Like many significant discoveries, Pineau de Charentes, or simply Pineau was discovered quite by chance in 1589 by a local winemaker. According to the legend, the winegrower forgetting that one of the barrels in his winery was not entirely empty tipped wine must into it and left the wine to ferment. To his great surprise when he retrieved and opened the barrel a couple of years later he found a delightfully drink we now know as Pineau de Charente, a blend of grape juice and cognac.
Winemakers kept the original tradition of blending and improved their techniques over the years. As Pineau can only be made where cognac is produced, many cognac producers in the area also make Pineau. Although it is appreciated in France, Pineau is not as well known and not exported as much as cognac.
Pineau de Charentes gained status as Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée in October 1945, the first French liquor wine to obtain registration as a VIN de liqueur. To achieve this AOC guarantee of quality and originality, both the wine and cognac must come from the same estate and vineyard. The year indicated on the bottle of pineau refers to the year of the cognac and not the grapes as these are pressed the same day.
Different Varieties of Pineau
The winters are wet, and with plenty of sea breeze from the nearby Atlantic, it doesn’t get too hot in this part of France. The grapes mature slowly in time for harvesting in September at the end of the summer months.
The choice of grapes will determine the sweetness of the Pineau, and each harvest will be different, factors which producers must carefully consider.
White Pineau, the most common variety of Pineau comes in a variety of color and quality depending on the grapes used and the quality of the soil. The most common grapes used are Ugni Blanc Folle Blanche and Colombards which are pressed immediately after harvesting to ensure sweetness and freshness.
Red and Rose Pineau
For Red and Rose Pineau, manufacturers use merlot noir, cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and Malbec. Unlike White Pineau, it’s important to leave the grapes to macerate for a few hours to develop the desired red or rosé color.
Blending with cognac also known as mutage prevents fermentation and adds sweetness to the grape must. The cognac used for this vital phase must be aged for at least one year and contain 60% alcohol. Also crucial for blending is the producer’s choice of eau de vie: a young eau de vie will not give the same flavor as an older one.
Manufacturers use oak barrels for aging, vital for developing the distinct aroma of Pineau and finesse of the end product. There is no definite time for this, but a skillful cellar master will carefully monitor his barrels.
For the final phase of making Pineau, aging time is not the same for white and red Pineau.
- White Pineau needs at least 18 months, including 12 months in barrels
- Pineau Rosé and Red are allowed to age for 12 months, of which 8 months are in barrels.
For old and very old Pineau, manufacturers prolong the aging period to acquire an even more robust drink: five years for old pineau (vieux pineau) and ten years for very old pineau (très vieux pineau)
The bottling of pineau takes place in the same region, a specification for AOC status.
A Versatile Drink
Stronger than conventional wine white, red and rosé pineau are usually drunk as an aperitif and served chilled but without ice. It mixes well with tonic and fruit juice.
And, like sweet wines (vin doux), pineau goes well with fois gras and desserts.
Sommeliers say storing in a cave is not necessary as unlike conventional wine, once bottled the contents cannot spoil.
Pineau de Charentes might not be wine in the real sense but the grapes involved in the blending come from the same estate allowing the winegrowers and cellar masters to work together with nature to improve their expertise and Pineau de Charente style. This is a real advantage for the producer. They don’t need many ingredients, but the process of making Pineau requires talent and creativity. Once learned,
families can then pass on their secrets, their experience, passion and love for future generations.