CENTURIES-OLD VIN DE LIQUEUR PINEAU DES CHARENTES PREPARES TO MAKE A BIG SPLASH
by Richard Carleton Hacker/ photos by Josh Freedman
Quick: Think of a fortified wine other than Sherry or Port that’s more widely consumed in its country of origin than it is in the rest of Europe and the United States combined. No, it’s not Madeira, nor is it Muscat or Marsala.
Give up? The leader of this under-the-radar category is Pineau des Charentes, and if the name of this versatile, low-alcohol fortified wine (vin de liqueur) doesn’t naturally roll off your lips, it’s understandable.
“We export Cognac, but we drink Pineau des Charentes,” is a proud saying among the people of the Charente-Maritime départment in France, where this popular yet geographically isolated beverage is made alongside its more well-known peer. In fact, with the Pineau AOC falling into the Cognac region, Pineau des Charentes producers must also be Cognac distillers, as the celebrated eau-de-vie serves as the integral ingredient that halts the wine’s fermentation. It also helps give the vin de liqueur its unmistakable character.
Pineau des Charentes is made by adding eau-de-vie AOC Cognac to unfermented grape juice. Its creation, legend has it, was an accident: According to an oft-told tale, a Charentes winemaker put grape must in a barrel he thought was empty during the 1589 harvest, but the vessel actually still contained some eau-de-vie.
When he went to retrieve the barrel from his cellar a few years later, voila! Pineau des Charentes was born, much to the everlasting delight of the locals: While Cognac has basked in the worldwide spotlight for hundreds of years, the complexities and virtues of Pineau des Charentes have been quietly cloaked in the shadows, where it’s enjoyed only by those living in the adjoining regions of Charente and Charente-Maritime in western France.
According to Pineau des Charentes Ambassador Hoke Harden, however, that may be poised to change. Recently, Harden—who also happens to be a Society of Wine Edu-cators–Certified Spirits Educator—recently lifted the veil covering the many attributes of Pineau des Charentes at a seminar in West Hollywood, California. Held at the award-winning restaurant Lucques, the event was attended by more than 30 top sommeliers and mixologists from the Los Angeles area.
According to Harden, the Charentes region produces two basic types of its proprietary fortified wine: white, which is generally made from the same grapes as Cognac (Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Folle Blanche), and vin de liqueur red or rosé (often used interchangeably) primarily made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc. Reflecting the French penchant for regulation, the Cognac used for this fortified wine must generally be added in a ratio of three parts grape juice or must to one part Cognac, but this proportion can change depending on quality.
Moreover, both the eau-de-vie and the grapes must come from the same estate or vineyard and be made by the same producer. No sugar or other additives can be added to the mixture, and this fortified wine blend—or mutage—must be aged wholly in oak barrels. The maturation time can range from eight months to 20 years or more.
The wines tasted at the seminar included Blanc, which requires a minimum of 18 months of aging, including 12 months in oak; Rouge/Rosé, a category that requires 12 months of aging, including eight months in oak; Vieux, with a minimum of five years of oak aging; and Très Vieux, with a minimum of ten years of oak aging. All end up with an alcohol content between 16–22 percent and are generally priced from $17–$50 (or more for some of the older Très Vieux wines).
“Although these are sweet wines, they may start out sweet and heavy, but they don’t finish that way,” Harden noted during the seminar. “They have a nice, dry finish.” The 18-month-old Pierre Ferrand Blanc, made from Grande Champagne Ugni Blanc grapes, indeed exhibited noticeable fruit upfront—predominantly grapefruit, peach, and plum—while the Château de Beaulon 5 Year Old Blanc had pronounced notes of apricots and honey with a surprisingly spicy finish. In all, the region currently exports 30 brands of Pineau des Charentes.
In many ways, the vin de liqueur is akin to vermouth, as it can be stored for weeks after opening if kept refrigerated. It can also be used as an imaginative cocktail ingredient or served chilled as an apéritif, while the headier rosé and Vieux varieties can make for refreshing digestifs. To be sure, after 429 years, Pineau des Charentes somehow remains a wine just waiting to be discovered.
Tessendier’s Pineau Park ($20) is a white Pineau des Charentes aged between two and four years. Featured grapes include Montils, Colombard, and Ugni Blanc. Bright notes of apricot, fresh fig, and walnut fill the nose and palate.
The 18-month-old Pierre Ferrand Blanc ($29), made from Grande Champagne Ugni Blanc grapes, exhibited noticeable fruit upfront.
Within the Très Vieux category, Bache Gabrielsen Pineau des Charentes is aged 20 years and features grapes like Ugni Blanc, Colombard, and Folle Blanche. This well-matured Pineau des Charentes includes flavors of walnut and dried apricots.
Cognac Normandin-Mercier ($27) is a red Pineau des Charentes made from Merlot. Aromas of hibiscus, Earl Grey tea, and dried cherry are savory and mouth-coating.
Aged for five years and with an ABV of 18%, Château de Beaulon is an old (vieux) Pineau des Charentes made from Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and other grapes. This is a fresh, fruity example of the category with hints of honeysuckle and vanilla. The mid-palate brings in tangerine and dried apricot.
A white Pineau des Charentes aged five years, Réviseur ($30) contains only one grape: Ugni Blanc. This enables it to display the rancio nature that sometimes shows itself in this fortified wine. It conjures the scent of cedar or varnish with aromas of dried raisin.