It’s not every day that you get the chance to follow a spirit’s journey from crop to bottling. It’s even rarer that this occurs in the sunny and picturesque South-western France. So, when the house of Hine Cognac invited us to visit its Maison in the historic town of Jarnac and learn all about its prized liquid, we jumped at the opportunity.
What is Cognac?
A good question and one we’ll strive to answer quickly and without getting too nerdy.
Cognac is brandy (a grape-based, oak-aged spirit) that is produced (unsurprisingly) in the Cognac region (northern Bordeaux, France). Starting life as a white wine, this is twice distilled in a traditional copper pot still and then aged for a minimum of two years in oak barrels.
Its taste depends on fruit quality, distillation, ageing and a number of other factors, however broadly speaking, it’s sweeter than whisky with dried fruit characteristics and a textural smoothness from its ageing process. Well-known brands include Hennessy, Martell, Rémy Martin and Courvoisier.
Who is Hine?
A Bit of History
In 1791, a young Englishman from Dorset named Thomas Hine sets out to France to learn about his father’s favourite drink, Cognac. After a couple of months spent imprisoned in the Château de Jarnac – to ascertain whether he was an English spy – he is released to go about his business, make the fortunate marriage alliance with Françoise-Elisabeth (daughter of the owner of a Cognac house established in 1763) and go on to give his name to the brand.
Some 250 years on, Hine Cognacs are highly regarded around the world for their refined and complex expressions, as well as their sizeable collection of single vintage Cognacs.
What Makes Hine Different?
Hine strongly believes that it is impossible to have a good cognac without first having fantastic wine, and that terroir is more important than having a strong oak flavour. This is the reason that, even though they only produce 40,000 cases (12 bottles per case) a year, they own 120 hectares of vineyards. To put that into context, Hennessy – 55% of the buyer market – has 200 hectares yet produce 8.5 million cases. Hine’s profusion of grapes mean that, as well as their staple blended range, they are able to produce single estate expressions and regularly release vintage Cognacs that have been aged to perfection before bottling.
“Vineyards are very important to us”, states Hine’s Marie-Emmanuelle Febvret as we stand in the Bonneuil Vineyard, 20 minutes’ drive from the Hine Maison in Jarnac, where plots of Ugni Blanc grapevines alternate with those filled with towering sunflowers.
The journey from the Maison took us from the reasonably flat Jarnac to the gently undulating hills of the premium Cognac region of Grande Champagne, where the rocky chalk and limestone land plays an integral part in Hine’s elegant and focused products. Marie explains that is it a signature of Hine to prioritises the aromas of the fruit and qualities that the terroir of Grande Champagne brings, ensuring that these are not lost to excessive oak ageing.
She goes on to reason that they keep the vines young (20-25 years) in order to preserve their acidity and yield. Once crops reach this age, they are removed and sunflowers are planted to reinvigorate the soil and allow it to rest for three years before the process begins again.
Processing the Grapes
After a bit of wandering through the majestic rows of sunflowers, we about-turn and find ourselves in the courtyard of a warehouse where the harvested grapes are processed and where one of Hine’s barrel cellars sits. Marie theatrically scoffs at “The world’s smallest Sequoia tree”, which the cellar master planted after her request for a “big tree” to preside over the yard, bantering jovially with the staff on hand who have a relaxed and easy pride in their vocation’s domain.
As we enter the warehouse, we are thankful for the shade and learn that cold water running through pipes in the vat room keep the temperature down during harvest so that the wine does not spoil. All harvesting machinery is rented during the season, with a pneumatic pump used to press juices from the grape. This juice is then transferred to huge vats in which alcoholic fermentation takes place over a seven-nine-day period. As sulphites are not used in Cognac, there has to be a quick turnaround between harvest and fermentation.
The 9-10% ABV wine is then sent to the four distillers that Hine works with, after which some four barrels go into the Vintage Cellar to see if they will become exceptional enough for single vintage releases, and the rest are distributed between Hine’s other cellars.
