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A Different Taste of France:
Discovering Pineau des Charentes!

by Mark Rowlee

The French countryside shows a noticable change very soon as you move East from the coast. It is here the area known for its famous Cognac has its Western boundry. It is here you enter the Charente of Western France, rolling countryside with vineyards sharing the hillsides with hectares upon hectares of corn and sunflowers.

Continuing inland from the town of St Jean d'Angely, the vineyards become more plentiful as do the advertisments for cognac-tasting. The hillside vineyards provide the grapes necessary to produce their "nectar of the gods," the "eau-de-vie" as they have for hundreds of years in this unique chalky and gravely soil.

The climate and type of soil in close proximity to the sea create what has been referred to in the region as a "happy accident of Nature." And so the story grows!

It is rumored, in 1589, in the village of Burie, that another delicious accident occurred. A careless distiller mixed nearly-fermented colombar grape juice with year-old cognac. This cask was put aside to age and, voila, four years later, a light-colored, unique drink had evolved...soon to be called Pineau des Charentes.

Today the aging in oak casks continues. The oakwoods used are from the Limousin and Troncais forests and are selected for their hardness and low porosity. The staves are split and seasoned for at least 3-years before being assembled. The age-old techniques of the coopers using fire and water are still in use today.

Some pineau is released after only 3-years of aging and then there is the delight to behold...le tres vieux pineau, which has been aged for 10 to 15-years. The older pineau is the blanc. There is also a rose, a younger and sweeter type.

As it was in the past the perfection of the mixture has continued and has gained in notoriety throughout the region and the rest of France. But its subtle flavors have been slow to reach a wider audience. And just as well. Quality is best maintained through the family operations controlling their own production which was never designed for mass-marketing.

The names of Renaud, Roussille and Cabel are just three of many family-owned distilleries dedicated to quality cognac and pineau in this region. A recent visit to the Roussille estate, in Linars (just East of Cognac), revealed many facts about pineau...but never the family secret.

The Cellar Master, as with Cognac, is the most important contributor to the production of pineau. It is he, they claim, that gives the pineau its unique taste and bouquet. His secrets are rarely entrusted to a mere vault. Rather they are locked away in his head, and are usually passed down to successive generations verbally.

Recipes are so closely guarded that there are many Cellar Masters who actually lock themselves in the distilling area so as to be certain to add the right amount of sugar, grape juice and cognac at just the right time, in just the right quantities and at the right temperature in complete secrecy. The truly dedicated Cellar Master will even sleep here so as to be available to monitor the temperature and other details.

If the head of the family were to die prior to imparting his knowledge, the entire remaining supply of award-winning pineau would become a collector's item, as its quality may never again be duplicated.

Both the formal and informal setting can be appropriate for pineau. On the frequent hot Summer afternoons many locals can be seen enjoying the chilled beverages much as pastis is enjoyed in Provence, many times over a game of petanque.

The Pineau Blanc and the Pineau Rose also make wonderful aperitifs. A glass or two prior to the meal and a fine cognac after make the perfect bookends to a gastronomic delight.

The Blanc as an aperitif goes well with both fois gras or a strong cheese like roquefort. It is generally an even mixture of Ugni-blanc, Colombar, Semilon and La Folle Blanche grapes and produces a mild yet distinctive taste that is as smooth as the honey-colored drink appears.

The Rose, on the other hand, with its fruity taste and hint of raspberries, mixes well with cool melons or fruit salad. And, since it is usually made with merlot and cabernet sauvignon grapes, many light and chocolaty flavors pair well , too. Over ice or highly chilled, enjoy the sweet hint of cognac blended expertly with and sweetened by the delicate flavors of a fine wine.

Difficult to locate in the states but usually available in most fine specialty stores, you will find Pineau des Charantes tastes vary by manufacturer. So varied, it is said, there is a pineau for any taste. Find yours and enjoy it soon!

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