At the very mention of champagne, bubbles float into most people’s minds. I love a bubble as much as the next woman, but I’ve recently come across another, entirely bubble-free, wine made in the Champagne region: it’s called Ratafia Champenois and it’s rather delicious. I’m only sorry it’s taken me so long to discover it.
Ratafia has been made in Champagne (indeed in many wine regions) for centuries. It’s what’s known in French as a mistelle, a wine whose fermentation has been stopped in its tracks by the addition of grape spirit. In the past this was simply a way to conserve all the intrinsic qualities of the grape juice without risk of it going bad.
Most French regions have their own mistelle – the Jura has Macvin, Cognac has Pineau des Charentes and Gascony has Floc de Gascogne. But Champagne’s Ratafia is – of course – special. Its singularity, explains Claude Giraud (who makes champagne and Ratafia at the family firm in Ay and who also heads the professional association of Ratafia Champenois producers), is that both grapes and spirit must originate in the region. In order to gain official recognition of this fact, Giraud has worked tirelessly to have this unique local product declared a PDO or Protected Designation of Origin speciality, exclusive to the Champagne region. In 2015 this came about, and since then Ratafia Champenois has been on a bit of a roll, embraced by creative mixologists and chefs. Those Champagne growers who make Ratafia only produce limited quantities, thus a 50cl bottle from Giraud costs around €45.
To make his Ratafia, Giraud earmarks a small portion of the base wine that will be used to make his champagne. This is placed in neutral casks and the local grape spirit Fine Champagne is added. The Ratafia then gets an extended 10-month gestation period in the cellar to ripen the flavours, after which it is transferred to small oak barrels for further ageing. Giraud uses a solera system for his Ratafia (as for sherry), which gives an extra dimension and added complexity to the finished drink.
You can drink Ratafia Champenois, slightly chilled, as an aperitif grants Giraud, but its use doesn’t stop there. With its delicate pinkish-amber hue and a beautiful balance of grapey sweetness and crisp acidity, it makes a mean cocktail (try it with a little crème de framboiseand a splash of champagne). Most recently, Giraud has worked with three-star Michelin chef Arnaud Lallement at the nearby L’Assiette Champenoise on a menu that pairs several of the chef’s dishes with this treasured drop, from home-smoked fish through to lobster or cheese (I love it with a perfectly ripened Chaource) and fruit-based desserts. There’s something about the combined grapey sweetness of Ratafia braced by its natural acidity that seems to make both the food and the wine sing.