It looked better full. . .
Pineau des Charentes is an interesting aperitif from France that I have only recently tried. It seems to be relatively unknown outside of France. Pineau des Charentes is generally drunk straight rather than being used used in cocktails. However, since I am interested in aperitif wines as cocktail ingredients I picked a bottle up to try it out.
Pineau des Charentes (also known simply as pineau) is said to have originated in the 16th Century when wine must (i.e. unfermented grape juice) was accidentally poured into a cask containing cognac eau de vie. The cognac prevented the must from fermenting and the barrel was set aside as an unfortunate mistake. However, it was found that extended maturation saw the flavors of the wine must and cognac blend to produce a fine drink. Pineau has been a specialty of the Charentes region ever since. The Charentes region seems to be sub-region within Cognac by the way.
The regulations governing production of Pineau des Charentes are quite strict. For a start the product must come from the Charentes region. The grapes used for the must should be Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, Colombard, Sémillon, Sauvignon or Montils. Pressing must be light to ensure the pressed juice is of high quality. The cognac used for blending must be a minimum of one year old, 60% or higher alcohol by volume, and from the same vineyard as the must. According to the Comité National du Pineau des Charentes the finished product must be matured in oak barrels for a minimum of 18 months. Other sources mention minimum maturation of 8 months for red pineau and 12 months for white, so there seems to be some ambiguity on this point. Old pineau can be aged for 10 years or longer. The alcoholic strength by volume must be in the range 16-22%. Most pineau is a blend of roughly one quarter cognac to three quarters wine must, with an alcoholic strength of around 17%.
The vast majority of pineau is either consumed within France or exported to Francophone markets. Less than 25% of pineau production is exported, and over 90% of exports go to Belgium and Canada. In practice France and Belgium together consume almost all pineau production. Canada follows a very distant third, but still consumes several times more than the next largest pineau drinking nation. I am guessing Quebec is the center of Canadian pineau consumption. The French are keeping this one very much to themselves. So enough of facts and figures! It is time to open that bottle and see what the French are hiding. . .
The taste is mild but interesting, and unusual compared to other aperitif wines. No herbal flavors, bitterness or spice leap out at you. There is also little of the matured complexity of aperitif wines like port or sherry. This stuff is simply sweet, full bodied, and extremely ‘fresh’. It tastes like a very fruity wine, but also reminds me strongly of mead (honey wine). It is hard to believe it contains no honey since the honey taste is so strong. There is also some apple aroma, though again no apples were harmed in its manufacture. It has an unusual ‘primeval’ character, reminding me of the opening titles in Werner Herzog’s “Fitzcarraldo”, which describe the Amazon is described as a place where God never finished his creation. Yep, it tastes ‘unfinished’, in a good way. Pineau seems slightly rough-and-ready, with a plethora of interesting aromas that threaten to erupt all over the place and are disinclined to sit still. This stuff should have potential as a cocktail ingredient. I wonder why it isn’t used more?
In terms of mixing I would tend to think (roughly in order of potential) along the lines of cognac (the obvious choice), calvados, rhum agricole, pisco, Cuban rum, and whiskey. Pineapple juice also springs to mind, and perhaps Cynar could be another idea. This is not experience talking. I am just making some guesses as to what might work. I should also note that I did not dream up the rhum agricole angle. I bought a bottle of pineau partly so I could make a rhum agricole drink, the Pompadour, from the Esquire Drinks Database. Lets start with the Pompadour then. . .
1 ½ oz rhum agricole vieux (I used St. James Ambre)
1 ½ oz pineau
½ oz lemon juice
This shows off the characteristics of both the rhum and the pineau. It is weird and unlike anything you are likely to have drunk. It is also fantastic. There is a full on aroma symphony, with the fresh and aromatic characters of both ingredients getting a chance to shine. You should seek out Pineau des Charentes for this drink alone.
Next up are a couple more pineau cocktail recipes I found online. I will include some experimental recipes of my own in a subsequent post. This next recipe is from the website site of a producer of Pineau des Charentes.
2 1/2 oz pineau
½ oz cognac
¼ oz créme de framboise
1 tsp lemon juice
This smooth and tasty refresher is just lightly spiked pineau. The source of this recipe was unclear on whether a liqueur or eau de vie framboise was called for (mentioning both in different places). I did not have an appropriate eau de vie so I went for a liqueur. The lemon juice was added by me as an afterthought to give it some zing since it tasted a bit flat.
The next was something not unlike the above, but with the addition of a dash of pineapple juice and the whole then being brought to life with champagne. Again the recipe was from the website of a pineau producer.
2 oz pineau
½ oz cognac
½ oz pineapple juice
1 dash grenadine
2 oz champagne or sparkling wine
Shake everything except the champagne over ice. Strain into a glass and top with champagne.
A very rich yet slightly lively drink. There are no real surprises but it is most pleasant.
The next recipe was from a French language website – hence a little ambiguity over what liqueur is meant.
1 ½ oz pineau
½ oz gin
½ oz “orange liqueur” (I used Grand Marnier)
Stir over ice and strain into a cocktail glass.
Another “take Pineau des Charentes and spike it with a little hooch” type of drink. It tastes good though. French style cocktails, by which I mean drinks that are heavy on aperitif wines and light on spirits, are tasty. Made with Grand Marnier the drink is rich and smooth. With Cointreau or some other triple sec it would probably be more fresh and fragrant.
I love the way the French can’t help adding London Dry Gin to things. It has to hurt them, right? Something like an “every time you spike your drink with gin, somewhere in the world a DGSE operative in scuba gear dies” kind of thing.
Sorry, I’m unrelenting about the Rainbow Warrior Affair aren’t I? The French are a fine race, and have punched well above their weight in terms of inventing delicious aperitifs. I’ve had better cocktails than this one, but I’ve also had much worse.
In my next post on Pineau des Charentes I will experiment with some recipes of my own.