What is this odd wine? Let’s start with the pronunciation – Pineau is pronounced much the same as Pinot but with the second syllable leaning a little more towards “new” than “no”. Charentes is a bit trickier, and the best I can do to describe it as “Shah-rhont”, with the second syllable rhyming with a word somewhere between “won’t” and “runt”.
Charente is located in western France, named for the Charente River. The department’s most famous towns, also on the Charente river, are Angoulême (a regional center for the wine trace) and Cognac (which needs no introduction!)
Pineau des Charentes is a fortified wine that is a popular aperitif in the region but little known beyond its boundaries. It’s produced by blending unfermented (or lightly fermented) grape juice with Cognac, with finished alcohol of about 17%. It’s crafted in two styles – white and red – as determined by the grape juice used. It is aged for at least 12 months in oak, then at least another 6 months (for white) or six months (for red). There is also a very minuscule amount of pink produced as well. Most Cognac producers also craft a bit of Pineau des Charentes. You can find a bottle for sale in the U.S. for anywhere from $20 – $70, depending on how long it’s been aged, the Cognac used, etc.
Serve the wine slightly chilled (about 50 degrees – I don’t recommend serving it on the rocks, as some do) and serve in a sherry glass to amplify the aromas. It’s most commonly served before the meal, and although an aperitif is normally dry, this is an exception. Don’t worry, it does a fine job of tickling the appetite into full force. If serving with or after the meal, an aged version (Old or Very Old are the two classifications) will be far more satisfactory. Serve these higher-end versions just barely chilled – about 60 degrees.
However, as sweet wines go, I Pineau des Charentes to lack sufficient acidity to remain interesting throughout even a modest amount. To illustrate what I mean, think of a refeshing glass of cold lemonade – a perfect balance of sweetness and acidity. If too little sugar is added, the lemonade is unpleasantly puker-producing! But if the sweetness is too high relative to the acidity, the once refreshing drink is reduced to a sweet, cloying beverage.
As a result, I found the best use for Pineau des Charentes to be in mixed drinks. The simplest is to mix an ounce with about 4-5 ounces of sparkling wine and garnish with a long lemon peel.
Simple enough! But cutting-edge bartenders have discovered Pineau makes a great cocktail ingredient and cocktalians will want to have a bottle on hand next to their Salers, Amaro, Vermouth, Pastis and dry Sherry. After testing several cocktail recipes, the one I liked best was the Aquarelle, from bartender Brian Elder at NYC’s The Eddy. Here’s the recipe:
- 1 oz gin
- 1/2 oz Pineau des Charentes apéritif
- 1/2 oz Salers apéritif (high-quality gentiane liquor, about $20 for a fifth)
- 1/2 oz Strawberries muddled with sugar
- 1 oz Fresh lemon juice
- Garnish: Basil sprig
Muddle the strawberries in a double rocks glass, add the lemon juice and then the gin/Pineau/Salers. Top with crushed ice and the basil sprig.