THE French word “apéritif” derives from the Latin “apertitiuvum.” Italians refer to this pre-meal ritual as “aperitivo.” Ancient Greeks and Romans were fond of serving wines prior to a meal to stimulate the appetite and fire up the atmosphere.
The 18th century saw the advent of specialized apéritif drinks like bitters and vermouth as well as the increasingly popular use of dry Sherries and Champagne before and at the start of meals. By the 20th century, wine or other drinks served before or at the beginning of a meal had become an ingrained part of fine dining culture.
The term aperitif only became popular in English-speaking countries in the mid- to late 19th century when these before-meal beverages were often served with little bite-sized snacks called “hors d’oeuvres.” About this time, anti-French sentiment in England led the new more Anglicized word “appetizer.”
The role of appetizers in Western culinary cultures is a story of evolution and also some confusion.
Advent of the appetizer
The modern concept and application of appetizers in Western cuisine is a relatively recent phenomenon. Serving small snacks before and during a meal has been popular since ancient Greek and Roman times, but a formal appetizer or first course didn’t really exist.
At the start of a meal, ancient Greeks were fond of serving olives, chickpeas, sturgeon and sea urchins while the Romans favored grapes, nuts, truffles and cheese as well as exotic fare like pigeon brains and flamingo tongues. These small dishes were left on the table and enjoyed throughout the meal, therefore didn’t really qualify as appetizers in the modern sense.
In 16th-century France, small Italian-inspired treats at the start of a meal became all the rage. By the advent of the 20th century, appetizers in the Western world had their place firmly fixed at the beginning of a meal.
Now let’s make things a little more difficult. Technically, the terms “hors d’oeuvres” and “appetizers” refer to different components of a meal. Though the terms started appearing a few decades ago in English dictionaries as synonyms, purists will point out that hors d’oeuvres are served before the meal without utensils while appetizers are part of a meal served with utensils.
Some of the cultural diversity of appetizers as construed in a larger modern context includes tapas in Spain, antipasto in Italy, meze in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisines, leng pen (cold dishes ÀäÅè) and qian cai (starters Ç°²Ë) in China and zakuski in Russia.
The most recent dictum to describe a meal-starter is amuse bouche, literally “mouth amuser” in French. Formerly referred to as amuse gueule, these bite-sized treats arrived with the Nouvelle Cuisine movement in the 1970s and 1980s. They are distinct from hors d’oeurves and appetizers as they are not ordered, are free and solely reflect the choice and expression of the chef.
Let’s not get caught up in the semantics. Whether you’re enjoying hors d’oeuvres, amuse bouche or appetizers, picking the right wine is critically important.
There are hundreds of suitable drinks to enjoy before or at the start of a meal. In general the best aperitifs are dry and have fresh qualities that stimulate the appetite and facilitate digestion.
Old favorites that are now out-of-fashion like bitters and vermouth are still quite nice, but three styles of wine stand above all others as the best way to commence your dining experience.
Perhaps the greatest aperitif of all time is a Fino or Manzanilla Sherry. The fresh, bone dry nature of these wines along with their intensity and complexity make them perfect before and during dinner drinks.
Great Sherries you can find in Shanghai are Gonzalez Byass Tio Pepe Fino, the world’s best-selling pale dry Sherry, Lustau Solera Puerto Fino, a wonderfully fragrant and flavorful wine, and Hidalgo La Gitana Manzanilla, a classic delicate, fragrant and slightly salty Manzanilla.
Served with bite-sized hors d’oeuvres or more weighty dishes, dry Sherries embellish flavors, stimulate the appetite and leave the palate clean and prepared for more delicacies to come.
Two of my favorite appetizers, Chinese drunken chicken and Thai gung chae nam pla (raw prawns marinated in fish sauce) perfectly illustrate the versatility of these Sherries.
More mildly flavored cold chicken dishes pair beautifully with dry sparkling and white wines, but when pungent Shaoxing rice wine is added to the equation, these wines often become overwhelmed.
In contrast, the greater depth of character and pungency of the Sherries majestically stands up to the flavorful rice wine, adding flavor dimensions to the chicken while also distinguishing the texture of the meat.
Chilled raw prawns marinated in garlic, chili peppers, mint, spring onions, lemon juice and fish sauce, or gung chae nam pla as the Thais call it, is one fantastically delicious and stimulating appetizer.
This dish doesn’t merely tickle the palate, rather it bombastically assaults your senses. The shear intensity of spices and flavors in this dish destroys most wines, but not Sherry. Served well-chilled, the Sherry assuages the palate while highlighting the freshness and sensual flavors of this classic Thai dish. Truly a food and wine pairing made in heaven.
Sparklers and whites
If dry Sherries aren’t the world’s greatest aperitif, then sparkling wines including Champagne must take the prize.
Served by themselves as an aperitif or with the foods we love at the start of a meal, they’re perfect partners. Simple non-vintage bubbles are suitable before a meal with light snacks while more serious sparklers and Champagne merit a classy appetizer.
With snacks try a good value Prosecco like Bisol Bel Star Brut DOC or Zonin Prosseco Special Cuvee. The South African Nederburg Foundation Premiere Cuvee Brut is also a fine choice.
With appetizers like oysters Rockefeller or elegantly prepared fish dishes, choose a top sparkler like the vintage Bisol CREDE Prosecco di Valdobbiadene DOCG or Freixenet Reserva Real CAVA. Both wines have the weight and elegance to complement flavorful seafood appetizers. Of course, a wide range of Champagnes would also work nicely.
The beauty of a good dry white wine is that it can precede a meal and go on through a series of courses including salads, seafood and white meats.
As an aperitif, an Aligote from Burgundy served by itself or with a little cassis in the classic Kir cocktail are magical ways to whet the appetite.
My two favorite styles of white wines with raw seafood appetizers are Muscadet wines from the Loire Valley in France and Albarino wines from Rias Baixas in northwest Spain. More weighty cooked seafood or white meat appetizers are delightful with top Napa Chardonnays or New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs.