We left Bassac two weeks ago and I’m very much missing most everything about France, from the beautiful villages and rolling vineyards, to the extremely affordable and outrageously delicious wine and cheese (next blog). But most of all I miss cognac and pineau des charentes, made only in our region and plentiful in all the local stores.
Every day while living in Bassac we walked the small roads through vineyards used to produce these two drinks where, being winter, a few scattered workers were trimming back the vines, preparing for growing season. The vineyards stretched endlessly over hills toward the horizon and between were small villages, each which contained at least one but often several distilleries producing cognac and pineau.
Pineau des charentes is a fortified wine which is any drink made from mixing a liquor with either wine or raw grape juice. Other famous fortified wines are vermouth, port, sherry and madeira. Like pineau these also come from a very specific region. Originally it’s thought that fortified wines were created to preserve the wine for travel, but they are now quite a delicacy and can be enjoyed as an Apéritifs or digestif and vary in sweetness and alcohol content, though, by definition are always stronger than wine.
I’ve always liked fortified wine ever since I first read Farewell to Arms and tried to be like the narrator by ordering a vermouth in an Italian cafe. Later in college I also discovered that vermouth, over ice, was not only a very cheap and quick way to get drunk at a party, but also quite good. I’m not a huge fan of beer and I love red wine but it can get tiring so this past summer, with our life starting over a bit and moving to Seattle, I was looking for a new drink and asked my friend Jake, acclaimed whiskey maker and connoisseur of fine spirits, what I should try. He suggested sherry, a dry fortified wine from Northern Spain. Jake, of course, was correct – as the long slow Seattle dusk combined with our seasonal obsession with Frasier (fellow sherry enthusiast) made drinking sherry on the balcony a wonderful experience all summer long.
Cognac is a brandy, a liquor made by distilling wine. The first time I had brandy was a few years ago with my friend Ryan. We were laying nets for lobsters late one night floating in a small dinghy at the entrance to San Diego bay and we drank a generically labeled flask of brandy to keep us warm and give us courage to fight off the seals who poached our lobster. Cognac, a brandy made only in a small region of France is decidedly more delicious though equal in its ability to give courage.
Pineau des charentes and cognac are made from the same process: A white wine is made from local grapes and then distilled twice creating the eux-de vie which is 70% alcohol. The wine from the grapes is mostly undrinkable and never used for commercial purposes, but the eux-de vie yielded from this wine is used to create cognac and pineau des charentes.
For cognac, this eux-de vie is transferred into oak barrels and aged for about two years. The alcohol slowly evaporates and the final cognac is around 40% to 50% alcohol. Further aging increases the flavor and most often the cognac is transferred to new barrels to be aged for up to another 40 years.
Pineau des charentes (#2 on Molly’s French grocery store favorites) is made when the eux-de vie is blended with grape juice from the same region to create a drink that is about 18% alcohol. When you visit pineau houses across the Charente area, often the makers will make the pineau with grapes picked freshly from their fields. The chemistry of the eux-de vie prevents the grapes from fermenting at all so pineau is sweeter than other fortified wines which are made with fully or partially fermented grapes. Because all the alcohol comes from the eux-de vie, this also means the pineau tastes quite a bit like cognac.
Like all liquors, wines, cheeses and butters of France, the production, bottling and labeling of cognac and pineau is closely monitored by the Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) which ensures regional and production purity for the consumer. For example, cognac is defined according to these very strict rules:
- It must be made from white wine grapes from one of six adjacent regions in Western France: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bon Bois or Bois Ordinaire. See the map here. Bassac, where we lived, was on the border of the Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne grape regions, not to be confused with the more famous region in Northern France.
- It must be distilled twice in copper pot stills. We saw these all over the place, from the giant ones at the Courvoisier plants to little ones in people’s yards.
- It must be aged in an oak barrel for at least two years and the barrel must come from the Limousin or Tronçais forest.
I liked pineau des charentes mostly in the early evening when I’d grab a good book and read in our little living room while Molly made dinner. (I know, pretty damn sweet, right?!) The pineau is normally served in a smallish wine glass but I like to drink it out of a double shot glass with the bottle nearby for refills. It smells strong, it is sweet and a little syrupy in texture but it finishes strong with a kick from the cognac flavor. It tastes like excellent liquor but keeps you sober enough to read and not make a fool of yourself over the delicious meal to follow. Cognac is normally drunk from a very large and voluptuous glass you can hold in your palm and swirl the liquor around periodically to try and look cool like the Ladies Man. It is best straight or with a drop of water and extremely enjoyable after dinner with a good movie when your wife is cuddled up next to you under a warm blanket.