During my many trips to Champagne exploring the countless wine making houses, I’d nearly always be blissfully busy with days of tasting and enjoying the commonly known king of wines. Little else would be worth exploring when you are in Champagne, as it is more or less a philosophy of when in Champagne drink Champagne…
One thing that many Champagne makers are proud of though are their wine collections, not only that of the ones they produce, but rare and unique bottles they have collected from other famous wine regions of the world. I have been very fortunate to have tasted many rare vintages deep down in darkened chalk cellars of some wonderful Champagne houses from vintage Bordeaux to Barolo. What I have also been introduced to is one of the other famous wines that is produced from Champagne grapes and that is ratafia.
Usually tucked away in a corner of the wine cellar will be an old oak barrel or two producing Ratafia de Champagne and many times I have been invited to taste a sample from the wine maker. Yes, proud they are of their Champagne and it’s their main focus for business, but sometimes an excitement stirs in the wine maker when they introduce their ratafia and await your thoughts on its taste.
Ratafia is no real hidden secret, especially popular in France, Italy and Spain and usually produced in wine regions by smaller family producers who will likely hold their own secret and traditional methods of producing it. Made from the left over grape juice of each harvest such as from the third or fourth press plus added to with the likes of brandy, herbs and other selected fruit juices, ratafia can be served as an appetiser, used as an ingredient such as in a marinade or a sauce, as well as a being enjoyed as a dessert drink.
So, what can you expect from ratafia – Does it taste like Champagne, is it just as expensive, is it fizzy? Until you have met with ratafia then how do you know! I will be honest and admit I had no idea on what it was until someone first handed me a glass of it in their wine cellar and said drink ratafia!
Ratafia is a liqueur and usually around 18% alcohol content. No fizz in this drink I’m afraid, but a creamy and smooth tasting sweet liqueur expressing plenty of grape juice, almonds, marzipan and ripe fruits in syrup sauce. It is very more-ish especially once you have been first introduced to ratafia and for me the drink really expresses the grapes from Champagne that you get both from the aromas and taste – It is very much like the taste you get in your mouth from the aromas during grape picking season and especially when the grapes are being crushed and the juices are being collected… For those who frequent Champagne houses will know what I mean about the smells that each wine cellar will hold.
For this write up I was pleased to be given a bottle from Champagne Jean Diot whose very elegant shaped bottle and delightful example of ratafia de Champagne helped me to write this piece with a fine glass of it in my hand.
If you wish to explore ratafia then there are still quite a few producers making it in Champagne (approximately 100) and this number is likely to increase as demand grows thanks to the recent official status as a Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) it was given allowing it to use the name of ‘Champagne‘ which many will know is not an easy thing to achieve – It now comes under the Boissons Spiritueuses Champenoises. Cost per bottle can vary immensely, but for a decent example of ratafia, you will be paying between £30 – £40 a bottle.