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Try making an alternative wine

BURGUNDY, France (Los Angeles Times Syndicate) -- It's that time of year again -- preserving season. Here in Burgundy that means not just jams and jellies, but the serious stuff -- a good shot of home-brewed wine to survive the winter in style. That we can rely on a plentiful supply of grapes goes without saying. We live, after all, in the finest wine district in the world, and most farmers have a row of vines for personal consumption.

And just in case of hail or other natural catastrophe, an alternative crop of cider apple trees is often planted between the vines.


Monsieur Milbert, for instance, who lives at a chateau gate house, will gather a dozen fat sacks of cider apples in a good year. For a month or two, he leaves them to age and start fermenting until, come late November, he scrubs his ancient barrels and rigs up a plastic hose. Then one day the crusher arrives, a contraption hauled by an ancient truck. Juice starts to flow and soon the heady scent of fermentation leaks from the cellar. A happy winter at the gatehouse is assured.

Cider, however, is routine. Monsieur Milbert's great pride is his right to have 18 liters of raw Calvados or apple brandy distilled tax free at the local still. And raw it is, believe me, at 110 proof. Such personal licenses were granted 50 years ago for a lifetime, and only a few remain. Monsieur Milbert is 80 and the license will die with him.

Madame Milbert's tipple is less lethal, though still potent enough. She brews cassis liqueur from the black currants in her garden, a six-month process which has already begun. She picks over the berries, then packs them in crocks and covers them with 90-proof alcohol (available, in this free-and-easy country, in any supermarket). Around Christmas, can you believe it, she cooks this neat alcohol with sugar over the fire for 15 minutes before straining the cassis into bottles. An amazingly dense, sweet liqueur results, which must justify the risk of minor explosion -- she has after all survived unscathed for more than 70 years.

Not to be outdone, I'm fermenting my own personal potion -- an intense, fruity raspberry liqueur brewed from a Russian recipe given to me by our son's girlfriend. It could hardly be simpler. I layer equal weights of sugar and raspberries in a Mason jar, close it loosely so air still enters, and leave the two ingredients to interact. First the sugar dissolves to a glowing crimson syrup, then the raspberries start to ferment, the tiny bubbles lifting the fruit to the top of the jar. I stir every day or two until, after a couple of months, the bubbling stops, showing the alcohol has reached 18 degrees or more. The raspberry seeds and sediment gradually fall to the bottom of the jar, leaving a brilliant, powerful liqueur just in time for Christmas.

All this is amateur stuff. The professionals take things more seriously and there is not a winemaker in the area who does not brew a bit of ratafia on the side for "friends." Ratafia, famous in historical novels as a ladies' drink, was at one time so fashionable that a ratafia cookie (a small almond macaroon) was developed to eat with it. The liqueur is made from fruit juice, cut with a quarter or a fifth its volume of hard liquor. In apple country, the juice is fresh cider and the alcohol is Calvados, while in wine-making areas, ratafia is made from grape juice combined with brandy or marc (grappa). It may be flavored with bitter almonds or cherry pits, spiced with cloves, cinnamon and coriander, and sweetened with sugar or honey.

Ratafia hides behind other names such as Floc and Pineau (used in Bordeaux) and is said to come from the glass downed to celebrate, or ratify, a business agreement. Certainly if you buy wine around here, the bargain will besealed by the offer of a bottle or two of unsealed (and therefore untaxed and illegal) ratafia. "C'est virtuelle", winks a friend. Virtual reality.


The juice from any grapes can be used for ratafia, though a fragrant, sweet variety such as muscat is best.

  • 3 pounds grapes
  • 1 (2-inch) cinnamon stick
  • 3 whole cloves
  • 2 teaspoons coriander seeds
  • 2 to 3 peach pits or 5 to 6 cherry pits, cracked, optional
  • 1/2 bottle Cognac or grappa
  • Sugar, optional

    To extract grape juice, discard stems from grapes and puree grapes in food processor. Work puree through strainer or food mill (there should be about 1 quart juice). With long strings, tie cinnamon stick, cloves and coriander seeds along with fruit pits in 2 pieces of cheesecloth. Pound with rolling pin to crush spices.

    Mix grape juice with Cognac and pour into 2 crock or glass jars. Suspend spices in crock or jars and seal them. (Liquor stops juice from fermenting.) Leave in cool, dark place 4 to 6 months. Ratafia will cloud at first, but eventually a deposit will collect in a mat at bottom of bottle, leaving ratafia sparkling clear.

    Decant ratafia into bowl, leaving sediment behind. To make sure, you can pour it through a coffee filter. Taste and stir in sugar if needed.

    Pour into bottles, seal and keep ratafia in cool, dark place. Flavor improves on keeping. Makes 2 bottles (750 milliliters each) of ratafia.

    (Anne Willan's new book "From My Chateau Kitchen" is published by Clarkson Potter, 2000.)

    (c) 2000, Anne Willan. Distributed by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate.


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