Pineau des Charentes is an enigmatic, fortified wine made of grape must and Cognac eau de vie, hailing from the sleepy, Charentes department of western France. Ms. Franky Marshall is an enigmatic American bartender and spirits educator with a punk rock sensibility — and a rare breed of person actually from New York City — immediately recognizable by her fuschia shock of hair. While Pineau des Charentes and Ms. Franky Marshall may seem like an odd coupling on the surface, their partnership is actually serendipitous.
Marshall’s bartending credits include such legendary New York bars as Clover Club, Dead Rabbit, and Holiday Cocktail Lounge. In 2012, while working at Tippling Bros’ Chelsea Market bar, The Tippler, Marshall’s fated relationship with Pineau des Charentes began.
“I was about to enter a cocktail competition,” Marshall says, “a gin-based one where we had to recreate a classic, and it was one of those things where I turned to the back bar and thought, ‘What can I put in this drink that’s going to differentiate it?’ I saw a bottle in the fridge. … I didn’t know what it was, and that’s why I reached for it.”
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Her reimagining of a classic Martinez cocktail won her the national competition. She went on to win another in short order, again using this relatively unknown spirit for a second lightning strike. It would still be another few years, however, until her relationship with Pineau des Charentes became official.
Despite being known primarily as a bartender and cocktail creator, Marshall insists she has always been about the grapes.
“You know, I wasn’t a big drinker,” she says, recalling her New York City youth. “I’d have a vodka cran, or a Baileys on the rocks, but it wasn’t until I did a year abroad in France when I really learned about wine: how to drink it, and what to look for, and an understanding of the culture.”
“Everything just fell into place, and it was very serendipitous,” Marshall says. “It was not something I planned.” Now she has become the de facto ambassador for Pineau des Charentes in the United States, partnering with Pineau Academy on tastings, demonstrations, and education.
Marshall recently spoke with VinePair about why Pineau des Charentes deserves championing, and what she sees as her endgame in achieving broader Pineau popularity.
1. What moved you to want to help get the word out about Pineau des Charentes?
Well, I had already seen for myself what it could do in cocktails, and of course I was already heavily involved in Cognac. But it wasn’t until 2017 that I got to go over and visit some of the Pineau houses. The thing with Pineau is that it’s traditionally something that people kept for themselves, something to drink on special occasions. So the fact that Pineau producers were initially keeping it to themselves, and that they decided they should start putting it to market, was, I thought, very telling.
For a lot of producers it’s a passion project, or something they do on the side, because this is not the primary source of income for most of the houses that I know of. Generally they’re making other things, or supplying wine or eau de vie to other, larger houses. These aren’t big houses that are making Pineau des Charentes. It really is an artisanal product. It’s made by humble wine growers — and sometimes people that aren’t so humble — but it’s not a big production, industrial product. It is an artisanal product made by local, small producers in the region. And you can taste that in the outcome. It’s something authentic that hasn’t been touched by mass production. There’s nothing added to it; you have your grape must and your Cognac eau de vie, and after at least 18 months in barrel, you have your Pineau.
2. For those not yet in the know, how would you describe its flavor and texture?
Most Pineaus available in the U.S. are white Pineaus. So texture-wise, it’s unctious, it’s got a lot of body, it’s got great mouthfeel, it can be velvety. As for flavor, it’s made from grapes, and you can really taste the grapes of Pineau, which I love. So you’re always reminded where it comes from; it has a true sense of place. There’s never any question in your mind that you’re drinking a grape-based liquid. It is fresh, it is very fruit-forward, and what else is great about it is that it does have acidity. The best Pineaus have this acidity, they don’t devolve into something syrupy or overly heavy on the palate. That acidity is one thing I look for and that’s a wonderful characteristic about Pineaus.
And also, in the region, you can get so many more styles of Pineau that you can’t get over here, and there’s so many smaller producers that are making their own. So if you visit there you have the opportunity to taste something very different.
3. What are some of the ways you’ve already seen the Pineau industry grow since your involvement, and how do you see it evolving or innovating in the coming decade?
