From France with love: Ratafia, the other drink from Champagne

Ratafia is made from "leftover" Pinot Meunier juice in the Champagne region of France.

A few months ago over dinner in Bordeaux, a man with playful, very pale blue eyes told me about a drink called ratafia, from the Champagne region of France.

“It’s made with the grape juice left over from making champagne,” he said. “Like France’s version of retsina.”

Retsina, of course, is that famous resinated wine from Greece — which happens to be one of the destinations for WGBH’s upcoming LearningTour: Mediterranean Voyage of Discovery. (Perhaps Diane Rehm and Scott Simon will even raise a glass with you!)

But in France, ratafia is crafted from Pinot Meunier juice blended with marc or wine brandy.

How bad could that be?

We made a mutual promise to swap liqueurs that are in some way distinctive of our countries, a perfect way to get my hands on what I consider to be the best of two worlds: champagne (which, if I’m unashamedly nonobjective, is my alcoholic beverage of choice), and a fortified wine which, as I came to realize, represents a considerable gap in my education.

The swapping had to be done transatlantic-ly — and a remarkably well-engineered package arrived earlier this week, complete with the promised bottle of Veuve Doussot Ratafia.

The bottle was sealed with a thick, red wax seal with the initials VD in a flourish, punctuating the bottle’s front label like the seals on hand-written parchment letters from long ago.

In the glass, this ratafia looks like pale copper, like freshly-made caramel before its sugars have darkened to burnt. It’s ratafia’s two-year aging requirement in oak barrels, I learned later, that lends it this color.

While I don’t know ratafia, I learned quickly that this is a fine, smooth example of it. My nose found aromas of citrus and a denser sort of elderflower, while on the palate I noticed dried fruits and crystallized fruits, something that for me suggests a certain kind of heat.

At first I poured just a little, my ignorance of fortified wines moderating my hand.

But before long, I poured a little more.

Sure, I was predisposed to liking it – I have a thing for playful, pale blue eyes – but this ratafia would have hit its mark regardless.

Cathy Huyghe writes the WGBH Foodie blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, in which Cathy explores myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.

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