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Too hot for food? Cool down with aperitif wine

When it’s so steamy that it’s hard to think of eating, these wines come into their own. A little sweet, a little bitter, with unusual herbal notes to get the brain and palate ready for food, they're the elixirs of summer.
/ Source: Gourmet

Vya Extra Dry Vermouth ($20)
One of the entries that sparked the current vermouth renaissance, this American version from Andrew Quady is intense stuff, with notes of sandalwood, nutmeg, cinnamon, rosemary, and pine. If you don’t like bitter drinks, cut it with tonic; otherwise, mix it with just a bit of sparkling water and a slice of lime for a bracingly refreshing cocktail.

Lillet Blanc ($15)
After a day in the sun, a glass of Lillet — served très froid, as the label boldly declares it should be — is just the thing. Stick with the white, which the Brothers Lillet created in 1887 (the sweeter red came along in 1962). Delicate and fragrant with honeysuckle, orange (including the pith and blossom), and a pleasantly bitter quinine note, this aperitif is light enough to pair with a plateau de fruits de mer, should your appetite wake up mid-glass.

Carpano Antica Formula ($30/1 L)
Said to be the first commercial vermouth, introduced in 1786 when Antonio Benedetto Carpano began shopping his formula around Turin, this version shares more in common with bitters than most of the nearly colorless, lightly flavored vermouths now used to doctor gin. In fact, to mix Antica Formula seems like a crime: It lives up to its Renaissance label with notes of cinnamon, clove, licorice, orange, and a slew of other bittersweet notes filigreeing its fruity red-wine base.

Perucchi Vermouth ($20)
A recent import to the U.S., this wine came onto my radar after Master Sommelier Laura Maniec found it at Tinto Fino, a tiny wine store in New York City’s East Village that’s rich in Spanish obscurities. According to the neck tag, Perucchi was the first commercial Spanish vermouth producer; vermú, apparently, was once popular in Madrid bars.

If all Spanish vermouths were like this, it’s no wonder why: Perucchi is silky and golden, laden with aromas including chamomile, ginger, lemon verbena, cinnamon, orange blossoms, and something like menthol. The initial sweetness fades into a Sherry-like dryness — great with sliced jamón.

Dolin & Cie Dry Vermouth ($12)
Aromatizing has all too often been a way of covering up bad wine, but the vermouth from Chambéry in the French Alps was of a high enough quality that the French awarded it the prestigious AOC (appellation d’origine contrôlée) designation in 1932. Made by the only producer left in the region, Dolin’s Dry needs no gin to find its place. Just pour it over ice with a slice of orange and breathe in the notes of sweet orange, quinine, and hyssop (and however many of the other 50-odd secret ingredients you might be able to tease out).

Dubonnet Rouge ($12)
If it’s a red you prefer, opt for Dubonnet, which predates Lillet Rouge by 116 years. Created by Frenchman Joseph Dubonnet to help his country’s troops choke down the quinine they needed to combat malaria in North Africa, it falls on the sweet side of aperitif wines, with a Port-like, dark-cherry flavor edged in bitter herbs. Cut with sparkling water and brightened by a slice of orange, it takes on the red hue of a sailor’s sunset — a fitting way to end the day, regardless of the weather.

Gaia Ritinitis Nobilis Retsina ($14)
Retsina might be better understood if it were thought of as an aromatized wine, scented with pine. Gaia’s is pretty much the Grand Cru of Retsinas, were there such a thing, inspired by winemaker Yiannis Paraskevopoulos’s realization that, as he puts it, “If millions of Greeks love it, they can’t all be wrong.” He uses Roditis grapes that would be good enough to bottle on their own, and a light hand with the Aleppo pine. The result feels a little like standing in a eucalyptus grove on the Sonoma coast on a chilly morning and breathing in the sea air: invigorating.

J. Normandin-Mercier Pineau des Charentes ($45)
The most subtle and sweet of this octet, Pineau des Charentes is a blend of three parts wine-grape juice and one part eau-de-vie from the Cognac region of France. The local grapes add plenty of bright acidity to counter the honeyed quince flavors of the juice; the spicy, caramel notes of Cognac hold the flavors long. A single ice cube is all it needs, although if there happens to be some foie gras in the house, that’s not a bad thing.