Reaching out to someone like myself, and getting the bartender community, the mixologists, and the cocktail community involved was really innovative at the time from a marketing standpoint. Because they could have just kept it as something that was more local, or just exported to a few countries, but the fact that they really thought it was a good idea to get involved with the cocktail community was really savvy. I just hope that more smaller houses and brands get involved and get to be exported over here, and I think that’s something we play a part in, as the trade and as consumers, asking our local importers, our wine shops, “How can I get Pineau, how can I find it, where can I find it?” you know, “We want Pineau!”
I’m almost hesitant to say that the big brands need to get involved. We just need to raise the profile of Pineau, and I don’t know if that means one bigger brand putting out a Pineau, while still adhering to its artisanal production. We just need something to kick it over the edge. So that’s an innovation that hasn’t necessarily happened, but that’s something that hopefully they’re thinking of.
4. As a bartender, how would you describe the way Pineau functions in a cocktail, and what are some ingredients that it harmonizes with especially well?
Pineau can function in so many different ways, whether it’s the base or as a modifier. It can be the seasoning, or it can be the sweetener. It’s very, very versatile, and it really depends on how you like to use it, and what kind of Pineau you’re using: a young white, an older white, a red, a rosé … it really is up to you. Whatever Pineau you’re using there really is a cocktail application, just like anything else we have behind us on the bar or in our well. It’s versatile because of its flavor profile, because of the body it has, it’s natural acidity, and also the ABV. It’s 16 to 17 percent ABV on average, so it’s also a sessionable ingredient. It has that going for it as well. So it can play with other lower ABV products, but it can also play with the higher ABV components as well. I find that it especially works to enhance white spirits, but it really can dance with just about anything.
5. What are some of the challenges you’ve experienced in educating people about Pineau?
Where it goes on a menu, I think, can be problematic for bars and restaurants that carry it, depending on how their menu is organized. I think it’s doing a disservice to Pineau to put it as a dessert wine, as that can be really limiting. First of all, people tend to have an idea that dessert wine is something really sweet, but that’s not the case. It’s really versatile as an aperitif, as an accompaniment to a meal … all the way through! So figuring out where to place it on the menu. Don’t just relegate it to the after-dinner drinks category, either. It can be a dessert drink, absolutely! It can even replace dessert. It’s a cocktail ingredient. It’s a before-dinner drink. It’s a porch sipper. It’s just much more than a dessert wine.
6. What is your favorite way to enjoy Pineau?
I really like it on its own, chilled. I love it as an accompaniment to food, but I also love it as a P&T, which is something I helped popularize. Just check your ratios because I don’t like too much tonic in there. I always encourage people to try it with less tonic first, because you can always add more. About 2 ounces of Pineau, and maybe about 1-1.5 ounces of tonic, with a grapefruit twist and some thyme. The bitterness of the grapefruit and the aromatics of the herbs play really nicely in contrast to the fruit-forward body and voluptuousness, if you will, of the Pineau. And it’s easy to make!
7. What is the best part about your job?
So many things! Everything from being able to be featured in VinePair, to meeting people, to traveling. I love traveling, and being able to travel around the country and around the world, being able to work with great products, being able to educate consumers, and the trade, and still learning a lot myself. I just feel like we’re so lucky, and that’s something that’s changed so much from when I started doing this. We didn’t have the spotlight on us, or all of these opportunities when I first started in the business. So that’s been a really wonderful thing. Because as we saw in 2020, it can really disappear like that. I never took it for granted, but I especially don’t now.
8. At what point do you feel that your work here is done, that you have a sense that you’ve reached as many people as possible?
I don’t really deal with numbers, but for me personally it’s more just seeing it become a ubiquitous ingredient in bars. It’s already in a lot of cocktail bars, but it’s not everywhere yet, and I would love to see it in nightclubs. People can sip this! There are certain wines or spirits that already fit that demand, but Pineau could absolutely be there along with these in a nightclub. I would just love to see it everywhere. It should be de rigueur: You have your other spirits, and you have your Pineau, too. I’ve already seen that a little with people using it more, but it’s still a bit niche. A lot more people know about it since I’ve been working on it, and I’m not saying it’s all about me, some of it is just the time progression. When I first made my cocktail it was 2012, and I know there were a few people who were using it, some people had heard about it, but not many, so we have come a long way. There’s always more. Even the biggest spirit categories are still having to work to try to dominate. I don’t think you’re ever satisfied.