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Bernard Hine

28
Jan

The word “cognac” may conjure up images of stuffy old men, most probably English, sitting in oak-paneled libraries talking about “their war” and puffing on huge cigars while swirling their cognac in large, expensive snifter glasses. Bernard Hine will no doubt dispel those fading images once and for all. He studied English at Edinburgh University and German at Hamburg University. He enjoys fishing, shooting, and skiing. And he is the cellar master, director and traveling ambassador for his family’s cognac firm, Cognac Hine.

PS: So, is cognac still considered the after-dinner drink of old geysers or has it been discovered by a younger, hipper generation?

BH: It’s still partially considered as an after-dinner drink, as far as Hine is concerned. But to allude to that old image with big snifters, pouring a large quantity to savor an entire afternoon after lunch – that image is finished. The image of cognac now is much younger. It’s not getting to people in their teens, but definitely consumers from around twenty-five, thirty, upwards are discovering Cognac. And it is a product described as a “digestif , it’s not something you drink a large quantity of, but it’s something which you enjoy at the end of the meal, and it has a good effect on your digestion.

PS: Being born into the Hine family, was your career a foregone conclusion before you entered the world or did you, indeed, have an opportunity to consider an alternative vocation if that’s what you really wanted?

BH: You suddenly remind me of some very old attitudes when I had the possibility to avoid the family firm! But we’ve been really dipped into the product and its philosophy right from childhood, to absorb the philosophy of the product. The family contacts with the importers and agents around the world was something which was experienced through childhood. When coming to visit my father and uncle for business, they were all welcomed for dinner and invited to stay overnight, and we used to call them aunt-something or uncle- something and that was part of the mystique, if you will, which was, for me, very attractive about this product my family produced.

PS: Your family lineage goes back to the firm’s founder, Thomas Hine, and indeed the company is almost 300 years old. After so many generations of success in the business, , are you and your family ever afraid of making a whopping, great mistake? It’s a heavy responsibility to inherit such a prestigious product.

BH: Your question is divided into many different possible answers. But I would like to go back to 1775, the end of the 18th century, a great century for business. People had been exchanging goods from one country to another, from one continent to another. Young Thomas Hine arrived in France in 1791. He was just sixteen years of age and the purpose of his trip was for him to learn French and try to gain some knowledge on the wine business. He traveled down to Bordeaux and finished in Cognac a few years later, where, because of the unsettled political situation in France, he was put to jail in Jarnac, where he was considered to be an English spy. His fate improved when a local wine merchant arranged for his release and invited him to his house. And that’s where young Thomas Hine met the lady of his life. He married her and he joined the firm and became a partner in the firm. After that, he gave his name to the firm too. So that’s over two hundred years ago, but as you said, the lineage goes back, at least from the papers we found, one hundred and fifty years before from Dorset in the south of England. The first time I had to make a decision myself, it was very hard. It was November 1974. My father was with us in the evening and we had to attend a social party. I came separately and didn’t see him at the party so I went to his home, and found an ambulance taking him to the hospital because of a heart attack. So he was out of the business for one year and that was really when I had to make a decision. In the days that followed, I needed to finish a blend and make a blend. I did it according to what I had been doing with my father for years, but there had been a fault in one of the preparations for one particular blend and it was not a success. I had to reorganize that myself and to accept the fact that we could not release it on the market. We had to put it aside. Everybody was kind to me and then I developed my own way of doing things within the family philosophy and with the family practice so that I would never have to experience that type of mistake again.

PS: If I’m not mistaken, Cognac is made from a rather unremarkable grape called the “Ugni Blanc or Trebbiano”. At what stage of production does this Cinderella of grapes blossom into the ravishing princess of cognac? What’s the magic that you do to make this enchanting metamorphosis?

BH: It’s not just a fairy touch that will make that from a simple, anonymous acidic wine into a beautiful product you savor, sometimes for hours. I remember a few years ago, in Chicago, I was introduced to a group of people who regularly had blind tastings. And we had a couple of bottles to taste before the dinner and out of the six bottles -they were all white wines- nobody really thought of anything really special to say. And even one gentleman commented, “I hope you didn’t spend too much money on that because it was not really worth working on.” Later on we heard the reason for this tasting. They were all wines made from Ugni Blanc grapes. No one thought really highly of them. But I did not come empty-handed to this meal and it presented the perfect opportunity to introduce the cognac afterwards. I said to them, “You see, gentlemen, that’s exactly what happened in France in the early 17th century and that’s why the farmers couldn’t sell these particular “thin” wines because people had already developed quite a good taste for wine.” They didn’t know what to do and the Dutch told them to burn the wine, or distill the wine, as we would say today. Phillip, yesterday I was in Wilmington and that was another good opportunity for me to say look, the river there is called the Brandywine River. And that is exactly what happened: they made a distilled product called the brandy wine, the burnt wine, and that’s what has now become known in English, as brandy. So brandy can be produced around the world, but one of them, a specific one, is the cognac produced in the Cognac region of southwest France, named after a little town there by the name of Cognac.

