We’ve talked about Kir, but France has other delicious aperitifs. For example, from the French Champagne region comes another local aperitif: Ratafia.
A short back-story to explain why we were so excited to find this:
I remember as a high-school and college student reading historical romance novels, especially by Georgette Heyer, about the times before, during, and after the French Revolution. Her books focused on the nobility of that time, mainly in England, but characters often went to France too. They were times of debutantes, big balls, duels, lots of gambling, and strict social rules about daily etiquette. The men drank mainly brandy while they played cards, as far as I could tell, and the women were allowed a drink called Ratafia. I had no idea what that was, and imagined it was a kind of cooldrink, as women were supposed to be sedate.
Anyway, I moved on with advanced studies and my reading tastes changed and I didn’t think any more about that aristocratic women’s drink.
That is, until we were living in Paris in 2007 and we visited Vezelay for the first time. On our visit to a cave there, we tasted a drink called Ratafia, and my old memories were sparked.
Ratafia is made from unfermented juice of the Champagne grapes mixed with brandy, and then allowed to age in casks for at least a year. We found it delightful, and wish that we could find it more easily in other places. It’s quite common in Reims and the Champagne area (where it comes from), and we have tried it in Beaune at Chateau Pommard, and at restaurants in Beaune. The lady at Chateau Pommard told us that it’s difficult to export Ratafia, especially to the USA, due to some wine import laws. Pity.
It is similar in taste to Pineau des Charentes. Pineau des Charentes is from the Cognac region of France and is also a mistelle, which means a drink produced by mixing fresh grape juice with young cognac brandy. The juice does not ferment because of the high alcohol level of the cognac, resulting in a sweet, fruity aperitif. The alcohol content of ratafia is around 18% by volume, so those fictional aristocratic ladies may not have been so sedate after all!
There’s a legend (which may have a large grain of truth in it) about how Pineau and the other mistelles were born. The story goes, that in the 16th century a vigneron made a mistake and topped up a cask of Cognac with pure grape juice. To his surprise, the juice didn’t ferment. He put the cask aside and forgot about it for a couple of years. When he returned to it, he found a delicious beverage.
Another well-known mistelle is Floc in the Armagnac region. All of them are best if drunk well chilled.