L'heure de l'apéro
News editor Joanna Goodman journeys to the back of the List and unearths some classic French aperitifs to enjoy over the summer months.
While we often recommend wines to drink as aperitifs, it seems we have been a little lacklustre when it comes to proposing some of the classic drinks purpose-built for this job, but tucked away at the back of our printed wine Lists.
I am thinking in particular about those palate-tingling, life-affirming, deeply traditional aperitifs beloved of our French friends, for whom l'heure de l'apéro is more than just about the liquid in the glass. It's also about the terribly moreish little nibbles that are served with drinks. The art of aperitif-time isn't just about getting the combination of food and drink just right, it's also about refraining from over-indulging in both and counter-productively ruining your appetite!
From a simple bowl of nuts and olives to canapés that look like mini works of art, the moreish little nibbles that are served alongside the drinks are of equal importance
Perhaps these are not the trendiest of tipples, but for me, they conjure up memories of sunny care-free days in France and the exquisite anticipation of a meal involving several courses and inevitably the discovery of some delicious gastronomic treat, hitherto unknown to me.
Just reminiscing is getting my tastebuds salivating, which, of course, is exactly what the best aperitifs are meant to do.
Pineau des Charentes: a speciality from Cognac country
Yvan Meyer of Château d'Orignac
Pineau is well known to holiday makers in the Charente-Maritime region of south-west France. I first encountered it while on a French exchange trip to La Rochelle, my host family having taken me on a visit to a Cognac house (with tasting); my subsequent enthusiasm for the drink seemed to please them and it helped to ease the stilted conversations that were the order of our long, non-polyglot days!
Made from freshly pressed grape juice and freshly distilled eau de vie, a lot of Pineau is, alas, usually rather too freshly bottled too. It goes straight to market making it a tad too sweet and a tad too alcoholic and just possibly the real cause of many a holiday headache! Pineau is so much better if given time to mellow and soften.
But our Pineau des Charentes is Pineau with a difference.
Pineau des Charentes
Shipped from Bordeaux négociants Sichel, the family behind The Society's Claret, this Pineau is made by the Sichel's technical director Yvan Meyer at his home property in Cognac. In his free time, Yvan goes back to the beautiful 20-hectare Château d'Orignac that his family has owned for several generations to help his father make Cognac and Pineau des Charentes. The family estate is divided between grape cultivation - ugni blanc and colombard vineyards for Cognac, and merlot and cabernet sauvignon for Pineau - and arable fields, with a small herd of Limousin cattle.
Château d'Orignac is situated 50kms south of Cognac in the Cognac Fins Bois appellation close to the Gironde
Charles Sichel tells the story of how one day, after Yvan had been working for them for a couple of years, he said that he needed to go home to bottle a couple of barrels of Pineau that he had been maturing - Yvan's Pineau is made from freshly pressed grape juice mixed with five year-old Cognac which is then put into barrel for five years.
Charles and his brothers were intrigued and asked Yvan to bring them a bottle on his return. They couldn't get over how delicious it was and now always have a bottle in the fridge in their tasting room in Bordeaux…and this is how Sebastian Payne MW, then buyer for Bordeaux, also became hooked!
'We had just finished a long session tasting through lots of samples of red Bordeaux to make the blend for The Society's Claret. I asked Sebastian if he would be interested to try the Pineau des Charentes Château d'Orignac. Sebastian said, 'all right' but that he had absolutely no interest in buying it.'
'We had just finished a long session tasting through lots of samples of red Bordeaux to make the blend for The Society's Claret. I asked Sebastian if he would be interested to try the Pineau des Charentes Château d'Orignac. Sebastian said, 'all right' but that he had absolutely no interest in buying it.' Charles Sichel informed me.
Just one taste and Sebastian, like Charles and his brothers, was a convert.
'At 18% alc, this Pineau is a bit dangerous!' concedes Charles. 'It's so easy to drink … because it is properly aged, it isn't at all cloying but is almost nutty and combined with the fruity character, it just works really well.'
My memories of enjoying Pineau des Charentes were having it served well chilled with little cubes of cheese and those salty little biscuits that you find in French supermarkets that I'm sure just used to have, rather prosaically, 'l'apéritif' on the box!
