies do complete that second fermentation I was talking about. So do all reds, and so indeed does Tempier’s rosé, so I’m guessing that the malolactic fermentation plays a role in Jim’s wine preferences. It sure does in mine. At Chablis, a lot of lazy winemakers have now, god forbid, joined the “block-that-malo” club, but I promise that you will never find one here.

Anyway, this year I have been going through my 1990 premiers crus from Raveneau. Also any of his 1994s. Vintages 1991, 1992, and 1994 from Jobard. Coche’s 1988. Chevillon’s white Nuits-Saint-Georges makes a great opener, as does the Vézelay blanc. And don’t forget the light little sparkler, Prosecco, which the Venetians “take.”

One Comment

  1. Bellinda Sweet says:

    What a charming, intimate and instructive piece. Interestingly, before we knew about the apes, my husband and I have been starting to do this every evening. It is really a great pleasure., It started because when we return home, we are often not quite in the mood yet to fix dinner, yet a little hungry and wanting to talk and enjoy each other’s company.. We have usually started with a lighter red, as I have not been a fan of most white and most rose wines. NOW I KNOW WHY. My palate was giving me correct information.

    We just found you days before the sequestering. It was frustrating as one of our first purchases was your Kermit Lynch Cote Du Rhone.We wanted to buy more of this wine, but were met with a closed door, and a sign that said closed until further notice. Luckily we found that we could order on line, and so we have started what we know will be a long and fruitful relationship. Thank you for caring so much about wine. It is wonderful to start to understand your total commitment to one of the great glories of life.

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