Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Pineau des Charentes

Imagine a night out on the town, walking into a hip club, a couple of lovely gents or ladies at the bar, whatever your preference. It's not too loud and everyone can hear as you, in your super-cool voice tell the bartender "I'll have an apricot schnapps on the rocks." What on earth are you thinking, pal?!?

Apparently if you were to commit the above atrocity, but in Paris, you would ask for a Pineau des Charentes. When I was thinking about writing this post I asked Bert of Wine Terroirs for his thoughts about Pineau des Charentes, and this is what he said:

I'm not speaking for the whole of France but I think it's quite objective to say that Pineau des Charentes is quite out of fashion. It is associated with the image of an older person's drink living in the countryside or rural areas. It is hard to know but I think that this type of drink was selling better in the 1950s' or 1960s'. But I am not in the best position to have an opinion because I haven't had one for years and I generally don't like too much these sweet, high-in-alcohol drinks.
Bert was careful to say that he doesn't speak for the French people, just for himself. But I think Bert speaks for the French people as a whole, so there you have it - Pineau is not terribly popular among the younger set in France nowadays. I remember sitting outdoors at a cafe in the 11th in Paris with BrooklynLady a few years ago and chit-chatting with the guy next to us. The waiter came around to take orders and I asked for Pineau (BrooklynLady and I were about to go have dinner) and this guy just started laughing, like I was some sort of an ape impersonating a man ordering a drink. But I'm here to tell you that Pineau is good stuff, and that anyone who appreciates a nice aperitif should check it out. Pineau wouldn't have lasted for four centuries if it didn't taste good. And here in the US, you don't have to deal with the social connotations of ordering Pineau, as you would in France. Maybe they order apricot schnapps over there...

Pineau des Charentes is made by combining 3 parts freshly pressed grape must (juice, skins, stem fragments - must is what you get when you press grapes) with one part Cognac of at least one year of age. Legend has it that this first happened in 1589, by mistake. A grower didn't realize that the oak barrel already contained Cognac when pouring in the grape must. Five years later a huge harvest required him to empty some barrels to begin aging new wine, and he discovered this lovely new beverage, fresh, sweet, and fruity, somewhat viscous in texture, and with the deep layers of flavor that come with Cognac. Those who got to taste the drink must have liked it, because the recipe has been perfected and Pineau des Charentes, as it is called, has been produced and consumed in huge quantities in France ever since.

Pineau des Charentes is a fortified wine, like Port or Lillet. The alcohol in the Cognac stops fermentation in the grape must, and the natural sugars in are left in the drink. Pineau can be red when it is made from Malbec, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and/or Cabernet Franc, but in the USA it is far more common to see white Pineau, made from a host of grapes including Colombard, Folle Blanche, Ugni Blanc, and Semillion.

The first time I tasted Pineau des Charentes was in France in October of 2006 at a restaurant in Chinon. The house aperitif that night was something built around white Pineau. It was served in a rocks glass with a single square ice cube, and it was just delicious - sweet, perky with acidity, with a really nice perfume. I asked what it was, and all I understood was Pineau. So I decided to buy some when I got home.

Pineau is sweet - no doubt about it, but it can be beautifully balanced if the acidity is there and the depth and body of the Cognac is there too. And here is something that should make you feel pretty good about Pineau: adding sugar to create the sweetness is strictly forbidden. It is only the sugar from the freshly pressed grapes that brings sweetness. In other words, growers must take care with their grapes and work carefully with nature in order to make Pineau. No shortcuts involving booze and bags of Domino.

That said, there are huge Cognac houses that make Pineau, and there are smaller producers whose focus is actually on Pineau, not on using Cognac rejects to make Pineau. These are the ones to taste, if you are curious. Try, for example, Birius, or Normandin-Mercier, Jacques Leteux, or Chevalier de Flourac if you can find them. But there are plenty more - ask and ye shall receive, if you're at a good wine or liquor shop, anyway.

I know that this post is a departure from the usual stuff that I write about, but the other night, a really chilly night, dinner was in the oven, the daughter was in bed, BrooklynLady was puttering around the house, and I felt like an aperitif. Nothing too strong because we would have wine with dinner, but just a little something. And then I remembered the bottle of Pineau I had stowed away. Chilled in the fridge for a half hour...what bright and completely enjoyable nip before dinner. So good that I felt like sharing with you, pal. I'm convinced that this is an under-appreciated drink. Try and see what you think.


Justin S. said...

From Bert's description, it sounds like the Hot Toddy of France.

Very informative post. I will certainly be on the lookout for it. Something different is something good.

Joe said...

there's a blast from the past! My wife and I used to keep a bottle in the fridge for a before dinner sip, but it has been YEARS (ok, I'm not that old). I may just go out and pick up a bottle.

Brooklynguy said...

hi justin - i agree. but i like a hot toddy. i really do. nothing like it maybe twice a year, especially if you have a cold. this is better than twice a year stuff, too, this Pineau.

hey joe - i did and i feel GREAT about it.

Marcus said...

Love it!

Yummy and grapey, but is it fortified wine really?

Brooklynguy said...

hey Dok - no, not technically. it is technically a vin de liquor. but i think of it as i think of Lillet or port or other fortified wines - the fermentation is stopped by the addition of a spirit.

Anonymous said...

