Meet Miss Ratafia

Alexis Bailly Vineyard
18200 Kirby Ave., Hastings; (651) 437-1413
www.abvwines.com
Hours: 11:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m. Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, June through November

 

Léon the dog is visibly annoyed. From the minute I show up at Alexis Bailly Vineyard, in the flat, flat lands between Hastings and Red Wing, Léon keeps rushing from the winery out into the wrecked winter fields, where he perks his ears and twitches his tail in full-body exasperation.

Michael Dvorak

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Alexis Bailly Vineyard

18200 Kirby Ave.
Hastings, MN 55033

Category: Breweries and Wineries

Region: Outstate

It's probably not the dismal state of the fields that is irritating Léon, though they do look barren. The gray earth is wounded and tractor-gouged; the trellises look like nothing but fences; and most of the grapevines have been laid down on the ground, out of the way of the icy winds being forecast.

No, chances are Léon is only taking in the fact that a yellow half-moon has risen well in advance of suppertime. How many days till his kingdom is reduced to the close area at the end of a lead? Not very many days at all. Meanwhile, Alexis Bailly owner Nan Bailly and her husband Sam Haislet are preparing wine for bottling, intent on the very thing that makes Léon unhappy; the disappearance of grapes from the fields, the vanishing of a summer's worth of activity into casks.

Of course, the very thing that darkens Léon's day is occasion for joy for everyone that Léon encounters--not least me, not least Bailly and Haislet. I'm down at the vineyard on one of the first truly wintry days of the year to get a firsthand look at a wine I'm thoroughly intrigued with, Alexis Bailly's ratafia. Ratafia (ra-ta-FEE-a), is, at Alexis Bailly, a fortified wine made by combining red wine with a long-steeped combination of spirits, oranges, and top-secret spices. Imagine something halfway between a ruby port and a mulled wine, and you'll begin to get the idea. As you pour a glass of the dark purple stuff, you smell oranges, raisins, vanilla, cloves--maybe cinnamon? And this isn't some wine taster's "I say vanilla/You say figs." It's vanilla, it's oranges. Writing this article, I've got a small glass of the stuff near the keyboard, and a finger of the beautiful liquid has perfumed the entire room. It's like a memory of Christmas on the tongue: hot, heavy, and sweet, but not overwhelmingly so, not cloying.

Once you taste Alexis Bailly's ratafia, you never forget it. Once you start experimenting with it, it begins to seem like a miracle potion. It's good right out of the bottle, either as an apéritif or as a dessert wine. With ice and soda it's spicy and summery. Put in a brandy snifter and warmed in the hands, this ratafia releases fumes like an aromatherapy cloud. You can cook with it, like Marcus Samuellson is doing at Aquavit, or Alexander Dixon is doing at the Zander Café (where Haislet is the wine buyer). Reduce it to use in a salad dressing. With garlic it makes a great marinade for chicken or lamb. At Table of Contents they've made a martini of it.

I'm truly embarrassed about my enthusiasm. What next? Does it heal the sick? Enrich the luckless? Fix cranky carburetors? Whether it does or not, this much seems certain: Ratafia is an ancient Old World beverage, and Nan Bailly might well be the only person making it in the New World. "I learned to make this when I was pruning grape vines in the Côtes du Rhône, 20 years ago," says Bailly, a tiny, gray-eyed redhead who can provide quotes while she wrestles oak casks across a room. "A family had befriended me, and in France it's traditional for everyone in the countryside to share an apéritif before the big noon meal. What happens is, everyone gathers in the living room, and has a glass of ratafia as an appetizer--a true appetizer, something to stimulate the appetite, something to warm the mouth for food."

Bailly suspects the tradition evolved from thrift. "I think it just came from that basic impulse not to waste anything," she says. "If you didn't finish a bottle of wine, dump it in the ratafia. If you had orange peels, put them in the ratafia. Add brandy to keep bacteria from growing, and, eventually, there you are. Then it's: The baby has a sore throat. Ratafia! The kids are sick. Ratafia! Time for lunch. Ratafia!"

I did some research on ratafia, and it turns out that there are different versions of it all over France and Spain, and it tends to reflect local agriculture, or enthusiasms. In the Champagne region, it's made exclusively with chardonnay grapes. Where quince grow, it's made with quince. Elsewhere, with almonds, cherries, or cardamom. The name is generally agreed to come from the same root as "to ratify," and it refers to the custom of toasting when treaties were signed or deals concluded. In her recent book From My Chateau Kitchen, Anne Willan says one of ratafia's many virtues was that it could be made safely at home, and was thus immune from taxes.

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