We follow Marie into the next door building where a lot of Hine’s ageing takes place and are greeted by an enfilade of rooms stacked with French oak barrels. Each has been decoratively, hand-inscribed by an 18-year-old student who Marie found on Instagram. The calligraphy announces the Lot number, region, distiller and year of harvest of the liquid within.
“It is interesting to outsource the distillation to different people. The process of distilling stays the same in ways but each person is like a chef and has their own way of doing things”, says Marie. “In this way, people enrich Hine. In Cognac, it is not an advantage to only work with your own distillery.”
After distillation, the new make spirit is 72% ABV. It is then reduced to 60% ABV and put in oak casks. “What we try to do is 30% goes in light to medium toasted new oak for six-months – only 30% as we don’t want to extract too much of the oak flavour – and [the rest] in old Cognac barrels.”
Whilst there is currently no rule within the Cognac appellation that states the houses have to use French oak, it is tradition and one that Hine feels very strongly about. Marie passionately expounds that whilst others want to innovate using different woods, port finishes and the like, Hine seeks to innovate “within the frame of the appellation.” This is done by them through single estate harvests, which they began doing in 2015 to much uproar and doubt from their neighbours, as well as experimenting with ageing their early vintage Cognacs in Bristol and Glenfarclas in Scotland.
St Denis Distillery
We come back out into the courtyard, blinking rapidly as our eyes adjust to the blinding sunshine of this 42°C day. As we hop into the car, Marie instructs us that our next stop will be one of the distilleries they work with, where we will be introduced to second generation distiller, Monsieur Lespinard, and have our first sample of Hine Cognac.
A short drive through the verdant landscape brings us to St Denis Distillery – an attractive building bedecked with creepers and flanked by enormous stainless steel vats. The building inside is immaculate and filled with polished copper taps and piping, stills painted burgundy, and terracotta-coloured brickwork. The entwining of beauty with function perfectly bespeaks the love and dedication that permeates Monsieur Lespinard’s craft.
The man himself is relaxed and welcoming with a gentle humour and palpable yet quiet pride in his work. He potters back and forth, bringing out glassware and nibbles whilst Marie show us around the distillery.
The Distillation Process
We start at the traditional alembic copper pot still where the 9-10% ABV white wine is heated until the vapour rise up the bent Swan’s Neck. “The shape of the neck is very important”, Marie reminds us. “If it is straight, everything will evaporate straight away. When it is like this, the vapour will come back and enrich the liquid. It is interesting to work with different distillers and different pot stills as they all produce different flavours.”
The vapour is cooled and this first distillate at 30% ABV is known as “Brouillis”. This is then put back into the pot still for another 12-hours to create the new make spirit at 72% ABV. The process of separating alcohol from the water in wine is relatively simple, however the art comes in the distiller’s judgement as to when to take the “cuts”.
As the wine is heated, different chemicals or congeners (collective term for both impurities and flavour compounds) will rise with the alcohol vapours at different times depending on their boiling points. Some are wanted as they hold the desired flavours of the grapes and others aren’t. Cuts are made by the distiller to determine when the good flavours are at their highest and the bad flavours at their lowest. This is a difficult process that requires experience and great skill to find that opportune moment to make the final, desired “heart” cut.
“Hine is small so we can do [cuts] litre by litre. The big houses can’t do this. We cut and cut and cut…it’s bad and then suddenly it’s good! If you cut roughly, you might get rid of 15 good litres. We have more precision so less waste of the good stuff and we can cut out the bad better.”
Monsieur Lespinard siphons off a small taster of the 72% ABV new make for us to tentatively nose and sip. What is so striking about the white spirit is its freshness and fruitiness. “This”, Marie announces, “is what we want to keep even when it has been aged in wood”.
Our distillery visit concluded and after a surprisingly innovative and exceptionally well-priced lunch at Poulpette (read full restaurant review here), we head back to Maison Hine for a tour of their Historic Cellar underneath the 18th century property.
