My Round: There's one way to toast holiday memories.....

And it doesn't involve souvenir bottles of the local plonk
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Indy Lifestyle Online

Are we still allowed to talk about our summer holidays, or has the back-to-anxiety movement carried us too far forward into autumnal gloom? I hope the topic isn't off limits yet, because I need to make an urgent apology to Pineau des Charentes. I once thought of this drink as a trick that Cognac distillers used for dumping the worst of the year's production. After spending a fortnight very close to the region where it's made, I now realise that it can, in the right hands, be one of the most delightful drinks on earth.

Are we still allowed to talk about our summer holidays, or has the back-to-anxiety movement carried us too far forward into autumnal gloom? I hope the topic isn't off limits yet, because I need to make an urgent apology to Pineau des Charentes. I once thought of this drink as a trick that Cognac distillers used for dumping the worst of the year's production. After spending a fortnight very close to the region where it's made, I now realise that it can, in the right hands, be one of the most delightful drinks on earth.

I hasten to point out that I am not saying this out of misguided motives: the holiday-maker's understandable desire to romanticise summer's cheapo tipple. On a sun-baked beach, some charming rosé or local vin de liqueur tasted sublime; you bought a case; you spent the next year forcing it on everyone in spitting distance. Usually it is not delicious. Usually it is disgusting. But not Pineau des Charentes.

Pineau is a fortified wine made by an unusual method with its own appellation rules (as you would expect in France) and a distinctive character. The method involves stopping the fermentation by adding alcohol before it has had a chance to begin at all. Time limit for adding Cognac to grape: 24 hours. The only permitted alcohol: Cognac with at least one year of barrel age. Alcohol level: between 16.5 and 22 per cent.

This method preserves the character of the grapes, which are picked very ripe and therefore have an embarrassingly luscious sweetness. But the gentle punch of alcohol means you're never in danger of thinking it's just grape juice. And if the two components have knitted well, you're in for a treat. The French drink it chilled as an apéritif (they love sweet aperitifs over there) or with foie gras; on holiday, we drank it with blue cheese as well.

As always, money is the key to success. Cheap Pineau is insipid, raw and nasty. The superior stuff uses better raw materials (duh!) and undergoes a longer period of oak ageing: five years seems to be a good target. The time in barrel will be proudly announced on the label, and believe me, those years are amply repaid in the form of smoothness and fruit/alcohol integration. You have to climb to that higher level before you start enjoying yourself, and in Poitou-Charentes, the climb is painless. What we drank with pleasure cost around €10.50 (£7) as opposed to €6.50 (£4) for the basic beverage. In the UK, where we have to pay for higher transport costs as well as the Chancellor's beloved sin-tax, that means a bottle price at around the £12 to £15 level.

Pineau is not easy to find here. It is a minority interest, probably confined to those who – like me – have spent time engorging their livers in the area of production. But neither is it impossible to find. Some superior wine merchants sell one, possibly lurking at the back of the list among the miscellaneous fortified wines and eaux de vie. Supermarkets can't be relied upon, though everywine.co.uk, the on-line arm of Booths, sells one by the case.

Pineau comes in three forms: white, rosé and red. The rosés and reds may be based on Merlot, the two Cabernets (Sauvignon and Franc) and Malbec, while the whites use the local grapes deployed in Cognac: Colombard, Ugni Blanc etc. Needless to say, this confers an automatic advantage on the red and pink versions, since those varietals are nobler and more characterful. All the local people I spoke to in France said they prefer pink or red, and so do I.

These wines tend to be sweeter than the whites and far fuller on the palate. I think of them as hedonism syrup. You will feel the same way. And I'm not just saying this out of desperation to keep the summer from ending.

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