We spirits lovers often tend to forget that the great family of spirits goes below 20°. A drink is considered a spirit when it contains distilled alcohol. After tasting Burgundy, this third step of our Tour de France devoted to grape-based spirits takes Monsieur Baco to Champagne to dip his lips in the ratafia of Dumangin J. Fils.
The origins of ratafia
Ratafia is an aperitif drink made from liqueur wine or macerated fruits produced in many regions and countries.
The word ratafia dates back several centuries and could have different origins. One of them is told by Gilles Dumangin who explains that when the Spanish, Portuguese, French and others settlers set off to explore uncharted territories, they needed vitamin C to prevent scurvy, so the only solution to preserve fruits was to make ‘mistelle’, a mixture of dried fruit and spices macerated in alcohol which was exported to Cyprus by the Crusaders. The exploration of new territories was often accompanied by battles between settlers from different countries. Legend has it that when they made peace, the only alcohol available to them to celebrate the agreements reached was this mistelle, which gradually took on the name ‘ratafia’, a reference to the Creole word ‘ratificare’ or the Latin expression ‘pax rata fiat’ (ratify, make peace, deal done).
The Geographical Indication key features
As always with French food and beverage products, ratafia de Champagne is protected by a Geographical Indication. Here are the main features of the specifications:
- Official names: “Ratafia champenois” or “Ratafia de Champagne”.
- Definition: Spirit drink obtained by flavouring a wine alcohol (wine brandy or marc brandy) with grape must.
- Grape varieties: The three main grape varieties used are Chardonnay, Meunier and Pinot Noir. However, the specifications do not prohibit the use of other grape varieties permitted under the Champagne AOC (Arbane, Petit Meslier, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris).
- ABV: The alcoholic strength by volume must be between 16° and 22°.
- Sugar: the minimum sugar content must be greater than 110g/litre.
- Sulfites: the level of sulphur dioxide must be less than 80 mgr/litre.
- Ratafia Champenois must be aged for a minimum of 12 months before bottling.
- It may be labelled “vieux” (old) after 3 years’ ageing.
- After 8 years of ageing, it may be labelled “Très vieux” (very old).
- Caramel: caramel may be used to adjust the colour.
Ratafia de Champagne began its renaissance in 2008. Before that date, around thirty winegrowers were producing ratafia, whereas today there are between 300 and 450.
Presentation of Dumangin J. Fils
Although Gilles Dumangin comes from a family that has been involved in the world of wine for many generations (13th generation of winegrowers, 5th generation of Champagne winemakers), he didn’t fall into the magic potion vat as a child. After an entrepreneurial career in software publishing in London, he took over the family winemaking business in 2000 after selling his companies. As he had no training as a winemaker, he learned the job hands-on.
Ratafia de Champagne is nothing new to the Dumangin family. Like many winegrowers, Gilles’ grandparents were also ‘bouilleurs de cru’ (French term refering to the right for farmers to have some their production distilled by a distiller) and often mixed the last juice pressed that was not considered good enough to be made into champagne with alcohol to make an aperitif drink. His father also made some for his own consumption.
At the same time, as he was making his first wines, Gilles tasted a colleague’s ratafia champenois, which he liked very much. He also decided to produce and, this time, market it. Ratafia de Champagne thus took on a new importance in the Dumangin J. Fils range.
From ratafia to whisky
But Gilles Dumangin doesn’t just stop at producing champagne and ratafia. In 2017, he also began maturing whiskies in ratafia barrels. Wishing to renew some of his barrel stock (the barrels at the bottom of the pile that had contained ratafia for 15-16 years were starting to lose tannins from being emptied and refilled), he convinced the Welsh distillery Penderyn, which had never sold to independent bottlers before, to sell him whisky. He then sent two casks to Wales. When he decided to send his barrels back to Champagne, he found the results excellent and launched a series of bottlings of whiskies distilled in different countries (Scotland, United States, Australia, France, etc.).
Small quantities of marcs distilled by his colleague Alexandre Moutard are also being aged and will be bottled as soon as they reach maturity.
Located in Chigny-les-Roses on the northern slopes of the Reims mountain, the Dumangin J. Fils estate has around 7 hectares of Chardonnay, Meunier and Pinot Noir vines spread over 29 plots. The soils of the Reims mountains give wines with a beautiful acidity and fruity meuniers.
