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Sip-sational! You’ll love these ‘aperitif’ wines

Several white wines make super scene-setters for summer meals. Jon Bonné scans the shelves for unusual choices that fit the bill.

Some folks are unwavering fans of those massive, buttery white wines that storm out of your glass like one of the lumbering Ents from “Lord of the Rings.”

But it’s too darn hot at this time of year to drink them, especially as an aperitif, that delightful French practice of whetting the appetite for a meal. Summer food, like pre-dinner conversation, usually is light and refreshing. That’s precisely what you want in your pre-dinner white wines.

An aperitif is a truly civilized alternative to the traditional cocktail — the perfect start to a summer evening and a welcome end to a hot July afternoon. While the French are keeping the tradition alive — with a glass of vermouth, white wine or even Champagne, before a meal — it’s a practice that has fallen into disrepair on this side of the Atlantic.

That’s a shame, because a good apéritif can be a cooling end to a hot day and an excellent scene-setter for a meal. It should be light on the tongue, while tart and refreshing enough to reset your taste buds.  While you can pair them with snacks (nuts or olives, maybe), these sipping wines should satisfy you by themselves and be delicate enough that you show up at the dinner table refreshed and ready to enjoy your meal.

We set out to find a few that fit the task. The bad news? Many popular picks on the wine shelf don’t work very well, and even among the types of wines we liked, styles vary widely. So consider our list a starting point for a conversation with your local wine shop.

The good news? There are plenty of options out there.

Problematic pairings
Though pinot grigio might seem appropriate to the task, it too often lacks enough character and zing on the tongue to be a compelling apéritif. That said, we found several fans of the Masi 2004 Masianco (Remy Amerique, $14), which blends pinot grigio with the northern Italian grape verduzzo. The verduzzo adds peach and honey notes to a crisp citrus taste.

Other Italian options include wines from the Lugana denomination, on the southern shore of Lake Garda; or from Piedmont, with its bottlings of Roero arneis (Vietti and Bruno Giacosa both make excellent versions) and cortese-based Gavi.

As for chardonnays, most are too heavy for the task — even those that never see an oak barrel. We sampled several domestic “stainless” chardonnays (aged in steel tanks) but found recent vintages too rich and weighted with thick fruit flavors to serve as a meal’s lead-off batter. If you’re stuck on chard, look to France, specifically inexpensive cool-climate chardonnays like those from Mâcon Villages.

But why not branch out?

Southwest France
France’s Loire Valley is known for its bright, crisp whites — Muscadet, for instance, has long been a great aperitif — but it was southern France that proved an ideal locale for pre-meal wines.

While the southwest region of Gascogne is better known for its armagnac brandy, tart local grapes such as ugni blanc (usually distilled into cognac and armagnac) and gros manseng often are skillfully crafted into sharp, refreshing wines. Most of these can be found for under $10.

Indeed, one of the best wines we tasted was also one of the cheapest.  The Domaine de Pellehaut 2004 Harmonie de Gascogne (Charles Neal Selections, $8) races across your tongue, filled with tangy grapefruit and gooseberry. “Smells like fresh-cut grass,” one taster rightly noted, appropriate for a summer evening. A mix of chardonnay and several local grapes, this was a hands-down favorite.  In a similar vein is the Domaine des Cassagnoles 2004 (Weygandt-Metzler, $7), slightly more tart but utterly refreshing. Both wines are labeled “vin de pays” — simple table wine — which helps keep the price down.

Made from similar grapes, and somewhat better known, are the dry wines from the Jurançon region just north of the Spanish border — a bit spicier, but equally crisp and fresh.

We found equally good results across the border. Despite (or perhaps because of) Spain’s heat, most of its whites have that essential bright acidity.

The verdejo grape found in the Rueda area northwest of Madrid is a prime example — with all the tang of a good New Zealand sauvignon blanc, plus a bit of nutty richness in the mix. We were partial to the Naia 2003 (Tsarina Wines, $12), with its bright, minerally aromatics and thirst-quenching finish. 

To the west, the Galician region of Rías Baixas on the northern Portuguese border offers its trademark albariño grape. Albariño has the strong floral notes of a French wine like viognier, but its great acidity and juicy citrus flavors make for a great, fresh option for a light meal.  One taster found the Serra Estrela 2003 (Global Vineyard Importers, $15) “mouthwatering,” though another was thrown by an astringent “bite” on the finish. Styles and quality vary widely.

Chenin blanc
It’s difficult to suggest chenin blanc without reservations, because too much is made from second-rate grapes, in styles that are too sweet and offer little beyond the grape’s typical apple-like aromas. That said, we found several New World chenin blancs that pleased.

The Dry Creek 2004 ($10) from California’s Clarksburg appellation near Sacramento has the typical apple, but also tangy citrus and a solid mineral core. It was mouth-filling without being heavy. Worthy South African contenders also appeared. The Man Vintners 2004 (Vineyard Brands, $8) from the Western Cape region adds pretty floral aromas and a bright crisp middle to the mix, while the Simonsig 2004 (Quintessential, $9) from Stellenbosch was more herbal and honeyed, with a strong citrusy open, if somewhat less balance. All are great oyster wines, incidentally.

The balance of tart and floral also pervades the Argentine variety known as torrontés, which differs a bit from the Spanish grape of the same name.

While these wines explode with scents of flowers and nectar, they’re relatively supple in the mouth — bright acidity balancing out a slightly heavy, sweet texture. Bigger wines, perhaps, than some options above, but exciting nonetheless.

The freshly bottled Crios de Susana Balbo 2005 (Vine Connections, $14) from Argentina’s Cafayate region matches crispness with strong mineral components that almost evoke the classic petrol notes of riesling. The wine tastes silky, but finishes a bit weighty, which underscores the need to serve it cold.

Flowers, herbs and tart lime were more pronounced in the Bodega Norton 2004 (TGIC Importers, $9), though the style wasn’t quite as graceful. But it’s still refreshing, an excellent option for porch-sitting at dusk as a breeze slowly sweeps away the heat.