Not dating myself but my husband introduced me to Pineau 15 yrs ago and I've been stuck ever since. He was a tastser in south Florida. 8 yrs ago we moved to Atlanta and people thing we are crazy when we say "cognac wine". Since his demise I have had to order from PRP Wines and pick up when i'm in soouth florida because no one can get it here in atlanta. so sad to not have a good thing. Ms. P

Serge the Concierge said...

Hi Brooklyn Guy

Mention your story in my Be a Hipster with Pineau des Charentes, Prize No 3, Menu for Hope V on Serge the Concierge.

Take care

'The French Guy from New Jersey'

Anonymous said...

Hi Brooklyn Guy

Well that might be true for trendy Parisians, but I am from Charente and it is still and I think always will be a favorite in the Southwest of France, regardless of age, though the under-25 crowd probably prefers hard liquor to any form of wine anyway.

I actually just came back from a visit in France (I live in California) and made sure to bring back several bottles for my friends here who have grown to looove my smuggled goods :)

Cryptonite said...

My girlfriend and I fell in love with a wonderful Pineau made by Pierre Ferrand. We have been drinking it for over ten years now and it was our favorite. Sadly, they are no longer producing it. Now we have to find another vintner to substitute. Any suggestions ? I've tried Brillet but it's not as crisp.

Most port drinkers I know love Pineau when I serve it to them. Those of you who normally enjoy dry wine maybe not as much.

One tip for Pineau lovers, the longer you let it sit chilling away in the fridge, the better it gets. I'm talking weeks to months, especially after you've opened the bottle.

Earland F Bradley said...

I have been drinking Pineau for 10 years and two years ago was lucky enough to visit a vineyard that produces Pineau, a Pineau factory as from Frech friend calls it. The owner of this particular "factory" told us that the receipe actually came from an Italian woman that had moved to France? His family has been making it for generations. He also told us that there are about thirty producers and the same amount of receipes. Some is much drier than others and not as sweet.

Unknown said...

I got hooked on this stuff when I was in high school and living in France for a semester. In the almost 40 years since, I've been able to find it only rarely in the U.S., and only in major cities. It seems to be much more readily available in Canada . . . so if you are visiting north of the border anytime soon, make sure you don't miss out on the chance to try it!

Ask for it in most liquor stores in this country and someone invariably points to their selection of Pinot . . . sigh.

Of course, you can also try going into any cafe in France and ordering Byrrh . . . any guesses what you'll get served?

William Widmaier said...

I think the stigma is a Paris only affair, as I have routinly had it in other parts of France, especially the south west, without even a raised eyebrow.
I first tried Pineau when traveling through the Charent region in the early 90s. We toured what we thought was a small family winery, but turned out to be a Pineau maker. We fell in love with the stuff, bought a case and brought it home. While on occasion you can find it in the states, it is rarely as good as the "good stuff" you find in France, especially the 15 and 20 year old bottles - liquid gold!

Unknown said...

Try it after dinner instead of port with cheese or nuts. It's especially toothsome with almonds in any shape or form - with apples or an ice cream dish.

Trust me!

Anonymous said...

If we were dependent on only partaking of what is currently in style, life would be incredibly boring.
Try equal parts Pineau des Charentes and Limoncello (another beverage past its prime)shaken with crushed ice. Serve up in a chilled martini glass or on the rocks with a crushed, fresh, sage leaf. Very refreshing with some added complexity from the sage.

pineau dave said...

I just finished a bottle sitting around in the fridge for 10 years. Brings back fond memories of a stop in Angouleme.
Anyone know where the "white" pineau can be purchased in San Diego CA?? Or do I have to order it on-line?

MarkS said...

My spouse and I travel to France yearly and have spent lots of time all over the county - in both urban and rural settings. From the smallest places in and around Poitou-Charentes all the way to Paris we find generous sections of the apéro aisle filled with various labels of red and white Pineau.

So while I can't speak for the French either, someone's drinking all of that stock besides us few foreigners buying as many bottles as we can carry. :) It really is a great aperitif. I wish it were easier to get the red locally here in St. Louis.

Laurence Costa said...

I like Pinnau, although it does lack that slightly bitter taste that Lillet brings.

Anonymous said...

I had Pineau for the first time while vacationing in the Lescheraines area in the south/east of France. First the white (golden) and then the red. What a surprising taste. We had it after that night often enough until returning to Canada. Tried to find it on the LCBO website, and yes it has been discontinued. I looked up this blog and will try to make it ourselves.

Anonymous said...

Love Pineu, but cannot find it in Ontario canada, so we must try making it ourselves. Had it in France just over the first part of August 2012. Excellent

alpha1six said...

We tried Pineau in a restaurant at the Montreal Olympics in '76. We loved it but the cost of the dinner required that we scalp our remaining Olympic tickets in order to raise gas money to get back to the states.

Of course this was on a college budget, pre-credit cards.

Doug K said...

My wife is from Poitiers in the Charentes region, so I have had this delightful aperitif many times. It may have gone out of fashion in the rest of France, but it is still very popular in the Charentes and Brittany. We usually have it cold with appetizers. An interesting variation is the Pineau Rouge in the hollow of a European cantaloupe. We have always brought back bottles when we visit France, but we are delighted to find that we can buy it here in the US.

JamesBMac said...

My daughter brought me a bottle back from the French Embassy where she works and Pineau became my instant favorite. I wouldn't care if the world laughed at me, I'd drink Pineau anytime. I especially like the earthy quality of the must (grape skins I suppose) that comes through. Delicious.