Chilling With Pineau des Charentes
In August, as I’m basting in the New York City heat and humidity, I can’t imagine sipping anything that can’t take an ice cube. Luckily that leaves many choices, but one of my recent favorites is actually a bit of a reacquaintance, a refreshing sipper I first met in my wine retail days, Pineau des Charentes. I was introduced to this unique fortified wine by a friend who had just visited France for the summer, where it had been served to her by her hosts as an apéritif on the rocks. In those days (the early 2000s), there was very little of it on the US market and what was available was tough to find, still considered one of the best kept secrets of Cognac. Now more producers and importers are willing to share the love. It’s delicious neat, with a chill (as you would a wine bottle), in cocktails or with a splash of tonic.
Wine must chiller, qu’est-ce que c’est?
Pineau des Charentes is the result of fresh grape juice added to Cognac eau-de-vie (both share the same territory along the Atlantic Coast of France). The story goes that a late 16th century wine grower accidentally tossed grape must into a barrel containing Cognac eau-de-vie. When it was tapped, the liquid that came out was obviously rather tepid as a brandy, but those who tasted the straw-gold colored mixture weren’t mad at it either. By the early 20th century, the Charentais gave PdC the same focus and skill as that of Cognac, with enough producers stepping up the quality such that it obtained Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée status by 1945.
Under the AOC quality guidelines, the grapes for the juice and the Cognac must all be sourced from the same vineyards. The most traditional PdC is made from white grapes (commonly ugni blanc, folle blanche and/or colombard, though sometimes sémillon, sauvignon blanc and montils), which are pressed immediately after harvest in the early fall. Grapes for the red variety (cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, malbec and merlot) are macerated for several hours before pressing. Next is a blending stage known as mutage, wherein Cognac eau-de-vie that is a minimum of one year old with at least 60% alcohol is added to the fresh grape juice in a 3 to 1 ratio, which stops fermentation. White Pineau is aged for at least a year and a half with a minimum of 12 months in oak barrels; the red is aged at least a year with a minimum of 8 months in oak. The resulting ABV is typically 16 - 17%, and all bottling must occur within Charentes. Good news for all you purists out there: under laws of its quality control nothing can be added to it - no sugar, no coloring, no additional preservatives.
When PdC first came stateside, it was often found on restaurant menus and store shelves in the dessert wine section. While it can certainly do the trick, there is a freshness to it that lends more versatility. Ms. Franky Marshall - who goes by the title Modern Bartender, NY and is a certified instructor on the category - is drawn to its adaptability. “It’s extremely versatile as a cocktail ingredient and works as a base, modifier, and seasoning. It's a fabulous apéritif, a long drink, AND also shines after dinner with dessert.”
Marshall adds another misconception is “... the notion that it's ‘really sweet’. It is indeed fruit forward, but the best Pineau des Charentes can be drunk in place of other wines, because they have acidity to balance them out and are not cloying at all.” After all, like wine, PdC is available as a red, white and even rosé styles, and it matches food similarly. To start off, Marshall makes these suggestions: “Pair a young white with foie gras, an older white with various cheeses, and a red with a chocolate fondant.”
Ones to try
Domaine de la Margotterie Pineau Blanc Tradition: This younger, entry level PdC has a mature attitude, tasting of ripened, baked fruits with a clean, honeyed finish. Here’s one that could do double duty as an apéritif or served with fruit tarts and creamy cheeses. $18
Réviseur Vieux Blanc: Produced at Domaine Abecassis (also home of NY International Spirits Competition medal winners ABK6 Cognac), this is a lively variation (“vieux” indicates it’s aged a minimum of 5 years) with juicy pear and nectarine flavors that finishes with bright acidity. The flavors emerge even more when served chilled or on the rocks, but it is also an excellent cocktail base. Try it with a plate of charcuterie and light tapas. $28
Marshall warns this style of PdC can be harder to find, but worth a bit of searching. She suggests Jean Fillioux Très Vieux Rosé. “This one is a little confusing because they market it as a red, but it says “rosé” right on the label." The age is 10 years, indicated by the "Très Vieux" (Very Old) on the bottle. This expression, best served chilled, can do double duty as an accompaniment to summer fruits and picnic snacks or with chocolate desserts. $30
Chateau de Beaulon 5 Year: Hailing from a picturesque 15th century estate, this pretty elixir tasting of dark berries with a hint of pipe tobacco will please fans of ruby Port, but it’s much less hefty on the palate. This garnet-colored gem is delightful served on the rocks with a citrus twist and could even stand in for vermouth in cocktails. $28
All courtesy Ms. Franky Marshall
2 oz Pineau des Charentes Jeune Blanc
1.5 oz good quality Tonic Water
Add Pineau to ice filled wine glass. Gently stir to integrate. Add Tonic water, stir once more.
Garnish: grapefruit twist and fresh sprig of thyme.
1 drop orange bitters
2 dashes absinthe
.5 oz Génépy des Alpes
1 oz gin
1 oz Pineau des Charentes Vieux Blanc
Add all ingredients to mixing glass. Stir with ice until cold. Strain into Nick and Nora glass.
Garnish: neatly rendered lemon twist expressed into cocktail and placed on side of glass.