I had a terrific visit yesterday with Cyril Janisson of Champagne Janisson-Baradon et Fils in Epernay, and after tasting a delicious array of champagnes, we finished with his rare, vintage-dated, single-cask ratafia.
Ratafia is grape must that is blended with distilled alcohol, and it’s a very traditional beverage here in Champagne, used largely as an apéritif. The problem is, most of it is completely industrial, made by large, factory-like firms and tasting highly processed and thoroughly commercial. There are a few high-quality examples to be found from small growers, however, such as this fine version by Janisson-Baradon.
The must for this ratafia comes from the rebèche, the final pressing of champagne grapes after the cuvée (the first 2,050 liters) and the taille (the next 500 liters), but it’s made only with the first 100 liters pressed directly after the taille, which Janisson says is the remaining portion that contains the highest amount of sugar. It’s made exclusively of pinot noir and contains no added sugar, just the pressed juice and neutral alcohol. While some producers use marc (alcohol distilled from the pomace, like grappa) or fine (alcohol distilled from wine, like brandy) to make their ratafia, Janisson says, “I want an alcohol as neutral as possible so that it doesn’t mark the taste.” This spends 18 months in a three-year old, 225-liter barrique from Burgundy, and the selection of the “single cask” is something of a jest: “Tom Stevenson asked me, ‘Why did you choose this particular cask of ratafia?’” says Janisson. “I replied, ‘Because it was my only one!’”
This shows exuberant aromas of milk chocolate, dried Chinese plums, Demerara sugar and roasted coffee beans on the nose. The sweetness on the palate balances well against the alcohol and acidity, and the rich texture and depth of fragrance combine to give this a satisfying resonance and grip, finishing with floral, chocolatey length. It would make an excellent alternative to Banyuls or port.
Unfortunately it’s virtually impossible to obtain, as Janisson only made 300 bottles of it, but in 2006 he tripled his production to three whole barrels, so perhaps the next vintage will be a little more commercially viable. Janisson does sell his ratafia at the estate, however, so if you happen to be in Epernay you ought to drop by and buy a bottle.