David L. Ross
From the Print Edition:
Groucho Marx, Spring 93
(continued from page 1)
Hine often acquires many young Cognacs from a number of reliable distillers to age in Hine's own chais. In all, Hine says he works with hundreds of growers and distillers in order to obtain exactly the right mix of brandies the firm requires. Some of these relationships, Hine adds, stretch back several generations to associations his grandfather or great-grandfather established with a particular family.
For all the changes in the Cognac trade during its 400-year history, much remains the same in the distillation, aging and blending of the world's most famous brandy. The process of making Cognac starts in the vineyard, where the crisp, acidic wines, produced most often from St. Emilion grapes, are distilled twice in pot stills. The first distillation brings the brandy to about 28 percent alcohol, while the second round yields a spirit of about 70 percent alcohol. While not all brandies are double-distilled--Armagnac from France's Gascony region is usually produced from a single distillation--the slower double-distillation process removes certain unpleasant-tasting impurities to help yield a smoother, more refined eau-de-vie, which literally means "water-of-life."
Soon after the harvest, a round-the-clock distillation of wines begins. After this distillation stage is completed, the raw brandy is ready to age. Then, depending on the eau-de-vie's origin--that is, from which of the two subregions Hine's brandy was sourced--the spirit is put into hand-crafted barrels, of either Limousin or Troncais oak, although most Hine Cognacs end up in the Limousin variety.
For Hine, this is a critical moment, a first decision in the creation of the firm's particular style of Cognac. He must choose which brandy should go into certain types of oak barrels for proper aging. Indeed, he compares the entire process to raising and educating a child. "A newly born Cognac needs good food, and the good food is good oak." But he hastens to explain that not just any good oak will do; the barrels must be chosen with extreme care. While some eaux-de-vie call for new oak barrels, from which the strong spirit will extract a tremendous amount of tannin and other wood flavorings, other new brandies may be put into somewhat older barrels, so the spirit withdraws a little less tannin. "When we choose a newly made oak cask, we educate the spirit [in a certain way]."
With the aging process underway, Hine carefully monitors the brandy's evolution, regularly sniffing and tasting and studying its development over the years. This is the essence of Hine's work. From now on, he must figuratively juggle dozens of brandies on his palate (and in his memory), nosing or sipping this or that individual Cognac so he can maintain a consistency of taste and style for the firm's entire line of Cognacs.
On this point of style, Hine is absolutely clear. "The art of the blender is to start with many different products and come out at the end with a product which is consistent with a brand or house style." Further elaborating, he adds, "Distillation is important, but more important is the philosophy of the père, of the father." (While almost all Cognac is a blend of eaux-de-vie of different ages and origins, very limited stocks of so-called "vintage-dated" Cognacs are sold commercially.)
In a spotless, clinical-looking tasting room down the hallway from Hine's office, a "library" or collection of samples of brandies currently aging rests on numerous shelves in clear bottles. It's here, where Hine concentrates on nosing and blending the firm's Cognacs. Laughing heartily, he fondly recalls the first time, as young men, he and his cousin, Jacques, were brought into the firm's inner sanctum by their respective fathers, Robert and Francois, who were then codirectors of the firm. (Today, Jacques Hine is a codirector of the firm with Bernard; Robert Hine is now retired; and Francois Hine passed away in 1983.)
Hine remembers his father's simple advice to the novices, "Just remember something, we've been in the business for a little while," facetiously referring to the company's long history. Continuing the brief lecture, Bernard's father urged: "Watch what we do and listen to what we say...Open your ears, open your eyes, but shut your mouth! Try to put everything--our words, your sights--together." Despite the inauspicious start to his apprenticeship, Hine learned his lessons, noting he cherishes his role as a trustee of the house style more than anything else.
Once the different brandies have reached optimum levels of maturity, the blender faces a final but formidable task: to reduce the fiery, high-proof spirits down to their legal, selling strength. Hine says time and natural evaporation--the so-called "angels' share"--help reduce the Cognac's strength. But to complete the dilution process, the blender must carefully weaken the spirit with distilled (purified) water in order to bring it down to its 40 percent selling strength. "Breaking down the blend has to be done over the years," says Hine. "Too much [dilution] over a short time is a shock to the Cognac. You must let the different Cognacs marry."
Some Cognacs must be aged, blended and "married" in a way that will ready them for Hine's VSOP Cognac--which stands for Very Special Old Pale. Under French law, the minimum required aging period for a VSOP Cognac is about four-and-a-half years, although Hine's VSOP contains Cognacs more than twice that age. (If aged for fewer than four-and-a-half years, the Cognac blend must be called VS--or Very Special, while if it is older than six-and-a-half years, the Cognac may be called XO.) Summing up, he says, "There's no secret to making Cognac. It's a question of letting nature do what it has to do. Time is a great factor for us."
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