Ratafía—one of Europe’s oldest spirits—is almost unknown. It dates back to the early 13th century, and it came to life as a way to stop the grape juice from fermenting any further, adding alcohol to keep a certain level of sweetness because the fruit flavors remain fresh for years.
The French Ratafia is produced in the Champagne region, and for the first time in its eight centuries of existence, Ratafia Champenois was recognized—in August 2015—as “Liqueur from Champagne”, with the registration of Protected Geographical Indication (PGI). Producers won a long bureaucratic battle to confirm Ratafia’s origins and traditional preparations making this spirit a highly regarded local drink and boosting its sales around the world.
The three particular grapes cultivated in Champagne are the only ones used to produce Ratafia: chardonnay, pinot noir, and pinot meunier, which laborers harvest with great care to keep the clusters intact—before pressing—to preserve their quality. The pressing is gentle, and the juice is released slowly.
The resulting liquid is mixed with the grape juices and not the Marc (solid residues or fruit skins left after pressing). Afterward, it will age in oak barrels for at least three years, acquiring a particular golden hue with subtle flavors of gingerbread and honey, and aromas of green apples. People drink it mainly as an aperitif with foie gras appetizers, fatty cheeses crusts, and roasted nuts.
Only a few wineries participate in the total production of Ratafia, which is limited to around 15 million bottles a year. No wonder the great writer Alexandre Dumas, huge fan of this ancient spirit, called it a “unique elixir”.
Leading wineries from Champagne, such as Sélèque, Drappier, Henri Giraud, René Geoffroy and Egly-Ouriet, among others, produce great Ratafias. There are other wineries like Champagne Dumangin, Distillerie Jean Goyard and Champagne Julien Chopin, whose vintages stand out especially for valuable organoleptic properties. Their shades range from golden to dark amber, and these wines boast delicate aromas of nuts, herbs—like mint or lemon verbena—as well as fruity notes of plum, ripe cherries, red currants and raspberries, with a background of fragrant crushed cocoa, and hints of wood.
These three Ratafias are blunt for their smoothness and freshness, resulting in a pleasant acidic, balanced drink with a slightly spicy, persistent, elegant and expressive finish.
Ratafia is a real gem that finally has gained recognition and which the magnificent region of Champagne offers to lovers of the most exquisite and great spirits. ■