The Cognacs of Bernard Hine
David L. Ross
Posted: April 1, 1993
It's late afternoon on the Quai de L'Orangerie in Jarnac, a small commercial town straddling the Charente River, which glides gently through the Cognac region in southwest France. Inside his handsome 18th century townhouse, an ancestral home that overlooks the river front quais or docks, Bernard Hine warms a crystal glass containing one of the firm's renowned Cognacs in the palm of his hand. Above him on the mantel, Cognac Hine's trademark emblem, a bronze statue of a stag at rest, peers across the high-ceilinged parlor.
At 53, Hine is a dapper, lively man, who looks like a very fit Hercule Poirot, complete with the sleuth's signature moustache. Acknowledged as one of Cognac's most experienced blenders, Hine must regularly "nose" or sniff dozens of Cognacs of different ages and geographic origins, and, over time, skillfully "marry" them into one blend. It's serious work. But it's work that his family has carried out with passion and dedication through time, a tradition established since Cognac Hine was founded in the late 18th century by Thomas Hine.
The thread of time, and time's significance, dominates Hine's reflections about Cognac's history. "You need time to consume a Cognac. It is a sign of respect," he says, and after a puff on his Montecristo No. 4, he adds the same holds true in appreciating a cigar. "A good cigar is a great pleasure when you have the time and the context to smoke it...after a meal, in the evening, with some good friends."
Hine is sitting in the townhouse's elegant second-floor salon, whose wide-plank oak floorboards gleam softly in the afternoon light. Built in the 1790s, the family residence is practical as well as civilized. Nestled underneath the second floor in the chais or cellars, rest hundreds of oak barrels containing aging Cognac.
Hine says all the great, old Cognac houses first located their offices and cellars on the Charente's riverbank, the region's major waterway to the Atlantic. The two centers of today's Cognac trade, Jarnac, and downriver, the larger town of Cognac, trace their spirituous origins to the mid-16th century, when Dutch traders called on local vintners for supplies of inexpensive wine to "burn" or distill in order to furnish brandy to their growing merchant marine. The word brandy, in fact, is derived from brandywijn or brandwin, a Dutch word which literally translates as "burnt wine." Brandy, simply put, is distilled wine.
Though a few Cognac firms today can trace their origins to the first half of the 1600s, most well-known producers were founded in the 18th and 19th centuries: Martell in 1715; Rémy Martin in 1724; Hennessy in 1765; and Courvoisier, whose founder, Emmanuel Courvoisier, supplied Cognac to Napoleon I in the first decade of the 1800s.
Thomas Hine & Co. can trace its roots in Jarnac to 1763. It was an era, Hine explains, when large barges, called garbares, carried massive brandy casks downriver to the great port cities of Bordeaux and La Rochelle. From there, seagoing vessels conveyed the Charente brandy, as it was initially known, to markets around the world. As exports gained momentum, however, the brandy became universally identified with the city of its origin--Cognac. The brandy might well have been called Jarnac, but dating back to Roman times, Cognac was always a larger, more important crossroads town than its upstream neighbor, so most firms located there.
While all Cognac is brandy, not all brandy is Cognac. The Charente region is an area about 70 miles north of Bordeaux that uniquely combines a soil infused with chalk and clay and a climate moderated by the nearby ocean. The geographic and geological distinctions, in fact, are registered in French law, and all designated Cognacs must come from six clearly defined production areas of the Charente, each graded according to quality. Elsewhere, while brandy producers may utilize identical grapes, distill the wines exactly the way they do in Cognac, and even age the resulting brandy in the same type of oak casks, these brandies simply won't taste the same.
Sir Winston Churchill, a celebrated cigar smoker and a lifetime devotee of Hine Cognacs, intuitively grasped these geographic distinctions, says Hine with a wink of his eye. Recalling an anecdote recorded in William Manchester's two-volume biography of Churchill, Hine recounts that once, when Jan Christiaan Smuts, the South African Minister of Justice, visited Churchill in England for a luncheon at Chartwell, Churchill's country home, the Afrikaner proudly presented Churchill with a bottle of South African brandy. After taking a sip, Churchill commented: "My dear Smuts, it is excellent...But it is not brandy." Manchester continues: "At the end of lunch, after a glass of Port with a plain ice and a ripe Stilton, he [Churchill] greets the appearance of Hine, real brandy, with a blissful smile and the reaming of a fresh cigar."
Like a number of prominent Cognac firms, Thomas Hine & Co. does not own vineyard property itself, nor does it distill any wine. Instead, Hine works with dozens of local growers who distill their own brandies, storing them in barrels at their farms during the first few years of aging. Nearly all Hine Cognacs come from the region's two highest quality districts: Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne, whose soils have a greater proportion of chalk than the other four districts.
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