Pineau fortified wine: its history, how to drink it and best food pairings

If it wasn’t for an inattentive 16th-century wine apprentice we might be without this French fortified wine that is lighter and more delicate than port

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 August, 2017, 6:16pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 August, 2017, 5:38pm

Behind almost every great wine is a great story. The same is true for fortified wines.

Pineau des Charentes is one of my favourite wines, not just to sip – I’ve loved it from the first time I tasted it – but also because of the story behind its discovery.

Pineau is part of the Cognac region in the Charente department of southwestern France. White pineau is made of the same grapes as cognac: ugni blanc, colombard and folle blanche. Red pineau is made from cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc.

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Pineau is the result of a fortuitous mistake made in the late 16th century, when a winemaker’s apprentice poured grape must (unfermented juice containing the pulp and skin of the grapes) into a barrel that he assumed was empty. It wasn’t – it still had some cognac in it. The barrel was aged along with others, and years later, when the winemaker opened it, a delicious concoction was discovered.

Pineau is aged for a minimum of 18 months, with at least eight of those months in oak barrels. Pineau barrel-aged for over five years is called vieux (old), and très vieux (very old) if barrel-aged for more than 10 years. The alcohol content can range from 16 per cent to 22 per cent, with most of them 17 per cent. Cognac, meanwhile, is aged in oak barrels for much longer, and has an alcohol content of 40 per cent on average.

Pineau is considered a fortified wine, but it is very different from port as it is much lighter and more delicate. Pineau, in my opinion, should always be served chilled; white pineau is especially refreshing over ice with a twist of lemon.

How would I describe it? A white pineau is sweet, but not overly so. Its acidity is nicely balanced with juicy, ripe flavours of nectarines, with a taste of gently spiced cooked apple and plum compote. There’s a bit of vanilla ice cream and – dare I say – a hint of orange Creamsicle. A red pineau is also delicious, with more ripe red fruits and a faint whiff of warm fruitcake.

Another plus for pineau is that it keeps for a while (in the fridge) once the bottle has been opened – unlike ports, which are more like wine in that they should be drunk quickly once opened.

What should you eat with pineau? It’s a delicious match with foie gras as an alternative to Sauternes, which I find sometimes to be too sweet and overwhelming. It also goes well with cheese. A mild blue cheese such as bleu d’Auvergne, or young chèvre (goat cheese), are good matches – the former for its saltiness, which acts as a counterfoil, and the chèvre for its mild pungency which gets tamed with a pineau.

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Then of course there’s chocolate. The tannins in a red pineau make the wine a terrific pairing with dark chocolate.