When in Rome...
Aperitivo Season is BACK in Philadelphia! With April showers safely behind us, we’re savoring May flowers - and sipping Spritzes in the sunshine. But we’re Tria, and that means we’re more than just a pretty beverage: we’re a friendly (and delicious) history lesson, too. So together, let’s explore the wild world of Aperitifs and Aromatized Wines.
Aperitif derives from the Latin word aperire, literally: “to open,” or “uncover.” And Aperitifs do just that: they open up the appetite, stimulating your palate and preparing you for the meal to come. (There’s a reason you see everyone in Rome sitting outside in their piazzas sipping Aperol Spritzes every evening.) A true aperitif has a bittersweet character that stimulates the production of gastric juices and promotes the appetite. Long ago, their primary value was seen as medicinal, but today, you’re far more likely to find them on the rocks - or stirred into your favorite cocktail.
Aromatized Wines are fortified wines or mistelle (grape juice or lightly fermented white wine to which brandy is added) that are macerated with botanicals, herbs, spices, fruit, and other natural flavorings to add distinct tastes and colors. The ‘big three’ botanicals that you’ll encounter most often are wormwood (of Absinthe fame), gentian (as in Italian Genziano), and quinine (the same flavor you’ll find in your Tonic Water). Aromatized Wines must be both fortified and aromatized with these flavorings; wines that are fortified but not aromatized include Port, Sherry, and Madeira.
Depending on the type of botanicals used, Aromatized Wines are separated into four basic legal categories by the European Union:
Vermouth comes from the German word for “wormwood,” and must be 75% wine. There are three main styles: dry, bianco, and sweet (or red, as it’s sometimes called). Vermouth can be produced anywhere, but was first commercially produced in Italy; today, along with France and Spain, they remain among the world’s leading producers. There are two protected geographical Vermouths: famed Vermouth di Torino (from Piedmont in NW Italy; think Cocchi) and Vermouth de Chambéry (from the French Alps in the Savoy; think Dolin). Spanish Vermut de Reus is still awaiting geographical protection.
Americano is a play on the moniker “amaricante,” the Italian term for “bittered,” as well as a nod to the “American” practice of adding bitters to Vermouth. The main botanical used in Americano, gentian, brings floral, earthy, and woodsy notes. Cocchi Americano Bianco and Rosa from Italy are famous examples, not to be confused with the popular Italian cocktail (Campari, Sweet Vermouth, and Club Soda with an orange twist, ironically also very popular during daily Aperitivo Hours there.)
French Quinquina and Italian Chinato both have cinchona bark (a source of quinine) as the primary botanical. Quinine has a dry, spicy quality that was once valued as a muscle relaxant by the Incas of Peru; in the 1600s, Jesuit missionaries brought the remedy back to Rome with them for its malaria-fighting properties. (Is there nothing Tonic Water can’t do??) Some of the best-known Chinatos of today include France’s Bonal and Byrrh and Italy’s Barolo Chinato by those ubiquitous Cocchis. (Decanter called it “The Best After-Dinner Drink You’ve Never Had.”)
Outside of the “big three” of wormwood, gentian, and quinine, herbalist worldwide have used many other flavors as the backbones of Aromatized Wines. Many of them no longer exist, having fallen out of fashion as our palates edged away from bitter towards sweet, and many of the flavorings that could once be found in Vino Amaro have moved into spirit-based Amari and Liqueurs. But a few true examples of Vino Amaro, or wine-based Amari, still exist and continue to rely on herbs for bitter flavor and darker color. Their wine base lends a special depth of character; see for yourself in Italian Cardamaro or Pasubio.
“But Tria,” you’re asking, “What about other wine-based apertivi? What of my beloved Sangria, my warming Gluhwein?” And you’re right: those are technically aperitivi, too! If it’s a wine-based sipper that’s fortified with stronger spirits and scented or flavored with ingredients other than grapes, you can happily add it to this list. And of course, you can always come see us at Tria Cafe Rittenhouse for Aperitivo Hour, with special Aperitivo cocktails from 12 noon until 7 p.m., Monday through Thursday. We’ll see you in the sidewalk cafe, Philly!