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.
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."
Bernard Hine offers a wealth of opinion and advice on pairing a particular cigar with one of his Cognacs, even though he cheerfully calls himself an amateur when it comes to a good smoke. But first, he always analyzes the Cognac itself, drawing out in detail its subtleties and specifics that narrow the choice of cigars.
Hine says that the firm's VSOP is a "Fine Champagne Cognac," which means it is a blend of Cognacs from the region's two highest quality districts: Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne. The average age of the blend is eight to ten years old. According to Hine, the firm's VSOP "shows some character, age and smoothness." After you first take a gentle sniff from a glass, he says the Hine VSOP typically exhibits a certain fruitiness and floweriness on the nose, and these aromas are amplified, after a sip, on the palate. Hine adds that the firm's VSOP is usually consumed with lighter food, enjoyed after a lunch perhaps, and is also very popular in warmer climates. He asserts that as the Cognac is relatively young in age, it's a bit aggressive, but it nevertheless displays a great overall balance on the palate. This is evidenced, he suggests, by its relatively long aftertaste or "finish," a term professional tasters use to describe the duration of flavor after the sip of Cognac is consumed.
As for a cigar to smoke with a Hine VSOP, he recommends a younger cigar, perhaps in a darker wrapper, like a Maduro. The Maduro wrapper--offering some milder, sweeter flavors--would be a fine complement to Hine's fresh, fruity VSOP. He also recommends something like a Cuban Romeo y Julieta Exhibition No. 4, if Cuban cigars are available.
Like its younger VSOP cousin, Hine Antique is also a Fine Champagne Cognac. The average age of the blend is 20 to 25 years old. This Cognac too possesses a great deal of fruitiness, Hine says, but there is on the nose and palate an additional note of rancio, which gives it a certain pungency or nuttiness. (The word rancio is most often used in describing the flavor of Sherry or certain kinds of dessert wines.) There is also a pronounced taste of vanilla, thanks in part to the older age of the Cognacs in the blend, a reflection of their prolonged stay in oak barrels.
Overall, Hine says, "Balance is the best word associated with Antique." The Cognac is appreciated equally by connoisseurs and the "ladies," Hine says. Given the woodsy, rancio flavors of Antique, Hine advises taking the time to really appreciate a good, medium-bodied cigar. He suggests, for example, a Montecristo No. 3 or 4. As a variation, he also proposes a smaller-sized Cohiba, one of the greatest cigars available from Cuba.
Hine is particularly proud of the firm's Triomphe, an extremely old blend of Cognacs that come exclusively from the Grande Champagne district. The average age of the blend is 40 to 50 years old. According to Hine, this rare Cognac displays "how the rancio has developed into a very rich flavor." Among the aromas he finds while nosing the blend are leather, a strong "underwood," or a kind of mossiness or woodsy moldiness, as well as tobacco.
Given Triomphe's extremely complex, spicy and long-lasting flavors, Hine recommends something "a bit more substantial" as far as a cigar is concerned. Again, Hine shows a preference for the Cohiba marque, naming specifically, in order of descending size, the Lanceros, the Esplendidos or the Corona Especial.
For a slight variation on the Cohiba theme, Hine suggests pairing Triomphe with the legendary Cohiba Robusto, a diminutive 5-inch powerhouse of a cigar with a generous 50 ring gauge. (See CIGAR AFICIONADO, Autumn 1992, for a full account regarding Cohiba cigars.)
Hine's Family Reserve is very close to Hine's heart. It is a Cognac which is produced in extremely limited quantities, he says. The Cognac's name takes its origin from the fact that Hine's father and uncle used to "reserve" or set aside small batches of a special blend. The Cognac was strictly rationed for family occasions or for privileged guests who visited the family residence in Jarnac.
Like his father and uncle before him, Bernard Hine continues the family tradition, blending very small quantities of the Family Reserve, as needed. In describing the Cognac, he says, "Family Reserve has the age of Triomphe, with a certain subtleness of Antique." He strives to create something "a little lighter" than Triomphe, but with beautiful elegance. As for savoring a glass of Triomphe, Hine suggests a rich, medium-bodied cigar, but "something not as aggressive" in taste.
Even rarer than the firm's Family Reserve is a line of vintage-dated Cognacs produced by Hine, including the 1914 vintage "L'année des dames," or "The Year of the Ladies." The vintage was produced almost entirely by women, hence the name. World War I had broken out the previous June, and by harvesttime in October, most of the men in the Cognac trade were already mobilized for battle. The 1914 vintage is a very complex but delicate-tasting Cognac, Hine says, and here he makes no specific recommendation concerning cigars, except taking the time to choose something very special.
For all of these suggested Cognac and cigar combinations, Hine underlines the critical importance of time--from having respect for the amount of time required to make these products to taking sufficient time to really appreciate sipping, or smoking, them.
Always persuasive on the topic of enjoying the "good things in life," Churchill once explained to a friend the way to properly savor a Cognac. "Good Cognac is like a woman. Do not assault it; coddle and warm it in your hands before you sip it." Hine would agree.
Looking back at all the elements involved in Cognac, from the region's rich history to the remarkable way it helps prolong a special evening with friends, Hine concludes, "Time is always associated with Cognac."
David L. Ross is the Managing Editor of Impact, a New York-based newsletter that covers the alcoholic beverage industry.