In the Old Port section of Marseille, the faces filling the cafe terraces at twilight are set aglow by an orange-streaked purple sky, a stunning backdrop for the opalescence of the city's "national" aperitif, pastis, the yellow anise-flavored liqueur that turns cloudy when water is poured into it, as is the custom.
At Le Chapon Fin, a folksy bistro in the southern town of Nîmes, regulars are drinking a sweet and fruity Muscat de Lunel.
And up north in Paris, at the banter-filled bar of the Montparnasse brasserie La Coupole, the standees-in-waiting are sipping white, pink or red sparklers from long, slender glasses, and "apéro" time is spilling into dinner. Tables are available, but no one cares to abandon their Champagne, be it blanc, rosé or, for those drinking Strawberry Royals, a house Champagne cocktail made with a fresh strawberry coulis, rouge. Why sit down and restart the clock?
In the book of life's most sensuous pleasures, the French take extra delight in the slow and lingering foreword. So when it comes to something as central to the culture as sharing good food and drink, they don't just prepare dinner. They prepare themselves too through the aperitif ritual.
But it's not just pastis, Champagne cocktails and Muscat — it might be an old-fashioned apéro, such as a provocatively bitter Suze, a Martini & Rossi red vermouth or a glass of sweet red wine from Banyuls, or a refreshing Pineau des Charentes. Or in a reversal of the global order, a small glass of Port (yes, the French drink it before dinner).
It's even happening across the Atlantic — in Los Angeles, as a matter of fact. You may not see them, you may not know they're there, but French expats all over town are taking a long, exquisite moment at the end of their day, slowing down, pouring a glass and maybe sharing a nibble.
The word "aperitif" comes from the Latin aperire "to open." And it's how the French let themselves into dinner or, on Sundays and sleepy summer weekdays, when the midday meal is the main one, lunch.
"The aperitif is a transitional moment between work and the pleasures of the table," notes Georgeanne Brennan, author of "Apéritif: Recipes for Simple Pleasures." "It gives you time to relax and put aside life's obligations."
The aperitif hour, however, is not to be confused with cocktail hour. Apéros, as they're called, mostly top out at 18% alcohol. They don't dull the appetite like a stiff drink or leave you bloated like a pint of beer. The classic French aperitifs are instead light, alcohol- or wine-based tonics that generally share two traits: something bitter to arouse the appetite and something sweet to offset the bitterness.
Traditional wine-based aperitifs include vins doux naturels such as Muscat de Rivesaltes, Banyuls, Port and Sherry; vins de liqueurs such as Pineau des Charentes and Floc de Gascogne; vermouths such as Noilly Prat, Martini & Rossi and Cinzano; and quinquinas (so-called because of their high content of quinquina, French for "quinine") such as Dubonnet, Lillet, Byrrh and St. Raphaèl. All are fortified wines: wine to which a spirit has been added to stop the fermentation, leaving it sweet and more alcoholic than table wine. (Pineau des Charentes, the apéro of choice in Cognac, where it is made, is produced by stopping the fermentation with Cognac.)
Spirit-based apéros include anisés such as the ever-popular pastis (including Ricard, Pastis 51 and Pernod), bitters such as Campari and Fernet Branca, and gentianes (flavored with the bitter root of wild gentian flower) such as Suze and Bonal.
The appeal of traditional bitter and bittersweet apéros, whether alcohol- or wine-based, has largely eluded the post-World War II generations, though the Suze and Byrrh that still claim shelf space in bistro bars and home liquor cabinets warrant rediscovery. These days, the apéros of the moment are Muscat, kir (dry white wine with a dollop of crème de cassis) and anything to do with Champagne.
This generational shift in taste is apparent even in the Languedoc-Roussillon region of southern France, where many of the old-fashioned aperitifs originated. In the town of Céret, less than 15 miles from the distillery where Byrrh has been produced since 1876, most aperitif-hour habitués at the Brasserie des Feuillants eschew the orange-scented quinine tang of red Byrrh in favor of locally made Muscat. Muscat de Rivesaltes, a citrus-tinged sweet white made from the grape varieties Muscat à petits grains and Muscat of Alexandria, is a favorite.
