According to Nicolas Palazzi, in any public gathering, exactly two people will have heard of Pineau des Charentes, "and among them, only one's tasted it." A spirits and wine importer, Palazzi was born in Bordeaux—"on the wrong side of the Gironde River. You could see the guys in the Margaux appellation driving Hummers." Undeterred if Hummer-less, Palazzi fell in love with his own region, and not just for its grand Cognacs. He became enamored of the little-aperitif-that-could, Pineau des Charentes. And with his import business based out of New York, Palazzi's now the foremost Pineau proselytizer on American shores. Good news, right? Except he's ever-so-slightly mad at us.
"Months ago I started to get pissed," Palazzi admitted at a recent Pineau des Charentes tasting at Maslow 6. "I realized nobody knew about Pineau. And I felt that was unfair." Surely that's not our fault, right? According to Palazzi, Europe's kind of hogging the stuff. "Ninety percent of the Pineaux that's made in the Charentes region is consumed in the Charentes region," Palazzi lamented (or accused, depending on your interpretation). The rest heads over to Belgium, which is apparently the target of good-humored French cultural contempt. "Your Canadians are our Belgians," Palazzi said. "They must be bored, because they drink a ton." As in about 80 percent of the Pineau exported out of France. (He calculated that to about four bottles per "living person in Belgium, including women and children, everybody with a heartbeat, standing on two feet.")
So why does America have yet to catch on to the Pineau craze? After all, we love drinking. It might have to do with the fact that, but for guys like Palazzi, most sommeliers and beverage professionals know Pineau only vaguely, as some kind of elegant, stuffy French exoticism, like Sherry, typically misapplied as a dessert wine. So, not entirely unlike our Sherry-loving friend Sean Diggins at Gitane, Palazzi found a new way to present his beverage: education and pairing.
Palazzi's Pineau knowledge, you can tell, runs deep; he geeks out on finding small producers all around the Charentes region. But the formula behind Pineau is actually simple: combine grape juice and (at least) 1-year-old Cognac, then age in Cognac casks and tanks for a minimum of 18 months. This describes only the youngest variety, which is simply called "Pineau des Charentes." The young stuff is fine, says Palazzi; "[it's] fruit-forward, doesn't have much of a finish, but you can get alcohol in your body on a summer day with friends."
What really excites Palazzi—and should excite us—are the two older varieties, Vieux Pineau, which is at least 5 years old, and Tres Vieux Pineau, which even high school French speakers recognize as "Very Old Pineau," at least 10 years old. Although still fruit forward and uniquely acidic, these Pineaux "develop a complexity that has nothing to do with the young stuff." But even in older Pineaux, producers tend to stick with 1-year-old Cognacs, and for a simple reason: "there is no market for Pineau," Palazzi says.
"Small guys making Pineau make more money taking Cognac that could go into Pineau and bottling and selling it [as Cognac] for 40 Euros," he laments. "Instead of using that same Cognac to make Pineau and trying to find somebody who's going to buy the damn bottle for 4 Euros."
Looking to rescue Pineau from obscurity on the dessert wine menu—"it'll just gather dust"—Palazzi is now actively presenting it (like Diggins) as a pairing option. He's had an older white Pineau paired with foie gras at Le Bernardin, the Pineau a sweet, acidic, but sufficiently mature complement to creamy, gamey foie. Where foie isn't available, Pineau pairs beautifully, and consistently, with cheese, supplied at our tasting by Palazzi's cheese counterpart, Seymour Pond. "He does geeky things like me, but on the cheese side," Palazzi says of his cheesy brother from another mother.
We tasted the cheeses—a creamy sweet-salty blue cheese, a 30-month-old Parmigiano, and a Pecorino—alongside red and white Pineaux. White Pineaux can be made with a variety of white and red Charentes-region grape juices, including Sauvignon Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Colombard, Folle Blanche, Semillon, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Cabernet Franc. (Most white Pineau producers tend to use one variety of white grape.) Red Pineau (which is essentially the same as "Rosé Pineau," says Palazzi) can be made with Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Malbec.
Young white Pineaux, typically made with Ugni Blanc, must be aged for a minimum of 12 months in a Cognac cask, followed by six in a tank, before being bottled. Young red Pineaux require only eight months in a cask and four in a tank. The result, as Palazzi promises, is fruity and sweet, but balanced with a bright acid—it's lively, if not lingering. What gives Pineaux its palate staying power is age, and not always intentionally.
The first Pineaux we tasted were actually intended to be sold young, but aged well by accident, Palazzi says. A "Tres Vieux" 20-year-old white Pineau, sold now under Palazzi's Paul Marie et Fils label, was like a lesson in serendipity. At 17.5 percent alcohol by volume (Pineau has to be at least 16.5 percent to keep bacteria from turning the juice into vinegar), this Pineau had a fresh taste and a light mouthfeel with the savor of grape and raisins. Its copper color came from a long period of oxidation, lending some deep prune flavor to the Pineau's characteristic grapiness. The second was also a Paul Marie et Fils, a Merlot-based Pineau with a bronze hue, prune on the nose, balancing muskiness, and a fairly light body. The third Pineau was even rarer, made by one of the "few weirdos who make things the way they believe it should be done," Jacky Navarre. For his Navarre Pineau des Charentes Rosé, Navarre combines the juice of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc with a 6-year-old XO Cognac. The result has ripe apricot on the nose and prune on the palate.
Older Pineaux may have more stand-alone complexity, but that doesn't mean young Pineau, or simply "Pineau des Charentes," should be neglected. At a recent tasting at The Beagle, Mixologist Dan Greenbaum showed how the fruity, balanced acidity of a young Jean-Luc Pasquet Pineau can make a variety of friends behind the bar. Greenbaum, who first tasted Pineau at his aunt's home in France, says he loves it by itself but has as much fun mixing it. "As a component in cocktails, it's great. The sugar in there balances the sour," he says. The residual sugar (all Pineau must have 160 grams) is an added bonus for Greenbaum, who "[tries] not to use simple [syrup] wherever possible. I like to play with stuff that has inherent sweetness," as in Pineau, Sherry, Port, and other fortified wines.
We tasted two cocktails with Greenbaum, Frank Meyer's classic Pompadour, and Greenbaum's The Third Man. The Pompadour was, as ever, an exquisitely simple combination of Pineau des Charentes, Saint James Amber Rhum Agricole, and lemon juice; the result was a bracing, quenching drink that starts with a hint of Pineau's grape, flushed through with the rum's heat, finishing dry, tart, and clean. For The Third Man, a cocktail built around Blue Gin, Greenbaum leaned into the botanicals of the (2 ounces!) of gin with a gentle dose of Suze Gentian—"not quite legal in the U.S. yet; it should be legal in the next weeks"—while the Pineau added a silky, faintly fruity top note.
Like Palazzi, Greenbaum and The Beagle know the best way to sell an underappreciated drink is through pairing. Their Pairing Board puts stuff like Pineau des Charentes next to foie gras (again, a happy couple), although when we visited, the foie dish—seared and served with Marcona almonds, Calabrian chilies, and preserved lemon—was coupled with East India Sherry. "The foie is going to sell itself no matter what," says Greenbaum. Pineau, rightfully, comes along for the ride.
However they're preaching, Pineau clearly has at least a couple backers stateside. And while it's still unclear whether it'll go the way of Mezcal and Chartreuse or fall into spirits obscurity, Palazzi and Greenbaum have done their jobs. So whatever happens, we have only ourselves, and the Belgians, to blame.