> Pineau des Charentes, Château d'Orignac, £14.95 a bottle (18% alc)
Vines at Château d'Orignac
Chambéry: vermouth from the Rhône-Alpes with its own appellation
Apparently vermouth is back in fashion and is quite the thing in clubs and bars nowadays. Always leaders rather than followers, Wine Society members have been enjoying our vermouth - The Society's Chambéry for many years.
As aperitifs go, this is certainly a classic. Essentially, vermouth is an aromatised fortified wine that comes in different degrees of sweetness (ours is on the dry side) and can be made anywhere in France or Italy. It started life as a medicinal drink, flavoured as it is with health-giving botanicals such as wormwood (vermut in German - the French pronunciation is the etymological root of the name), herbs and flowers. Like many of these quasi-mystical brews, the manufacturers tend to keep the ingredients a secret. Ours is no different, with the aromatics coming from the Alpine meadows of Chambéry, France's only AOP for vermouth.
Vermouth with olives and a twist of lemon
It is presumably the effect that the aromatics in vermouth have on the tastebuds that make it such a good aperitif and as its use for medicinal purposes waned in the 19th century, its popularity with bartenders as a mixer for cocktails took off. It is still considered the classic ingredient for a dry martini (1 part vermouth to 6 parts gin).
The Society's Chambéry is also delicious served on its own, chilled, over ice, maybe with a twist of lemon or an olive. When I spent a year abroad as a French undergraduate, my friends and I thought it the height of sophistication to serve it with ice and sparkling water as a long drink….ah!!!
> The Society's Chambéry, £8.50 a bottle (17.5% alc)
Kir Royale: a Burgundian speciality
Kir Royale: a Burgundian speciality
My third and final classic French aperitif has to be one of the simplest yet most stylish and immediately celebratory of welcoming drinks. It goes down just as well on a cold winter's evening as a summer al fresco party, particularly if served with gougères, traditional Burgundian cheese choux-pastry puffs.
The most important ingredient in a kir royale is not the wine (for once) but the crème de cassis, or blackcurrant liqueur, made by the maceration of top-quality blackcurrant berries in alcohol with the addition of a little sugar. The best of the best is called Crème de Cassis de Dijon and ours comes from one of the oldest-established firms - Gabriel Boudier, who originated in 1874, the same year as The Society.
Kir used to be called 'blanc-cassis' and traditionally was a mix of blackcurrant liqueur with the local aligoté white wine. Some say, perhaps a little unkindly, that the drink was invented as a way of making the rather waspish aligoté grape more palatable in lean vintages. Others claim it was a post-war invention to use up the surfeit of white wine (red wine being in short-supply following the German occupation).
Crème de cassis
Whatever the reason for its invention, it took on the name of 'kir' after the mayor of Dijon, Félix Kir, a pioneer of the twinning movement in post-war Europe. The drink was offered at the many receptions held at that time, Mayor Kir keen to show off the local produce to visiting dignitaries.
The royale part comes in when the fruit liqueur is mixed with Champagne (or Crémant de Bourgogne, if keeping it local) and this has become a popular aperitif worldwide. Interestingly, though the rest of the world tends to think of kir as a blackcurrant-based drink, in France, you may be asked if you would like a peach or raspberry liqueur instead.
Although it was crème de cassis which gained the firm of Gabriel Boudier their reputation, they have long since produced other fruit liqueurs too, and their liqueur de framboise made from raspberries grown in Scotland is a delight.
If you want to be truly authentic when making your blanc-cassis, we do list an aligoté from Domaine Sylvain Pataille, but why not instead invoke the spirit of the drink's namesake and twin with an English wine with a bit more acidity, such as Three Choirs Midsummer Hill 2014?
And whether you choose to use cassis or framboise as the base for your kir royale, if you want a an alternative to Champagne, I'd recommend The Society's Saumur Brut or The Society's Prosecco, or for those wanting to lower the alcohol intake, there's Gratien & Meyer's de-alcoholised Féstillant.
Mix 9 parts wine to 1 part fruit liqueur and enjoy!
>Crème de Cassis de Dijon, £10.95 per 50cl bottle (20% alc)
> Liqueur de Framboise, £11.95 per 50cl bottle (20% alc)
> The Society's Saumur Brut, £9.50 bottle (12% alc)