Pineau des Charentes becomes bartenders' secret weapon in cocktails

Thanks to innovative French producers, this fortified wine is brushing off its dusty image and making a splash with mixologists

Pineau des Charentes is used in cocktails, mixed with fruit juices, tonic, ginger ale, or mint leaves
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People used to say that Pineau des Charentes shouldn’t be mixed or diluted.

“It was served as an aperitif, chilled in a tiny glass. Today, it’s still consumed and most well-known as an aperitif, but now it can be enjoyed in a wine glass with three ice cubes and a citrus twist or even in cocktails.

“I can tell you that bartenders love it!”

Dust off an old-fashioned image

In his Domaine du Chêne, in Saint-Palais-de-Phiolin, a tiny village in the Charente-Maritime department, Jean-Marie Baillif speaks passionately about the mission he gave himself a few years ago, which is starting to yield results.

That was to bring a new dynamic to this fortified wine made in exactly the same geographical area as Cognac, to dust off its somewhat old-fashioned image and to unleash its potential by directing it towards new and innovative flavour ranges, blends, and cocktails.

“The idea was to give this traditional product a modern edge and open up new possibilities,” says Jean-Marie Baillif, one of about 300 Pineau des Charentes producers in the appellation area.

“We’re not the only ones doing this – a noticeable evolution is starting to occur.

“Of course, there are Pineau producers who only make very old high-quality vintages. These producers will carry on. They won’t make cocktails with these wines and they shouldn’t.”

How is Pineau made?

Pineau des Charentes, produced exclusively in both the Charente and Charente Maritime departments, in the Nouvelle Aquitaine region, is based on a curious alchemy: using many of the same grape varieties as Cognac, such as Ugni Blanc or Colombard, it’s obtained by mixing grape must and Cognac, one manufacturing requirement being that these two basic ingredients come from the same estate.

The proportions are about three quarters must to one quarter cognac and the production process is based on a particular technique called “mutage”.

After pressing the grapes, cognac brandy at least 60% alcohol strength and at least one year old is added to the grape must.

This interrupts fermentation of the must, and thus sugar production, which yields an alcohol content of 17 to 18% at the end of production.

Read more: Sugar, yeast, ice, mould - what makes French sweet wine…sweet?

Made in three colours – white, rosé and red – it’s then aged: white Pineau for at least 18 months, including 12 months in oak barrels, and red and rosé Pineau for at least 12 months, including 8 months in oak barrels.

Pineau wines classified as old and very old are aged in oak barrels for at least five and 10 years respectively.

An accidental invention

The origin of Pineau des Charente remains vague but legend has it that around 1589, a winegrower stored his grape must in barrels to ferment it.

By mistake, he forgot that one barrel contained brandy and, a few years later, he discovered the result of this unexpected mixture.

Thus, Pineau des Charentes was born, and for a long time it remained a fortified wine for local familial consumption.

It wasn’t until 1921 that a Charente winegrower decided to market it.

In recent years, there has been a relative decline in production, but today annual sales are stable at around ten million bottles, with 23% exported (Belgium, Canada, USA, Germany).

Most importantly, many producers, encouraged by new consumer trends, particularly the search for refreshing, lighter drinks and the cocktail craze, are revitalising Pineau by adapting to shifting tastes.

‘We had to rethink production after heat wave’

With over 90 hectares of vineyards, the Domaine du Chêne, a family run estate, has existed since 1865 and produces a range of Pineau and Cognac.

The heat wave of 2003 is what prompted its innovative path.

“The summer was extremely dry and hot, giving us very concentrated and overly sweet grape juice,” says Jean-Marie Baillif, who defines himself as a “creator” rather than a “producer” of Pineau.

“So, we absolutely had to rethink production and ageing of our Pineau. We thought we could obtain greater freshness and more beautiful acidity by manipulating, among other things, the blending.

“We make the aromatic notes more complex, and we obtain more sophisticated Pineau, more pleasing to the palate, whether drunk alone or over ice.

“Our Pineau wines are different and we cultivate that difference.”

Read more: How winemakers in France combat the effects of climate change

Asserting difference with rare grape varieties

For Jean-Marie Baillif, another way of asserting that difference is by using old or rare grape varieties.

“This spring, we’ll release the first Pineau on the market made from Folle Blanche,” he says.

“Folle Blanche is a historical grape: before phylloxera destroyed French vineyards, it was used to make Cognac.

“Afterwards, it was replaced by Ugni Blanc. As it was too fragile and sensitive to grey mould-rot, nobody bothered with it anymore.

“Today, thanks to global warming, we can use it. In 2019, we managed to make a 100% Folle Blanche Cognac. Subsequently, we decided to make a 100% Folle Blanche Pineau.”

Along with rare grape varieties – including a 90-year-old merlot blanc – Jean-Marie Baillif also uses unprecedented ageing techniques.

These techniques allow him to create wines such as “Red Oak”, a red Pineau aged in a peated whisky barrel, or a white Pineau aged in a Cognac barrel.

“For the first, we enter the peaty, smoky world of whisky,” says Jean-Marie Baillif. “It’s a great favourite with bartenders. For the second, we have the spirit of Cognac but at 20° instead of 40-45°. It appeals enormously to people who find spirits too strong, especially women.”

Young or old, they come back for more

All these Pineau wines are perfect for new mixology trends.

“Whatever their age, they’re very well suited for cocktails,” says Jean-Marie Baillif.

“In France, we are increasingly collaborating with bartenders. Last year, we sponsored the Trophées du Bar, a national cocktail competition.

“This changes Pineau’s image. When young people taste it, they often think it’s a drink reserved for older people. But when we present it ‘on the rocks’ or in a cocktail, everyone, young or old, comes back for more.”

This approach now seems well established. The Comité National du Pineau des Charentes, the organisation that defends and promotes Pineau, encourages Pineau’s versatility: with foie gras or goat cheese for old or very old whites, for example; or with chocolate desserts for old or very old reds.

As an aperitif, pure over ice or with citrus slices; in cocktails, mixed with fruit juices, tonic, ginger ale, or mint leaves.

Bartender’s secret weapon

Bartenders worldwide are embracing Pineau in cocktails such as the “Pineau Colada” served at Le Rock in New York’s Rockefeller Center, with plum brandy, pineapple juice and coconut cream.

With its unique, delicate balance of freshness, fruitiness, alcohol, acidity and natural sweetness, it has been called the bartender’s secret weapon.

“Pineau is a traditional product with a centuries-old history, but it’s also very modern because it lends itself to all types of consumption,” says Jean-Marie Baillif.

“In any case, cocktail consumption isn’t new. Years ago, in summertime, the elders would drink a ‘fine à l’eau’. They took a Cognac, added a little water and a pinch of sugar.”

He adds: “This gave the Cognac a sweetness that Pineau des Charentes has naturally.”

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