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Pineau - The Passion of Charentes

Pineau - The Passion of Charentes

You can hardly visit friends in this region without someone pouring a glass or serving a melon-half full of the soft, subtle liqueur that is Pineau. Here, Johnny Keggler, author of the bilingual book ‘Le Pineau, the Passion of the Charente/la Passion Charentaise’ lets us into some of its secrets...

Think ‘Pineau des Charentes’ and you immediately evoke images of warm summer evenings relaxing on the patio with friends, sipping a little tulip-shaped glass of this cool, sweet liquor that relaxes your palate with hints of berries, flowers, nuts and grapes.

A versatile drink, pineau can be enjoyed as an aperitif, drunk during the meal or appreciated as a digestive. Many charentais families begin and end a good meal with pineau - yet pineau is one of the most misunderstood and misrepresented of the charentais’ secrets.

Pineau des Charentais is so named because it is produced in both the Charente and Charente Maritime departments. A relatively small quantity of pineau is also made in the Deux-Sèvres, though it isn’t officially marketed there. The majority of pineau is sold in Charente Maritime, which is no surprise since most of the region’s tourists are naturally drawn to the ocean.

But don’t make the mistake of thinking that the best pineau comes from the Atlantic coast. Many factors determine a pineau’s quality, the most important being the particular taste requirements of the person drinking. Soil composition, the location of the vines, the grape variety, and the age of the eau-de-vie used during fabrication, and even the age and history of the oak barrel have an effect on the flavour and character of the final product. What’s more, each year’s grapes are different, the eau-de-vie is different, and when mixed together, the final product in one barrel won’t be the same as the twenty centimetres away in the barrel. This means that the search for the quintessential bottle of pineau is a magnificent journey that can last a lifetime.


A lucky accident

The legend behind this remarkable drink has been traced back to 1589 when, during a busy harvest, a certain cognac producer had emptied some freshly-pressed grape juice into an oak barrel that contained a small quantity of eau-de-vie. The barrel was put aside and forgotten for a few years until a highly productive harvest demanded use of all available casks. This specific barrel was found and its contents were tasted. To everyone's surprise, the odd mixture of grape juice and eau-de-vie had produced a delicately smooth drink of outstanding character. It was the birth of pineau. Today, pineau production is regulated by the Comité National du Pineau des Charentes. It is also a certified A.O.C. (Appellation d'Origine Controlée) product, registered as a vin de liqueur.

What is pineau?

Grape harvestPineau is made from freshly pressed grape juice and eau-de-vie. Although the ingredient list is simple, the process of making it demands creativity and experience.

It is available in white and red, depending on the variety of grape used. The original grape was the white Folie Blanche, but Ugni Blanc is mostly used today. Colombard, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Montils are also used or even mixed with Ugni Blanc, depending on the specific amount of sugar required for the product.

For reds, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the most popular grapes. Single-grape variety is standard, but mixtures are not uncommon and are often dictated by the producer's assembly requirements or creativity.

The grapes are harvested between late September and early November. They are then pressed and put aside to await distillation. During this time the juice naturally begins - and sometimes completes - the fermentation process on its way to becoming a wine. Distillation can begin in November, though pineau and cognac producers are legally allowed to distil until 31st March of the year following that harvest.

The fermenting grape juice is distilled twice - the first time ('première chauffe'), a rough product of between 25 and 32° alcohol is produced. The second distillation ('la bonne chauffe') concentrates and refines the liquid to around 70° alcohol. This final product, called eau-de-vie, is then poured into oak barrels known as 'fûts' or 'barriques' to begin its journey to becoming cognac.

When he presses the grapes, the producer will allot a certain amount of juice to eau-de-vie production. The remaining grape juice is then assembled (mixed) with one of the producer's eaux-de-vie that is at least twelve months old; older eaux-de-vie can be used according to the producer 's objectives.

This is where the producer's creativity begins to shine: using a young eau-de-vie will create a pineau that is strong when young and that will retain its fruity and flowery flavours into old age, seeming younger and fresher for longer. An older eau-de-vie will give a pineau that is mature at birth and has a deeper colour and slightly heavier flavour. There is no definite length of time that this pineau should age, but it takes colour and nose from the barrel more quickly and can 'turn' (be ruined) at any time. Therefore, an older pineau must be monitored very closely over the years and bottled quickly when at its peak.

The grape variety is also an important factor because the sweeter grapes, such as Colombard, traditionally build a beautifully mellow young pineau, but don't age as well as the more acidic grapes, such as Ugni Blanc. There are another hundred elements that decide how a pineau will be assembled and what the product will be like in three, five or ten years. Often, the producers don't know what they have to work with each year until the harvest; so many decisions are made on the spot.

lt takes passion and love to ensure each batch is the very best it can be, and many pineau producers spend their life nurturing the contents of each barrel to perfection.

The rules of the road

Pineau is a heavily regulated product - much more so than cognac. The pineau committee has strict regulations concerning production techniques, and each pineau is tasted by an oenologist before it receives its AOC certificate.

Any deviation from the exacting standards disqualifies the product from carrying the Pineau des Charentes name. Common deviations include: ageing it in a 'rotten' barrel: using egg whites to filter the pineau during maturation

Jacques Brard

 - the heavy egg whites drag impurities to the bottom of the barrel and make the pineau clear: or adding carbonation. And even though carbonated, or 'champagnised' pineau is very popular: the bottle must be given a different name as it's not truly a pineau.

The pineau committee will anonymously buy a bottle from each producer and test it. In this way, any changes the producer might have effected after the regular oenologist visit will be discovered by a panel of professionals in 'hot' and 'cold' taste tests. First, the pineau is tasted cold to discover what the customer tastes. It is then tasted warm, because at a higher temperature the qualities of the two ingredients (the fruit and the alcohol) separate and any shortcomings are clearly evident to the experts.

As one pineau producer says: 'Pineau is the only AOC product that is pure. When you have a bottled pineau there is nothing else inside. It's just grape juice and eau-de-vie ... and basta!'

The search for a good pineau

Pineau producers have their own secrets and tricks of the trade. Your best bet is to just step in and get involved. When you discover one or two pineau products you enjoy, don't stop searching, but do build a patronage with the producers whose products you like. Take friends and visiting family; you will soon discover that your questions become more selective and the responses more involved - and begin to include more of the family history!

The search for the best pineau is a wonderful journey, which only ends when you decide that you have found the perfect mating of eau-de-vie, grape juice and your taste buds.


Picture: Jacques Brard, pineau producer. 


Originally published in Living Poitou-Charentes magazine. © All rights reserved