Pineau des Charentes is the sweet, strong 'Vin de Liqueur' of the Charentais (Cognac) region of western France. It is made by adding Cognac eau-de-vie from the previous year's distillation (or older) to fresh grape must of the current vintage.
By law, the must is required to be freshly harvested (although it may have undergone a partial fermentation) and the Cognac must have an alcohol content of at least 60%. The resulting mixture has an alcoholic strength of 16–22% and a sugar content of at least 125g/L. Because the must remains essentially unfermented, it retains all of its 'grapey' flavors and – ideally – the varietal characteristics of the grapes used, which develop over time.
All Pineau des Charentes is aged at the winery for at least 18 months – including 12 months in oak barrels. To earn the right to be labeled as vieux (old), the wines must spend five years or more in oak; the oldest of all are tres vieux, which require a full 10 years in barrel.
Most Pineau des Charentes is white, but there are also red and rose variants. The wines are made predominantly from the classic Charentais grape varieties: Ugni Blanc, Colombard and Folle Blanche, Jurancon Blanc, and the little-known Montils (aka Aucarot and Chalosse). Reflecting the area's proximity to Bordeaux, the appellation laws also permit the use of Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.
The Pineau des Charentes title was introduced in 1945 and has proved a useful outlet for wines not otherwise used for Cognac. The symbiosis between Cognac and Pineau des Charentes is excellent; it allows for both hot vintages (when acid levels may fall too low to be adequate for Cognac) and cool vintages (when the grapes may struggle to ripen sufficiently for use in table wines).