Rudolph, another of Hine’s knowledgeable team members, takes us through the Cognac House’s journey through the ages from its birth to it being named as the official Cognac of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II in 1962, and the subsequent iterations of the brand from then on. After visiting “Paradise” – a gates section where glass demijohns of exceptional early single vintage Cognac from 1800s, 1900s and 2000s sit – we head upstairs to be granted a peak of Hine’s impressive collection of bottled single vintage releases. We are then released into the sun-filled courtyard and led to Hine’s The Orangerie destination shop and visitor’s room for a tasting.
This is what we’ve been waiting for and the culmination of our journey into Hine. We take our seats around the high table on which Rudolph has arranged an array of bottles. Starting at the Hine Rare VSOP Fine Champagne(£50.95), blending Cognacs from both Petite and Grande Champagnes aged between six and 12 years, and ending with the rare and complex Hine Triomphe (£20.95 for 5cl sample; £547.45 for 70cl), created from 50 carefully selected, well-aged cognacs from Grand Champagne, our tasting session gives us a full and rounded overview of what Hine is capable of.
Slightly merry and ready for a relaxing evening, we are shown to our rooms in the Hine Guesthouse next to The Orangerie.
The historic House, standing on the banks of the Charente River, is one of the oldest in Jarnac. Its impressive stone façade is grand without feeling austere and its walls extend to enclose the terrace garden and pool where guests are able to dine al fresco.
Inside, nods to the Hine stag proliferate, along with English country house touches and chic French charm. We drop our bags in our bright and floral room before heading down to the pool to cool off with a dip and a refreshing highball of H by Hine Cognac & Ginger Ale.
Dinner follows, accompanied by Hine‘s charming Per Even Allaire, and yet more stunning Hine Cognacs – our favourite being the absolutely outstanding Hine Family Reserve Cognac XO Grande Champagne (£550), of which only a few hundred bottles are released each year. Elegant and profound with an intoxicatingly rich, aromatic nose, this rare beauty created from the Hine family’s private reserves, retains the bright floral and vibrant fruit that Hine is known for, whilst introducing an undercurrent of moreish rancio and lingering earthy elements.
Entirely sated, we fall into bed and ready our bodies and minds for the next day’s activities.
It would be a lie to say that getting out of bed in the morning proves easy. Nevertheless, we drag ourselves upright and trundle sleepily down to the breakfast room where tea thankfully awaits us.
Perked up by breakfast, we return to The Orangerie for our final Hine activity – a Blending Session!
Four demijohns filled with Cognac from different distillers and Lots, harvested from 2010 to 2012, grace the table. Rudolph shows us how to use a set of chemistry lab-like glass instruments to access and blend the liquids before setting us loose to do our worst.
We start with tasting each of the cask strength samples, trying to figure out what we want from each. The youngest lies on the left and is full of fresh plum, ripe fruit, blossom and honey. The next along is more floral on the nose with a salted caramel quality and bright, youthful honey expressiveness. The third is our favourite, boasting an aroma of leather-clad books and smoky armchairs. Powerful with forest floor and cigar box smoke, it’s a hefty number that tastes older than its 8-years. The final vessel contains an oily 2010, full of toffee and caramelised fruit and nuts, with a hint of gentle smoke.
We set about creating a sample blend in a glass, choosing some of the first for punchy youth and bright fruit, a touch of two for that saline quality and floral bouquet, before adding a good deal of our favourite for that underlying, rich and robing warmth, and finishing with a fair measure of the final offer for textural play. We’re shocked by how well it works out in our glass but soon realise that blending is far far far harder than we give it credit for when trying to scale these measures up to create our bottle blend.
Sadly, our end product is nothing like what we initially produced in our glass and we are left with an even greater sense of appreciation for the master blenders who must match different distiller’s products, vintages and more to create recognisable and balanced Hine recipe blends.
Deciding to stick to journalism, we head out into the sun with our personally blended bottle as a reminder of the trip and the skill that goes into creating every bottle of Hine.