The vines are cultivated under a HVE system (high environmental value) but in principle, Gilles doesn’t want to engage towards an organic label: he prefers to work as organically as possible until it’s no longer possible. However, no chemicals are added (apart from some sulfites) from the moment the grapes are harvested.
The soil is fully tilled, which means that no herbicides or insecticides are used.
Harvested grapes are transported in small crates weighing around 18 kilos. The cellar is refrigerated to firm up the grapes after harvesting in very hot weather. This helps preserve acidity.
Two Coquard presses, built in 1985-86, are used. They allow almost all the production to be vinified on a parcel-by-parcel basis. Gilles does not blend anything in advance. Stainless steel vats of between 50 and 10,000 litres are used to keep the wines pure until they are blended. Malolactic fermentation was abandoned in 2012 in order to guarantee a fresh, taut, aromatic and biting style.
50% of the champagnes produced by Dumangin J. Fils are rosé champagnes using meunier grapes vinified in red.
While the young ratafias (Finesse, Force, Fruit, Délicatesse cuvées) are aged in stainless steel vats to preserve their freshness and fruitiness, the older cuvées (Craft and Single Barrel) are aged in barrels that have contained red northern Côtes-du-Rhône. Why Rhône wines? One day, Gilles tasted one of the first whiskies on which the maturation was mentioned: a bottle of Glenmorangie Tain l’Hermitage Finish 1978. He promised himself that the day he made spirits in Champagne, he would make spirits aged in Crozes-Hermitage or Hermitage barrels. For the past 25 years, he has only bought barrels from this region. The aim is to have top quality syrah in the barrels before ratafia, and then whiskies in old ratafia barrels.
Most producers use demi-muids to age ratafia. They remove 200-300 liters for bottling and replace them with new ratafia. Gilles, who doesn’t use the Solera system, has barrels dating back to 2002, even though he can’t vintage them. A vintage alcohol cannot contain more than 8% of another liquid. As Gilles prefers to use stronger alcohols for longer ageing (the angels’ share lowering the alcohol content), the proportions make it impossible to vintage.
Gilles Dumangin has the largest stock of old ratafia de Champagne (over 300 barrels). When it comes to ageing whisky in ratafia casks, Gilles points out a number of pitfalls to be avoided. Ratafia is heavier than wine, so it fully penetrates the wood. When you remove the ratafia and add whisky (which is lighter than the ratafia, but heavier than the wine or water), it goes straight to the bottom of the wood and sucks out everything that was in the wood. All the exotic wood aromas come out. That’s why Gilles was surprised to find a scarlet-red Penderyn after a year, which he had to dilute. Ratafia exacerbates the original wood. So you have to be careful about the original wood used in the whiskies that are sourced.
Marketing and spirits ranges
Dumangin J. Fils’ range of ratafia champenois includes 6 expressions (specs sheets):
- Craft (long maturation in wood).
- Finesse (100% chardonnay).
- Fruit (100% meunier).
- Force (100% pinot noir).
- Délicatesse (made with a base of rosée de saignée from the 3 grape varieties).
- An 18 Years Old (Single Barrel Edition 2), which won the “World’s Finest Ratafia Champenois” trophy awarded by the Glass of Bubbly website for the second time running (the previous 16 Years Old Single Barrel was awarded in the 2020 edition).
In terms of whiskies, the range currently includes (specs sheets):
- Caol Ila 9 year old (2013).
- Single Grain Irish Whiskey – Cooley 13 years (2009).
- Craigellachie 13 years old (2007).
- La Piautre 2017.
- Benrinnes 12 years old (2008).
While the family company sold its champagnes exclusively in France before its takeover, Dumangin J. Fils now exports its bottles to 45 countries.
Ratafias can be purchased on this website.
Whiskies are sold in selected partner wine shops.
The samples were kindly provided by the producer. The same tulip-shaped glass was used for all four tastings.
Ratafia Champenois Craft (minimum 6 years), wood-aged MV27, 18° – €28.50 (70cl)
(Tasting at room temperature)
Nose: opens with notes of apricot (dried apricot, apricot jam), rose, red plum and spices (Mexican vanilla, cinnamon). The second ground presents notes of dried fruit (roasted hazelnuts) and waxed wood. Finally, a certain freshness (verbena) balances the nose, accompanied by a touch of light tobacco.
