If you say “Pineau” out loud, it sounds like “pinot.” As I looked into my glass filled with a golden yellow liquid, I thought, “This is pinot? Perhaps it is pinot grigio?”
Well, it was neither. It was Pineau des Charentes, simply called “Pineau,” a French aperitif.
Pineau des Charentes, like Port, Madeira and Sherry, is a fortified wine. But, Pineau des Charentes is from the Charente department of the Cognac region in southwestern France.
Pineau was invented “by the people, for the people,” explained Hoke Harden, a Pineau des Charentes brand ambassador.
Pineau is the result of a happy mistake. In the 16th century, a winemaker accidentally poured grape must into a cognac barrel, thinking it was empty. The barrel was put aside to age and when he opened it a few years later, he discovered a delicious clear and golden liquid and Pineau des Charentes was born. Pineau des Charentes acquired AOC status in 1945.
For decades, Pineau was not commercial. It was made for the families to drink. And, if you were from Charentes, that is what you drank. Luckily, Pineau was discovered and has expanded beyond the borders of Cognac. There are approximately 25 brands distributed in the U.S. that we can enjoy.
There is white, rosé and red Pineau des Charentes. White Pineau is made from the grapes Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, Colombard, as well as Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc from neighboring Bordeaux. Red Pineau is made from the grapes Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvginon and Merlot. As no red grapes are grown in Cognac, these grapes come from the Bordeaux.
Pineau is 75 percent fresh grape must and 25 percent Cognac (60 percent ABV) and by law the grapes and the cognac must come from the same estate. Vieux (old) Pineau must be aged for a minimum of five years in oak barrels and Très Vieux (very old) must be aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 10 years.
The alcohol content of Pineau is on average 17 percent. Yes, it is a little boozier than wine, but it can be delicate or rich, sweet but balanced. It is a wine to be enjoyed as an aperitif, paired with food or mixed in a cocktail.
David Ramnoux Pineau des Charentes (17.5 percent ABV) – A Young White Pineau, aged for 18 months, it is made with Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Sémillon and is certified organic. A yellow golden color, it is very aromatic with lively fruit notes of lemon, white peach, as well as honeysuckle and white tea. It is clear, bright and elegant on the palate and can be enjoyed as an aperitif or with foie gras.
Jean Fillioux Pineau des Charentes (17 percent ABV) – Made with Ugni Blanc, this is an Old (Vieux) White Pineau, aged for 15 years. A deep golden color, it has aromas of burnt orange peel and walnut. On the palate, it has darker, richer tones and flavors of almonds, dried fruits and honey.
Château de Beaulon Pineau des Charentes (18 percent ABV) – Made with Merlot and aged for five years, this Old (Vieux) Red Pineau is a deep brown-red color and has fruity notes of ripe dark berries, such as black cherry and blackcurrant.
Reynac Pineau des Charentes (17 percent ABV) – Made from Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Folle Blanche, this Young White Pineau spends two years in barrel. On the nose, there are notes of golden raisins and lime peel and on the palate, the long finish has notes of brown sugar.
Tiffon Pineau des Charentes (17.5 percent ABV) – Made from Cabernet Franc and Merlot, this Young White Pineau may be young but has a more Cognac-like nose, rather than fruit. On the palate, it is delicate but complex with notes of honey, apricot, vanilla and spice.
Bache Gabrielsen Pineau des Charentes (17 percent ABV) – A Very Old White Pineau, aged for more than 15 years, it is made from Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Folle Blanche. It has flavors of dried apricots, nuts and golden-brown sugar and pairs beautifully with caramelized bananas and dark chocolate.
Pineau is a delicious spirited wine that offers variation and flexibility. I know I will be sipping this before dinner, and after!