Pineau des Charentes is a type of aperitif made in the departments of Charente and Charente-Maritime in western France. Other parts of France make aperitifs such as this, with Pommeau, Macvin de Jura and Floc de Gascogne. It is important to note that Pineau des Charentes is not technically a wine - it is made from barely fermented grape juice spiked with an unaged brandy made from grapes grown in the region. It just so happens that the brandy used to make Pineau is Cognac.
During the harvest of 1589, so the story goes, a local winemaker accidentally added grape must to what he thought was an empty barrel. The barrel actually contained some unaged brandy, and this mistake was left to sit in the cellar for a few years. Once the barrel was needed again due to a large harvest, it was emptied and the resulting aperitif was found to be delicious. Pineau des Charentes was granted AOC status on October 12th, 1945, which makes is subject to strict quality requirements. Since 2008, a tasting panel has been required to grant AOC status.
Pineau des Charentes comes in red, white, and rose variants. The white version is made from the grapes typical to the Cognac region: Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, Colombard, Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Montils, Meslier Saint-François, Jurançon Blanc, Merlot Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. Must from those grapes is lightly fermented, then unaged Cognac is used to bring the alcoholic strength up to between 16% and 22% (usually 17%). The resulting young Pineau is aged for a minimum of 18 months, of which twelve must be in barrel.
The red and rose versions require Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon or Cabernet Franc, which is made in the same way and brought to the same strength. Aging requirements here are a bit less, with aging requirements of 14 months, of which eight must be in barrel.
There are also versions of Pineau des Charentes called "Vieux" and "Tres Vieux", which spend five and ten years respectively in used barrels.
Pineau des Charentes has the strong aroma and flavor of the fruit from which is it made, with floral and sometimes honeyed accents that come from the barrel. It is moderately sweet, and can be drunk cool as an aperitif, or with fresh fruit after dinner. Older versions can take on a rancio (sort of sweet and sour old woody) character from the barrel.
Some popular cocktails containing Pineau des Charentes
- Gracie Cocktail — Cognac, Champagne, Pineau des Charentes, Bénédictine, Bitters, Brandied cherry
- Pompadour — Rhum Agricole, Pineau des Charentes, Lemon juice
- Odette — Cognac, Pineau des Charentes, Bitters, Lemon juice, Passion fruit syrup
- Running Up That Hill — Apple brandy, Beer, Ginger liqueur, Pineau des Charentes, Lemon juice
- Soigné — Cognac, Champagne, Pineau des Charentes, Bitters