Sun 17 Jul 2011
Sometimes it’s the regional oddities of the world of wine and spirits that offer the most interest, the most appeal. Thousands of people produce cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay wines, but how many make the anything-but-natural vin doux naturel or the “forbidden” fragolino? The category of intensely, almost jealously regional applies to Pineau des Charentes, a fortified aperitif or dessert wine made in the Cognac region, where the départements — like states in France — are Charente and Charente-Maritime. Pineau des Charentes, simply put, is a combination of young Cognac (it must be at least a year old) and lightly fermented or just about to ferment grape must; with fermentation stopped, the spirit retains the sweetness of the grape juice. By law, the result must age in wooden casks until July of the following year; “Vieux Pineau” classification is awarded Pineau des Charentes that aged at least five years.
What do we make, then, of Pineau des Charentes that matured in cask for 25 years?
Nicolas Palazzi has done it again. The young Frenchman (with an Italian name), based now in New York, haunts ancient cellars in Cognac and exercises his talent for sniffing out old and forgotten barrels, bottling the contents and hand-selling the limited edition products to high-class restaurants, bars and retail shops around the world. Late last year I mentioned his Paul-Marie et Fils “devant la porte” Grand Champagne Cognac, distilled in 1951; Palazzi produced 257 bottles and sold it for $600 a bottle. Now it’s the turn of the Paul-Marie et Fils Pineau des Charentes Tres Vieux Fut #3; about 1,280 bottles are available, and it’s much cheaper than the Cognac.
Paul-Marie et Fils Pineau des Charentes Tres Vieux Fut #3 — “very old barrel, third bottling” — is a beautiful medium amber color; aromas of orange rind and cloves, candied and crushed almonds, toffee and grapefruit marmalade with its peel slowly unfold to reveal hints of chestnut honey, dark chocolate and crystallized ginger. It smells like Scotch, but slightly lighter and more exotic; it feels historic, deeply imbued with an immutable sense of a particular time and place. This Pineau des Charentes is very smooth, very supple, dense and chewy, almost viscous in its combination of sweetness, body and alcohol, and yet there’s an elevating quality about it, an element of lacy transparency to the structure. Marvelous stuff, unique, heady, yet calm and stately. Pineau des Charentes is usually described as a dessert wine, but this was superb, we found, with a piece of a dry Piave Nuda Stravecchio cheese and some of the hazelnut-fig crackers we like. Serve Pineau des Charentes chilled; once open, it will keep in the fridge for a week or so. 17.5 percent alcohol. Exceptional. About $90.
A (very small) sample for review.