The late, great Julia Child once said that "a party without cake is just a meeting." Food for thought, to be sure. But I like to think that, in my home at least, a dinner party without an aperitif is just a meeting followed by cake.
A well-chosen starter beverage has always been my opening gambit, the toast that sets the tone and helpfully distracts guests from the inevitable seven-o'clock chaos in my kitchen. It's also a way to get gastric juices flowing, engaging invitees' appetites for what lies ahead.
Europeans have mastered the ritual, of course, which is why much of the world has adopted the terms aperitif and, in Italian, aperitivo for the drinks that get the party started. Traditionally, those words have been synonymous with sweet, aromatized liqueurs or wines, such as Campari, vermouth and Lillet Blanc (the excellent citrus-flavoured wine from Bordeaux). In Spain, dry, fortified sherry, such as fino or manzanilla, does the job compellingly, especially when paired with olives, salty sheep's cheese, cured ham or plump marcona almonds.
But bittersweet beverages are hardly to everyone's taste, and the bracingly briny character of bone-dry sherry sadly tends to be a nonstarter with most good people I know (my apologies to those I've tried to convert and who still can't rid the taste of "gasoline" from their mouths). Fortunately, there's another option: dry white wine.
A little forethought is key, though. Remember that you want to stimulate the palate, not clobber it with a two-by-four. This is why I think it's best to stay away from heavy styles, such as oaky chardonnay. You might also want to select something beyond the ordinary, a bottle to stimulate intrigue as well as the craving for food. Perhaps an offbeat grape, such as pecorino, vermentino or gruner veltliner, or a classic aromatic variety, such as riesling, pinot gris or sauvignon blanc. Or, dear to my heart, a fine Chablis from the Burgundian appellation synonymous with gloriously crisp chardonnay that sees little or no oak contact.
For a more festive welcome, there's always dry sparkling wine. Effervescence, like watching Nigella Lawson prepare creamed linguine with truffle oil, is an appetite's best friend. Whatever you do, don't save the bubbles for last. The sound of a popping cork works more mood magic at the start of a meal than at dessert. Cake is better off with coffee.
Bollinger Special Cuvée Brut Champagne, France
SCORE: 93 PRICE: $78.95
The elements of great Champagne – and what elevates it well beyond the blunt asset of mere bubbles – are all here. Bollinger's Special Cuvée is bone dry yet creamy soft, with substantial weight in the midpalate and an autolytic, lees-derived richness. The flavours hint at tangy lemon drop, brioche, honey and flowers, enhanced by a yeasty aromatic quality. Froth that's so much more than just pop and fizz. Available in Ontario at the above price, $75.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $80.76 in Manitoba, $76.25 in Quebec, $79.79 in New Brunswick, $82.79 in Nova Scotia (currently on sale for $78.79).
Le Mesnil Brut Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Champagne, France
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $49.95
Tart and chalky, with a core of lemon curd and baked apple nestled in pastry dough and topped with toasted nuts and minerals. Available in Ontario at the above price, $50.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $51.25 in Quebec.
Domaine du Colombier Chablis 2014, France
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $25.95
From a family-run property that only began bottling in the mid-1980s, this is a classic example of unoaked chardonnay in the Chablis style. Fermented and matured entirely in stainless steel, it's medium bodied and comes across with notes of musky melon and pear, achieving added depth and complexity with a tangy, autolytic note from lees contact as well as a stony essence. Available in Ontario.
Vigne Surrau Branu Vermentino di Gallura 2014, Italy
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $21.95
This hails from the island of Sardinia, south of Corsica and off the knee of Italy's boot. A regional signature, vermentino grows on the mainland, too, though it counts among Italy's best-kept white-wine secrets. This example captures some of the variety's best qualities, including an oily texture balanced by well-tuned acidity. Light-medium bodied, it calls to mind peaches, flowers and bitter herbs, with a rounded, chewy middle doused in maritime saltiness. Available in Ontario.
Fantinel One and Only Single Vineyard Brut Prosecco 2015, Italy
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $18.95
Prosecco, Italy's booming bubbly, tends to come with subtle sweetness – in a style confusingly labelled "extra dry." This premium single-vineyard offering, however, is bone dry (hence the term "brut"). As fresh as fruit picked off a tree, it displays and uncanny essence of tart Granny Smith apple and pear, with vibrant tension underscored by a gently chalky texture. Available in Ontario.
Durnberg Falkenstein Tradition Gruner Veltliner 2013, Austria
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $18.95
Light-medium bodied and bone dry, with a chalky graininess carrying suggestions of citrus, white pepper, tangy lemon and stones. Fans of "minerality," this is your wine. Available in Ontario.
Yalumba Y Series Viognier 2015, Australia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $13.95
Medium bodied, with sweet stone fruit and honey in the middle, surrounded by a floral note of jasmine tea as well as lemon and ginger. The acidity is soft and well integrated. A bargain. Available in Ontario at the above price, $16.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $16.45 in Quebec, $17.99 in Nova Scotia (currently on sale for $15.99).
Tenuta Cocci Grifoni Colle Vecchio Offida Pecorino 2013, Italy
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $16.95
Yes, pecorino – just like the ewe's-milk cheese. In this case the word refers to a white grape most closely associated with the Marche region of central Italy. It is said to be a favoured snack among the local herd (sheep are called pecore in Italian). Offida may be the grape's finest appellation, and this wine is livelier than a drunken shepherd trying to fend off a pack of wolves. Light-medium bodied and tightly wound, it suggests crisp peach at its core, with notes of lemon, herbs and mineral. Bracing and clean. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta.
Ruffino Prosecco, Italy
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $16.90
Ruffino's a big name. And while this orange-label bubbly won't ruffle the well-pressed marketing suits at Veuve Clicquot Champagne, it's a tasty bargain. Sweet pear and apple fruit get a lift from frothy effervescence and crisp acidity. Available in Ontario at the above price, $16.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta, $18.99 in Saskatchewan, $17.99 in Manitoba, $18 in Quebec, $18.49 in New Brunswick $19.99 in Nova Scotia (currently on sale for $17.99), $20.85 in Newfoundland, $20.19 in Prince Edward Island (currently on sale for $19.19).
Afectus Alvarinho 2015, Portugal
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $17.95
This is made in the Minho region, best known as the source of vinho verde, Portugal's delectably light, often spritzy signature white (though it comes in rosé and red versions, too). Alvarinho is the grape here and a main variety used in vinho verde. The wine is light-medium bodied, with a soft, fleshy centre hinting at apricot and peach, finishing seductively dry. Available in Ontario.