If Pineau d’Aunis is new to you, you’ll discover that it is a wine to make you fall in love again. One of the wonders of wine is its willingness to pander to the restive among us, offering a constant stream of fresh experiences. The discovery of a new grape variety has to be best of them all.
When I say new, I mean new to me, as the varieties in question are not the sort that spring up from a German research centre, bizarrely named to honour their creator (in the unlikely event that I ever hybridise a grape, I promise not to call it Kermode). These particular varieties are usually very old indeed and, by their nature, often esoteric, having fallen out of fashion and flirted with extinction.
Pineau d’Aunis is no exception. Apparently the grape was a favourite of King Henry III, who assumed the throne of England at the age of nine in 1216, and many say it might have been the original Claret, though there are other contenders for this dubious honour. Indeed, to research its origins is to disappear into a rabbit warren worthy of Wine Twitter, albeit with a lot more love.
Thought to have come from the Vendée, Pineau d’Aunis is also known as Chenin Noir, officially has nothing to do with Chenin Blanc (though some devotees insist there’s a connection), has around nine other synonyms and was once reputed to be the Loire’s most popular grape. It almost vanished in the early 1970s, before starting a slow, but steady renaissance. These days, there are 475 hectares of Pineau d’Aunis planted, chiefly in the Coteaux du Loir AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôllée), the Loir, rather confusingly, being a tributary of the Loire (naturellement).
How Pineau d’Aunis has passed me by until now is a mystery. Admittedly a niche grape, growing in the shadow of Cabernet Franc and Chenin Blanc, it is somewhat fickle as a vigorous variety that requires plenty of pruning, is prone to mould and mildew and more sensitive than most to soil conditions; ripening early if there’s too much limestone and late if there’s a lot of clay, it is also susceptible to a nasty little fruit fly. In the winery, it is notoriously tricky to vinify, so perhaps its searing acidity or some stalky tannins have scared away potential admirers.
Beguiling, aromatic and elegant, yet bursting with berries, I fell for its charms
All that said, I think the time of Pineau d’Aunis has come. Why? Well, if you set out to create a variety that satisfied the current thirst for lighter, fresher red wines, without compromising complexity, this would be the result. I can imagine most of the sommeliers I know getting their silver medallions in a twist over this particular grape, not least because of its history, caprice and relative rarity.
There’s no connection, but Pineau d’Aunis actually has a lot in common with everyone’s favourite grape, Pinot Noir – though it is spicier and, dare I say it, easier to enjoy. Beguiling, aromatic and elegant, yet bursting with berries, I fell for the charms of Pineau d’Aunis at the recent Loire Millésime new vintage celebration in Angers – an event that had been postponed two years running due to the pandemic – where a small number of the wines were being showcased alongside examples of my own erstwhile favourite, Cabernet Franc, which is very different in character.
As a red wine, Pineau d’Aunis takes well to a gentle chill and, courtesy of its high acidity and juicy berry fruit, if gently pressed makes an enchanting, mineral-driven and precise rosé – more akin to those emanating from the upper echelons of Provence and, dare I say it, rather better than similar pink-hued wines made from Cabernet Franc.
So, despite having a thousand years of history under its thinnish skin, Pineau d’Aunis is very much a wine for the times: delicate, detailed and deliciously de rigueur. If it has also escaped your attention up to now, then let it enchant you.
WHAT DAVID HAS BEEN DRINKING…
- Coteaux du Loir, ‘Le Rouge-Gorge’, Domaine de Bellivière, 2017 (£29). From grapes farmed using biodynamic methods, Eric and Christine Nicolas use their cool cellar, carved from the local ‘tuffeau’ (a mix of chalk and limestone), to craft a wonderful wine that could be a calling card for Pineau d’Aunis. With an enchanting nose of foraged blackberry, succulent morello cherry, and pepper (both black and white) the fruit is sappy, the tannins supple and the finish fresh and peppery.
- ‘Dancer in Pink’, Black Chalk Winery, 2021 (£19). From England’s new sparkling star, Jacob Leadley, the second vintage of his still rosé, a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Précoce (an earlier ripening cousin) and Pinot Gris, a beautiful wine with refined red fruit charm, a lithe elegance and food-friendly mineral finish.
- Chateau Lafont Menaut, Pessac Léognan, 2018 (£21). Bordeaux’s white wines are so underrated, it’s astonishing to think that until a few decades ago, the region made more white than red. This is a classic example of the modern style, 100% Sauvignon Blanc, bursting with juicy citrus and herbs, fresh and full-bodied, subtly textured and long.