Sweet and Bitter: The Alternative Dinner Drinks
There are a lot of reasons to go out for food and drink. Because you have something to celebrate. Because you just got dumped. Because it’s Tuesday. Although a good glass of chardonnay or pinot noir can go a long way, sometimes you need a beverage that matches your mood a little more closely. That might mean dessert-style wines for those who fall on the sweet side, or a bitter Italian amaro flavored by secret herb combinations for those who feel otherwise.
Here’s a short guide to both, and a toast to pairing your beverage to your mood.
Start with sweet, and go quality and classic: The Mediterranean muscat, which can be eaten as a table grape, comes in many varieties (the ancient muscat of Alexandria and the “noble” muscat blanc à petits grains are the best known). It’s grown and made into wine all over the world, most notably in Italy and France. A quantity of cheap, poorly made bottles has shaken its reputation, but when grown in in the right places and thoughtfully vinified, muscat is responsible for some of the world’s greatest, and oldest, sweet wines: South Africa’s Constantia, France’s muscat de Beaumes de Venise, Italy’s moscato, either Asti spumante (sparkling) or still wine. Muscat wines all have one thing in common: headily perfumed, their flavors are commonly described as grapey.
For a taste of faraway, and more summery, romance, there’s Greece’s great sweet claim to fame: its version of vinsanto is mostly made of the indigenous assyrtiko — other grapes like aidani and athiri sometimes make up a small percentage — grown and made into wine on the volcanic island of Santorini. Made from sun-dried grapes for both a higher sugar content per volume and a wisp of cidery flavor, vinsanto is a complex, savory-toned sweet wine with layers of flavor and texture; aged for years before its release, it doesn’t come cheap, but it’s a luxury well worth discovering. Surprisingly, it goes as well with roast meat as it does aged or ripe cheeses.
Turn to Champagne for extra glamour: All wine made in the fabled Champagne region of northern France follows a general, and painstaking, winemaking protocol, including a possible final step before corking: dosage — the addition of a small, carefully considered unfermented and therefore still sweet amount of grape juice to balance the sparkling wine. After some time in bottle, the dosaged wine becomes a blended, coherent whole. Champagnes labeled demi-sec and doux are the sweetest, and when well made will have the tartness and bubbles to make that sweetness right. Spicy foods make perfect partners for these two styles.
Try these three bottles, chilled, before, during, after, or instead of, dinner.
Best either at the start of a meal or saved for its end, there’s the enticingly bitter side of the drinks world. Amar is a liqueur made of neutral spirits flavored by bitter things like artichoke, quinine (the tree-bark extract that gives tonic water its unique flavor)‚ rhubarb, or bitter orange, before being rounded up with a medley of herbs and spices, which each producer keeps highly secret and selects with health, physical, and spiritual purposes in mind. An amaro’s color provides a general clue to when you’ll enjoy it the most: light red or orange — think Campari and Aperol — are lighter in flavor, and take well to mixers like soda water, making them a good appetite-inducers, while deep-colored pours — like Averna and Fernet — are intensely flavored and post-meal-minded.
Amaro’s provenance, and heart, is Italy, but there are versions being made stateside now, to reflect this country’s generally lower tolerance for bitter than the Italians have. Whatever its flavor profile or country of birth, amaro is restorative, complicated — and higher in alcohol than its wine counterpart.
Here are three to try, at room temperature and neat, from an Italian classic to a locally minded Sicilian take to a West Coast re-do.