After a soul-sapping drive from Le Havre to our holiday cottage near Avignon, I flung open the fridge door, in desperate need of sustenance. There, beside the complimentary Camembert, shining golden in the rays of the fridge light, stood a chilled bottle labelled ‘Pineau des Charentes’; it might as well have read ‘Drink Me’.
As the strong, sweet nectar danced across my tongue I heard, not a choir of heavenly angels, but a chorus of frogs that would gather at the end of the garden every evening of our holiday. They seemed to be singing, ‘You have drunk of the golden elixir, now spread the word of Pineau, for thou art blessed!’ As I said, it had been a long, gruelling drive.
It transpired that I was especially blessed to find a bottle of Pineau this far south, as it is seldom found outside the Charentes and Maritime-Charentes départements (essentially the Cognac region), where it is produced. Even in other parts of France, it’s as rare as hens’ teeth, especially the red/rosé version.
In fact, it was the discovery of Pineau des Charentes while holidaying in Cognac that inspired Sheila and Neil Hornsby to set up drinksoffrance.co.uk, selling French specialities that are hard to find beyond their native regions.
‘We very rarely find anyone who doesn’t like it,’ says Sheila; though I would add that a sweet tooth helps.
What is Pineau des Charentes?
Pineau des Charentes is the vin de liqueur, or mistelle, of the Cognac region, made by adding roughly one-quarter Cognac to three-quarters freshly squeezed grape juice. The addition of strong spirit prevents the grape juice
from fermenting, creating a winning combination of fresh fruit and brandy warmth with a gentle spirit-kick.
Swirl a glass of Pineau and you’ll notice how the viscous liquid runs in rivulets down the inside of the glass; these ‘legs’, as they are known, indicate a fairly high alcohol content, which in Pineau’s case is usually about 17%, similar to that of vermouth.
The style most commonly exported is pale gold, sweet and floral, reminiscent of tinned-peach syrup, rendered uncloying by a spirited kick. In older examples, imaginatively labelled Vieux (five years old) and Très Vieux (10 years old), the spirit mellows and richer prune, cinnamon and almond flavours develop. As it matures, white Pineau turns a dark golden colour with amber highlights, rather like Spice Girl Geri Halliwell.
How is Pineau des Charentes made?
White Pineau is made from the traditional Cognac grapes, Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Folle Blanche, with the occasional inclusion of Bordeaux’s white grapes, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. It is aged for at least 18 months, including 12 in oak barrels.
Red Pineau, which is perhaps fruitier and a little sweeter, is made principally from the red grapes of Bordeaux, namely Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot. It is aged for at least 14 months, eight of which are in oak.
Other vin de liqueurs
Other regional vins de liqueurs include Floc de Gascogne, which is Armagnac’s answer to Cognac’s Pineau, and ratafia, which is made in Champagne and Burgundy by adding young grape spirit to barely fermenting grape juice. Pommeau, a northern French speciality, is a sinful blend of apple juice and Calvados.
How to serve Pineau des Charentes
While it is tempting to drink Pineau des Charentes round the clock, it’s best to limit consumption, as the French do, serving it as a chilled apéritif or with pudding. Drink it chilled or poured over ice.