Palate: the attack is moderate, the mid-palate is fairly juicy with notes of dried apricot, peach in syrup, grape and a touch of jasmine. The finish is rather long, with candied fruit and light tobacco. A tangy structure runs through the palate, adding a little tension.
(Tasting after cooling)
Nose: the spiciness comes out more strongly at lower temperatures. A few notes of nougat and milk chocolate with dried fruit filling come through.
Palate: both fuller-bodied and livelier. Tends more towards candied orange, with a slightly shorter finish marked more by dried fruit (sultanas, nuts and roasted hazelnuts).
Ratafia Champenois, Single Barrel, 16 years old (vintage 2004) 1st edition, 18° – 145€ (70cl)
(Tasting at room temperature)
Nose: opens with notes of chestnut honey, gingerbread, toasted bread and biscuits. The background offers notes of coconut and allspice. The background has discreet notes of roasted coffee and dark chocolate with dried fruit filling.
Palate: the attack is moderate. The mid-palate is juicy, with notes of fig, plum, dried apricot, peach in syrup and candied orange. The finish is of medium length, with a hint of dried fruit and verbena. As with the Craft, the palate is slightly acidic, providing some tension.
(Tasting after cooling)
Nose: notes of honeyed gingerbread, a hint of resin that adds freshness (pine sap), toasted coconut.
Palate: a more lush, tangy palate that brings out the candied fruit and citrus notes. A hint of cardamom on the finish.
Comments: What the two ratafias have in common is the fine acidity that keeps the mid-palate lively despite the sweetness. The Craft has a fine balance between the different flavours (candied fruit, dried fruit, tobacco, floral notes). An interesting pairing would be with some ‘nougat glacé’. The extended ageing of the 16-Year-Old gives it a lovely autumnal flavour.
Single Grain Irish Whiskey (distilled by the Cooley distillery in 2009, bottled in 2021), matured for 12 months in ratafia champenois casks, 47.1° – 85€ (70cl)
Nose: opens with a blend of fruit (apples, mirabelle plums) and spices (vanilla, cloves, allspice). With aeration, the fruit becomes more exotic (mango, papaya) and is surrounded by notes of white pepper and camphor. It takes a little time for the maturation in ratafia champenois casks to come through in the background, with notes of candied fruit and macadamia nuts.
Palate: the attack is rather gentle. The oily mid-palate is spicy, with notes of vanilla, camphor and green pepper. The finish is short to medium long, with hints of dried fruit (macadamia nuts, almonds).
Single Malt Scotch Whisky, (distilled by Benrinnes in 2008 and bottled in 2021), matured for 23 months in Champagne ratafia casks, 48° – 104€ (70cl)
Nose: opens with notes of orchard fruit (golden apples, pears) accompanied by bakery notes (brioche) and coconut. With aeration, notes of chestnut honey, mushrooms and sauces (broth, brown stock, yakitori) develop, probably due to the serpentine condenser used by Benrinnes. Notes of pecan, which become increasingly full-bodied, and a hint of herbaceousness (chervil) complete the picture in the background.
Palate: moderate attack. The mid-palate is warm and marked by intense forestry and oxidative notes as well as a great freshness (juniper, sage) that stretches out to a rather long finish.
Comments: on the whiskies side, you can tell that Gilles Dumangin has a real love of the product, because at no point does the maturing in ratafia de Champagne casks mask the identity of the spirits. At most, they underline the fruitiness of the Cooley and reinforce the musky, autumnal character of the Benrinnes. The latter would make an excellent partner for game in sauce.
In conclusion, Gilles’ mastery of maturing and its good value for the price make the ratafia de Champagne and the whiskies matured by Dumangin J. Fils curiosities well worth a visit to the land of bubbles.
In a nutshell
Maison Dumangin J. Fils…
- …grows around 7 hectares of Chardonnay, Meunier and Pinot Noir on the Reims mountain.
- …has the largest stock of old Champagne ratafias.
- …uses old northern Côtes-du-Rhône casks to age its ratafias and old ratafia casks to mature whisky.
- …has twice won the title of ‘World’s Finest Ratafia Champenois’ awarded by the Glass of Bubbly website.