Cognac is to brandy what Champagne is to sparkling wine, and its prominence is as such that it often overshadows other worthy spirits, e.g. Armagnac from southwestern France, Brandy de Jerez from Spain and Aguardente Vínica from Portugal. Cognac outshines not only its competitors, but in a vinous incident of “friendly fire”, also its little sister – Pineau des Charentes.
Pineau des Charentes is a vin de liqueur from the western départements of Charente-Maritime, Charente and Dordogne. Legend has it that it was invented in the fateful year 1589 – in which the last Valois King of France Henri III was assassinated, succeeded by the first Bourbon King of France Henri IV – when an innocuous (or intoxicated?) winemaker added grape must into a barrel thought to be empty but contained eau-de-vie.
Pineau des Charentes as we know it is made by adding Cognac eau-de-vie from previous vintages – must be at least 60% ABV – to grape must of the current vintage – must be freshly harvested and essentially unfermented – and then matured. The vast majority of Pineau des Charentes are non-vintage; vintage refers to that of the eau-de-vie, not the must, which shows that Cognac remains the princess, and Pineau des Charentes its lady-in-waiting.
Yeasts become inhibited past the 16% ABV mark, and the sudden entrance of eau-de-vie simply stuns and kills them, leaving behind residual sugar. Most Pineau des Charentes are bottled at a uniform 17% ABV and with at least 125g/l of residual sugar, i.e. between a typical German Auslese and Beerenauslese, or equivalent to most LBV ports.
Numerous grape varieties are permitted, e.g. Colombard, Folle Blanche, Ugni Blanc, Jurançon Blanc, Montils, Sémillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. For white, the fortified wine must be aged for at least 18 months (at least 12 of which in oak); for rosé and red, the fortified wine must be aged for at least 14 months (at least 8 of which in oak). Those that have been matured for 5+ and 10+ years in oak may be labelled as “vieux” (old) and “très vieux” (very old) respectively, but these are as rare as they are pricey. Pineau des Charentes does not benefit from cellaring, but keeps well after opening, although not as indestructible as Madeira.
Regions that produce spirits are bound to have occasional shortages and surpluses due to various reasons, be it climatic or commercial. This is why many produce fortified wines as back-up, e.g. Pineau des Charentes from Cognac, Floc de Gascogne from Armagnac and Pommeau from Calvados. With under 2 million bottles produced per year, Pineau des Charentes is pretty much unknown outside of France.
Rastignac Pineau des Charentes NV
Both must and eau-de-vie are made with 100% Ugni Blanc, sourced from the Fins Bois and Bons Bois crus. A Cognac per se, the eau-de-vie was double-distilled in Alambics Charentais (traditional copper pot stills) and aged between 2 and 4 years old, i.e. between V.S. (Very Special) and V.S.O.P. (Very Superior Old Pale) levels. Subsequent to assemblage (blending), the nectar was matured in cellar for at least 2 years.
Translucent mustard yellow with bright golden reflex, the nose is candid and aromatic, effusing mandarin, fig and dried apricot for fruits, augmented by marzipan and maple syrup. With generous acidity and clear minerality, the palate is expressive and spicy, emanating physalis, raisin dried mango for fruits, complemented by gingerbread and caramel. Medium-sweet and medium-full bodied at 17%, the zesty entry persists through a piquant mid-palate, leading to a tangy finish. An extremely versatile drink which can be served before, during or after a meal, with or without food, chilled as a white wine, on the rocks or with soda water as a long drink.
Sample provided by Mr. Leo Ho (email@example.com) of Excelente Group (www.excelentegroup.com), exclusive importer of Rastignac Cognac and Pineau des Charentes (www.rastignac.com).
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Jacky I. F. Cheong is a legal professional and columnist. Having spent his formative years in Britain,
France and Germany, he regularly comments on wine, fine arts, classical music and opera.