Cognac’s been keeping a secret. While the region has long exported its most decorous distillate, there’s a little-known local aperitif it’s sequestered mostly for itself. Meet Pineau des Charentes, a subtly sweet and supremely quaffable baby brandy made by combining unfermented or lightly fermented wine-grape juice, or must, with unaged Cognac and aging it for a minimum of one year (including eight months in oak and sometimes up to more than five years in the barrel) before bottling.
According to Pineau’s (likely romanticized) origins, in the late 16th century, a winemaker in France’s Charente département transferred fermenting wine into a cask he presumed empty, but which actually still held a splash of Cognac eau de vie. He later checked on the wine and discovered the brandy had stopped the wine’s fermentation, while the unfermented wine imprinted the Cognac with an oxidative sweetness. The French have been drinking in the revelation ever since.
White Pineau—made from Charente-grown grapes like Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche and Colombard—is the most common iteration, though red and even rosé versions also make it to bottle. And thanks to distillers like Maison Ferrand, which introduced their version in 1997, and to importers like PM Spirits, which distributes several bottlings in the U.S., stateside enthusiasm is on the rise. “It’s easy to like,” says Nicolas Palazzi, especially those that have aged at least four years, he says. The Brooklyn-based importer behind PM Spirits notes that Pineau’s innate sweetness makes it an easy aperitif to embrace—but one with an intricacy that brings drinkers back for more. “Its layered acidity and oxidative notes are reminiscent of sherry, while its complexity could compete with Sauternes.”
“Everybody can find some reason to love the stuff,” Palazzi adds, whether it’s used as an aperitif, as a digestif or to enhance a cocktail. “It’s pretty rare to find something that complex and easy at the same time.”