According to wine-making folklore, in 1589, a winemaker accidentally added grape must into a barrel that he thought was empty. In fact it contained eau de vie. The mixture was duly returned to the cellars for fermentation. A few years later, the barrel was retrieved and was found to contain the drink that is now associated with Charente.
Pineau des Charentes is available throughout France, but is less well-known away from Poitou-Charentes region. It is a fortified wine, made from a mix of lightly fermented grapes and cognac. In taste, it is not unlike a fine Madeiran wine, or a high quality light sherry, but it is very distinctive on the palate, and very more-ish. Because of the cognac content, Pineau is a little stronger than conventional wine, and is available commercially at around 17%. The most common form of pineau des Charentes is white, made from white grapes such as Ugni Blanc and Folle Blanche. White pineau is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 18 months. However the red or rosé form is also very popular within the region itself. This is made with red grapes, typically Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Red pineau is aged for a minimum of 14 months.
The annual production of pineau is huge, almost 15 million litres, with about 80% of that being made in Charente-Maritime. Production is controlled under the Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée 'vin de liqueur' classification, though it is not a wine in the conventional sense.
In practice, it is often the case that the same producer grows the grapes, makes the wine and distills it into brandy, presses the fresh grape juice and then blends and matures the result. The geographical zone authorised for the production of Pineau des Charentes AOC is virtually identical with that for cognac, and many of the artisanal producers of pineau also sell their own cognac. Arguably the finest, matured for 5 or 10 years, comes from the Chateau de Beaulon, which also makes a legendary cognac.