Pineau d’Aunis – a rare red wine from the Loire
Here’s a riddle for you. Q: When is a rare red not a rare red? A: when it’s a Pineau d’Aunis.
What is Pineau d’Aunis?
Occasionally still called Chenin Noir, Pineau d’Aunis is a red grape grown in Touraine in the Loire valley of France. Said to be admired by the Medieval Kings of France and England, some historians allege that there were imports of it to England in 1246 for Henry III, the English Plantagenet King. Building on this, another suggestion is that Pineau d’Aunis was the original “Claret”, a title usually claimed by the reds of Bordeaux. A further claim is that the vine originates from Prieure d’Aunis, a Priory between Saumur and Champigny. So is Pineau d’Aunis the true heir or just a Pretender? These are attractively romantic associations, but recent research suggests that they are merely mythic*.
What is beyond doubt is that this grape was once more widely grown in this part of the Loire, as documents in 1816 confirm. Unfortunately, while known for its quality, Pineau d’Aunis is also tricky to cultivate and susceptible to several disorders, including rot and irregular ripening. Also, if yields are unrestricted, quality drops quickly, which is hardly a useful commercial attribute.
So when Phylloxera devastated the French vineyards in the nineteenth century, subsequent replanting was with more manageable and profitable varieties instead. Cabernet Franc became the red variety of choice.
As far as DNA profiling is concerned, Pineau d’Aunis is unrelated to Chenin Blanc or Pinot Noir. However, while that is proven, it remains an orphan, parentage as yet unknown.
Languishing in obscurity
Pineau d’Aunis languishes in obscurity and has done so for a century and more. It’s permitted in several red and rosé (and even white) appellations in Touraine, Saumur and Anjou. But sadly, that is only ever as a minority and non-compulsory blending partner, whether in still or sparkling wines.
Moreover, because French appellations are geographically named, it’s little wonder that this grape became increasingly obscure. Many have probably drunk it, but without being conscious of the fact.
In 2018 there were 448 hectares of it left**, mainly around the historic town of Tours. Although that figure suggests it’s hardly rare or immediately endangered, the surviving vineyard area is a mere fraction in decline after much was pulled up during the sixties through to the eighties.
Few wineries now have sufficient incentives to make a pure Pineau d’Aunis wine. Those that can are in a tiny minority, most often making rosé in the deeply obscure Coteaux du Loir and Coteaux du Vendômois appellations to the north of Tours.
Outside these, no Loire AOP or IGP enables a 100% Pineau d’Aunis wine. Hence such examples can only be the Vin de France designation. That’s the lowest of the low categorisation, usually associated with cheap (and unpalatable) bulk wines or a few mavericks.
So Pineau d’Aunis has an image problem; it’s either a rare and little-known varietal wine without a prestigious appellation or gets lost in a blend. This commercial vicious circle points towards eventual oblivion.
Fortunately, some producers believe in this variety and in breaking this cycle. Moreover, they have the skills and smarts to do so. One such producer is Les Athlètes du Vin.
Les Athlètes du Vin
Les Athlètes du Vin is a négociant business focused on making and selling wines from the Loire. They are members of a more extensive network of French winemakers called Vini Be Good, a company that’s also part cooperative and part négociant.
The members share a sustainability vision across all aspects of wine growing. All are company shareholders, working together to make and distribute their wines. The grapes are sourced and vinified by various Vini Be Good members, most of which are organic or biodynamic. Combining small quantities from members means they can produce larger economic volumes of quality wines at value prices.
In addition, controlling distribution implies that the producers and their families get a larger share of the profits otherwise taken by intermediaries and supermarkets. So it’s a fair trade for farmers.
Les Athlètes du Vin, Pineau d’Aunis, Vin de France, 2019/2020. 13%
Producing high-quality Pineau d’Aunis depends on low yields, preferably from old vines. Warm vintages are favourable, too, as they encourage even ripening. Ironically, in the last decade, climate change has been beneficial in this respect.
This wine’s organic and biodynamic grapes are from old vines between 50 and 120 years old. As a result, quantities are naturally low while complexity is high. After picking by hand and maceration, a cool fermentation occurs with natural yeasts in stainless steel tanks. This ensures the extraction of colour, aroma and tannins.
Maturation is then on the fine lees in concrete tanks for six months. There’s no fining, no filtering, and a low sulphur regime, resulting in ten thousand bottles. The bottle label is distinctive, too, being one of a series of deceptively simple drawings by French artist Michel Tolmer that grace the Les Athlètes wine range.
This Pineau d’Aunis is reminiscent of Pinot Noir, being dry, light-bodied, and with moderate alcohol and tannins. The bright acidity also brings a welcome crispness. There the similarity ends.
The colour here is more carmine than crimson, similar to the Pantone “colour of the year 2023” called Viva Magenta***. Then there is the spicy character, a hallmark of this variety, primarily with white and black pepper aromas and flavours. The cherry and raspberry fruit has a satisfying kirsch and confit quality. This is also a well-balanced, elegant wine with smooth tannins and a subtle savoury length.
In short, as the label suggests, this wine is a slam dunk!
You could drink this wine on its own, but naturally, it makes for an excellent and versatile food partner. One option is to serve it slightly chilled in summer, as is regular practice with Loire reds. Try it with a plate of charcuterie and a cheeseboard. Maintaining the summer theme, barbecued or grilled food also works well.
However, it also drinks perfectly well in other seasons, for example, as a partner for Guinea Fowl and Duck. Try it with a crispy Chinese duck and pancakes for the upcoming Chinese New Year. This pairing highlights its ability with oriental cuisines.
Available at The Solent Cellar, £13.99
SAS Vini Be Good
50 Rue Marcel Vignaud
Hide-bound traditionalists might dismiss this wine as a bottle of inexplicably expensive wine given the lowly Vin de France category. However, that’s the glass half-empty and their loss.
The reality is that the glass is half full. This wine is a bargain, given the care, quality and sheer pleasure on offer! Moreover, on this evidence, this red grape deserves to become much better known and respected, even fashionable. Could Pineau d’Aunis enjoy a brighter future? Let’s hope so!
* Henri Galinié. (2014) Le Pineau d’Aunis, Recherches sur l’histoire des cépages de Loire. halshs-01081736. This French scholarly work takes 56 pages to debunk these and other fanciful associations. To sum up, never let the truth get in the way of a good story. You can read it here if you want to follow me down this particular rabbit hole.
***Pantone 18-1750 Viva Magenta is rather aptly described as “full of vim and vigour…promotes a joyous celebration.” Meanwhile, perhaps descriptions of wine colour should reference the matching Pantone as a matter of course? Or am I starting another story?