On the other hand, they might have a ruby-black Maury, an intense sweet wine made from Grenache Noir; or Banyuls, a sweet red somewhat finer than Maury, characteristically redolent of macerated fruits. The brasserie's white Muscats, from the leading producer Mas Amiel, are served chilled; the reds, slightly below room temperature.
Those not drinking vins doux naturels opt instead for a kir Catalan, a house invention of dry white wine, crème de griottes (Morello cherry liqueur) and Morello cherries macerated in Banyuls. The single bottle of Byrrh, a proud symbol of the region's Catalan heritage, stands unnoticed.
At Le Chapon Fin in Nîmes, which sits between Provence and the Languedoc-Roussillon, Muscat de Lunel, an exceptionally fruity and locally produced white Muscat, has caught on as an aperitif only in the last year or two, according to owner Sandra Cinatar. A fruity and refreshing Cartagène, a local vin de liqueur first created by winemakers for local consumption, is experiencing a revival. The Parisian trend that embraces Languedoc-Roussillon wines finally has made it home, in time for l'apéro.
All over France (and likewise in French restaurants around L.A.) the default apéro for the undecided is kir. It's the little black dress of before-dinner drinks. It's elegant but not too formal. Breezy. Never out of place.
The classic kir is made with four parts chilled Aligoté, a crisp white from Burgundy (where it's an underdog grape in the land of Chardonnay) and one part crème de cassis, but you may change either or both ends of the equation. For the wine, any light, dry, fruity and preferably inexpensive white wine will do. For the fruit liquor, you may substitute blackberry, raspberry or peach liqueur, all varieties offered in the kir royaux served at the swanky Paris restaurant Le Violin d'Ingres.
Two kir alternatives are suggested at a group of bistros in Lyon run by chef-owner Jean-Paul Lacombe: the Communard, made with red Beaujolais and crème de cassis, and the Myro, with rosé wine and blueberry liqueur. What you won't find in any French-made kir of any variety is a slice of lemon peel. That embellishment is an American affectation.
Le Jardin des Sens, a three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Montpellier, recommends a kir royaux made with crème de pêche de vigne — wild peach liqueur. And a specialty of 59 Poincaré, a Paris restaurant under the auspices of chef Alain Ducasse, is "le mojito-Champagne," a blend of fresh mint, lime, white rum and Champagne.
Kir royaux are even featured at the Bar du Crillon and Les Ambassadeurs, both at Hotel Crillon and owned by Champagne house Taittinger. The Baccarat, one of the house apéros, mixes rosé Champagne with cranberry juice and lime.
If there is an argument to be made against kir royal, it is this: You shouldn't mask the character and elegance of so noble a wine as Champagne.
Such reasoning may explain why Champagne, unadorned, has emerged as the leading aperitif at fine dining establishments throughout France. At L'Astrance, among the most inventive restaurants in Paris, it is the sole aperitif.
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Where to buy aperitifs
Ruby and white Port and crème de cassis from various producers are available at fine wine shops such as Wine House and Wally's in Los Angeles, Du Vin Wine & Spirits in West Hollywood, Heritage Wine Co. in Pasadena and Hi-Time Wine Cellars in Costa Mesa.
Ricard (About $27) Available at Wine House, Du Vin Wine & Spirits and Wally's.
Byrrh ($23) Available at Du Vin Wine & Spirits.
Suze ($29) Available at Du Vin Wine & Spirits.
2001 Domaine de la Tour Vielle Banyuls ($21) Available at Sepulveda Wine Co. in Manhattan Beach.
Martini & Rossi red vermouth ($7) Widely available at fine wine shops and supermarkets.
Brillet Pineau des Charentes ($21) Available at Manhattan Liquors in Manhattan Beach.
Trenel crème de pêche de vigne ($25) Available at Wally's.