Oh, Cognac. Doesn’t it evoke rich old men, fireplaces, winter and cigars? It totally does, and I only like two of those things and one only conditionally (guess which!). But recently I attended a Cognac blending dinner with Hine Cognac, one of the oldest and most respected Cognac producers in the world. And you know what? It was really fun and stuffed with hipsters and wine and spirits geeks. Also? The Cognacs were freaking delicious. w
When I was studying for my Certified Specialist of Wine test, I learned a little about Cognac. And I’ve worked with some brands over the years, but at the Hine dinner, I had the chance to spend time with Cellar Master Eric Forget, and the coolest part? We got to blend our own Cognac and take it home in a really gorgeous decanter. Yey! Want to know more about the night I fell in love with Cognac? Allez-y! (That means “let’s go!” in French!)
The Hine Cognac Differences
I got to RPM Steak a bit early so I could fire my hard-core Cognac questions at Eric (we were on a first-name basis from the start, he’s so charming!) He has been the cellar master at Hine since 1999 and he knows his stuff. The first thing I asked was what makes Hine unique and he explained four fascinating differences:
- The Rocks of the Grande Champagne Region Now this was interesting because he is not talking about the Champagne region, which is about 30 miles north of Paris, where Champagne is made. He is talking about a sub-region within the Cognac region (which is about four hours southwest of Paris by car), which is known for its chalky soils. So when you see “Grande Champagne” on the label, it means it came from the best part of Cognac. Eric explained how this chalky soil lends an elegance or finesse to the finished Cognac. Incidentally, all Cognac is made from the Ugni Blanc grape (pronounced “oo-nee blahnk”).
- Leave it on the Lees Unlike other Cognacs, Hine Cognac is distilled with the lees (spent yeast cells from the fermentation process), which keeps the Cognac rich, round and smooth.
- New Oak From the North Hine uses oak barrels from northern France (Normandy, Vosges, areas around Paris), instead of Limousin oak from the Limousin forest, which is quite near Cognac). Eric likes how the oak from these areas is very fine-grained and allows the characteristics of the grape to shine through.
- Less is More Hine also uses a light touch with the oak, so the wood is a complement to the Cognac and does not overpower it, with vanilla, coconut and other aspects. “Wood should support the aroma, not cover it up,” he said.
Two More Cool Things About Hine
- Since 1962, Hine has been the official Cognac of the royal family. Yes, that royal family, in London. Makes sense, seeing as Hine was started by an Englishman – (Thomas Hine). So next time you’re at the Palace and feeling thirsty, just say, “Yo, Queen – fetch me a spot of Cognac, will you?” And you’ll get Hine and it’ll be delicious!
- Hine is the only Cognac producer that makes Early Landed Vintage Cognac. What’s that you, ask? It’s cool: After making the Cognac (fermenting the Ugni Blanc grapes into wine, then adding a neutral spirit and distilling it), it gets aged for a year or two in barrels. And then, they divide the lot in two, and send half of it to age in Jarnac, France and half of it to age in the UK (Scotland) for 20 years. What? This sounded crazy to me, but if you think about it, you get a very interesting Cognac – aged in two places, each with a different climate, level of humidity, different everything. Way cool! I’d never heard of this and don’t think any other Cognac houses do it.
Time to Drink!
Okay, enough learning, let’s talk about drinking. We sat for dinner which was crazy over-the-top, with chili crab and giant slabs of bacon as starters and then top-quality steak, lobster, truffled potatoes – the works. (RPM Steak and the Hine team really brought the thunder for this dinner). Then we went in small groups with our beakers up to the blending table. There were four bottles, sent straight straight from Hine in France. One was the mildest and that was the “base” Cognac. The other three ranged in intensity and flavor but one was definitely more floral, one was fruity and one was spicy.
So much fun. Everyone was sniffing and sipping and asking opinions and finally, we returned to the table, poured our personal blend into a beautiful decanter to take home and set about tasting yet more Cognac! (There is a reason I did not drive this night … I had a sneaky feeling I might get just the teensiest bit hammered.)
So we each had a tasting mat loaded with five Cognacs including:
Rare VSOP Freaking delicious, soft texture, with a cozy warmth at the end and a crazy long finish. $50-$75 SRP.
Homage XO Eric launched this blend 10 years ago and it contains some of the UK “Early Landed Vintage” in it! It was quite floral, with citrus notes and a tantalizing maple-syrup smile at the end. $159 SRP.
Antique XO: This one was softer, had less “force,” and a very elegant personality to it. That’s all I wrote, because I think I was talking to my table mates too much to take better notes! $199 SRP
Bonneuil 2006: WOW! This one shut me up fast. It had it ALL going on – very pale in color, much less wood influence (hence less color). Only 20 barrels were produced, and it spent nine years in a single barrel – it’s unblended. There was banana, mango, vanilla, creme bruleé – just so much elegance and finesse. It also had one of the longest finishes ever – I swear I can still sense it. Beautiful. $165 SRP.
Triomphe Alright, now we’re in serious rare Cognac territory. It’s a good thing it wasn’t my utter favorite (at $700-$1000 retail per bottle), but it was one sexy sip, with a depth of texture and flavor and aroma that will make you think and ponder and possibly hallucinate a little. Amazing. And that’s what they call it Triomphe. Hine makes 500 bottles a year – 100% Grand Champagne Cognacs that are at least 50 years old.
What the Hell with all the VO, VSOP Business?
It would not be fair if I didn’t explain this, because it’s often a mystery, these letters on Cognac labels.
VO – This means the liquid in the bottle has been aged at least four years in barrels.
VS: This means “very special,” which means that the youngest Cognac in the blend must be at least two years old.
VSOP: This means “Very Superior Old Pale,” which means that the youngest Cognac in the blend must be at least four years old.
XO: This means “Extra Old,” which means it must be at least six years old. Except they just changed the requirement, so Cognac made in April 2016 or later must be 10 years old if they want to put “XO” on the label. (Because they like to keep us confused like that.)
So this is how my love affair with Cognac started. I hope you’ll consider a first date with some Hine Cognac sometime soon. Start with the Rare VSOP and let me know what you think. Eric’s favorite food pairing with Cognac is gravlax (cured salmon) – which I’m going to try. It’s also delectable in a Sidecar cocktail (with lemon juice and Cointreau).
Huge thanks to the Hine team, especially Eric Forget and Jason Baldacci, for having me. It was an amazing evening.