In a recent trip to the Charentes-Maritime region of France I had the pleasure to be re-introduced to a friend of old: the lovely apéritif known as pineau de Charentes.
This is a friendship worth developing. Pineau is a sweet fortified wine, golden, subtle and a perfect start to a meal. Unlike many apéritifs you get offered in the French countryside (blended whisky and campari come to mind) it doesn't remove the lining of your stomach or your tongue before you begin your meal. It's sweet without being cloying and, at its best, has a slightly spicy overtone.
In the Charentes region, it is obviously ubiquitous. Not only is it served as an apéro, but it is used extensively - and to good effect - in a number of dishes. In the mouclade, you'll find it delicately blending with cream and mussels. It is also frequently also used like its better known cousin, the port: poured in the center of a delicious melon charentais. The pineau is a versatile little drink, mixing well with fruit, seafood and certain sharp cheeeses: a friend you can take with you just about anywhere.
The origins of my friend go back some five hundred years. According to local legend, it was during the time of Henri IV that a winegrower accidentally poured his fermenting wine grapes into a vat of cognac. Providentially (God looks after these people, doesn't He?) the winemaker did not realize his mistake for a few years, until a bumper crop of grapes necessitated his emptying the vat. When he came to taste it, he realized he was on to a good thing and a new wine was born.
Coming back to a more prosaic plane, what this means is that the producers of pineau ferment a variety of grapes such as Sauvignon and Semillon and stop the fermentation process by adding cognac to the mix. (Don't ask my why - I have yet to find a chemist who can explain!) It is then aged at least 18 months in an oak barrel to reach perfection. The resulting wine is 12 to 16% alcohol, just strong enough to make it a little exciting but not in the chest-hair-growing category.
We were offered a tasting of pineaux of varying ages at a wine shop in Marennes in the Charente, and were given all this information and a lot more. The most common variety is nominally a white (although you can see in the photo above that it varies from golden to a golden pink). The rosé version is, confusingly, nearly the same colour as the golden pink bottle above: the name refers to the pink grapes used, not the final colour of the wine. There is also a red pineau, which is much less thick and sweet than a ruby port.
So successful was this tasting that we walked away with a bottle of the five year old vieux pineau (it will be perfect with Christmas pudding according to the Critic), a jar of pineau jelly and a bottle of a more recent vintage (a perfect Christmas gift for my mother-in-law, who is fond of sweet sherry). Serve your pineau chilled to appreciate its delicate flavours best!
For more information, you can consult the official pineau site at www.pineau.fr. There is a link to download an informational package in English for those who are not proficient in French.