PS: Is there a correct glass and a correct way to serve cognac? We often see people in films holding the traditional snifter in the palm of their hand and swirling it. Is that just the Hollywood approach to cognac drinking, or is it indeed the correct approach?

BH: Certainly not. The snifter is not something I consider as the proper glass for cognac because we call it a big liar. We call it a liar because the shape of the snifter, a big waist with a small opening at the top, has a tendency to reflect downwards the various aromas going up from the cognac. Too big a surface with oxidation, and then too small an opening. The best shape is certainly what we call the tulip shape. Remember that cognac is not something you sip down and get a lot of warmth out of from the spirit. It’s something I believe you have to savor with your five senses. You first look at the color of the cognac- the amber colors. Then you smell it and see what comes out of the glass, so the shape of the glass is very important. Third point, you taste it but not a large quantity, only on the tip of the tongue and then you can swallow it after it has filled the palate. Touching the glass comes next. The glass is the tulip shape, and the warmth from your hand goes to the product inside the glass. The last sense is the ear! When you amongst friends, you clink the glasses together and say, “To your health”, because it’s part of the conviviality. So you see, touching the glass and the shape of the glass is not a gimmick. It is all part of the pleasure of enjoying a good cognac after dinner

PS: I’m used to seeing the letters “VS” and “VSOP” on cognac labels but Hine has chosen to adopt product names rather than the traditional approach. You have four such selections. Could you describe them very briefly for me and explain why you’ve taken this really innovative approach to marketing.

BH: The main reason is that the legal definitions for today’s grades of cognac are based on the minimum age from the youngest cognac in the blend. So when you talk about VS, the legal requirement, say is two years. When you talk about VSOP it’s five years. When you get into the very older ones, the only requirement is more than six years, so you can understand that this minimum is really too low. If you want to produce a good quality by blending horizontally, that is, from different vineyards, or vertically coming from previous years, surely the average age of the blends you have to use is more than that. And that is the case for Hine. So we decided to make a departure from these categories. We call ours Rare & Delicate which is our top VSOP. And Rare and Delicate delivers a full message to the consumer. We choose the various cognacs, we buy as newly-made as newly-distilled from the farmers and distillers, and we age them slowly and prepare them slowly in dark warehouses, which leads into the blending. We don’t blend the day before we bottle, we blend at least one year before. This period between blending and bottling we call the marrying time-the time between the engagement and the marriage. This leads to a more mellow style of cognac. The long and slow aging gives it a lot of depth.

Rare and Delicate, therefore, is a rare selection which relies on the cellarmaster to give the house style – the delicate aspect. We don’t want something very heavy or very woody. We don’t want it without personality. We like a blend with a lot of character but on the smooth side, on the mellow side, and with delicacy. The Rare and Delicate is our first grade just above the VSOP level.

The next one comes from the fine champagne, that’s blended fine champagne from the grand et petit champagne, the best two areas in Cognac. It’s about twenty years old and we name it Antique. It is a cognac that is very smooth and very balanced, which mixes some smells of leather or nuts. When you taste it you will find some honey or some preserved orange peel. It reminds you of figs. It has a very soft and a little bit sweet aroma which makes, especially the ladies, very pleased about this quality because it’s not what would be called a hard liquor. Next we have the Triomphe and it is a triumph in one way. It’s about 50 years of age. It’s very complex and very full, where all of these spicy aromas have developed into some deep, strong, peppery styles. It also has the mustiness from the warehouses and that is a long marriage between the wood, the cognac, and the humidity of the warehouses which make it a perfect match for what you said at the beginning of the interview – the old, English gentleman in his club, on his comfortable leather chair after the big lunch. But it’s also a very good match for anybody who enjoys a good, strong cigar. The fourth one is the special cuvée we call the Family Reserve because it is the treasure of the family. Above that we have a series of vintages which are either coming from our warehouses in France or have been aged in Britain.

PS: For anyone who has any questions or would like to find out more information, do you have an e-mail address?

BH: The address is Hine@wanadoo.fr

PS: What is the pricing of your range in the U.S.

BH: Having made some approximate calculations the pricing in the U.S. in U.S. Dollars: Rare and Delicate $45; Antique is $110; Triomphe is $250; Family Reserve is $350.

PS: Is cognac served only at the end of a meal? We addressed this before, but do you have any other suggestions to make it a more user-friendly, hipper sort of drink?

BH: Cognac is a lovely product because it has personality. When it’s distilled it’s not distilled at the pure alcohol level, it’s distilled at lower strengths, just about seventy percent by volume which gives it personality afterwards. That’s why cognac, even as a long drink, is so wonderful. Nowadays, we try to let people know that there are ways to enjoy cognac before a meal as an aperitif. Being British you may be familiar with the traditional, very English, “Horse’s Neck”. Horse’s Neck is just a measure of young cognac to four or five parts of dry ginger ale on top, finished by a slice of lemon. It was called Horse’s Neck because of the shape of the tall tumbler in which it was served, and finished by the slice of lemon, it looked just like a horse’s neck. Now that is a very good drink which is refreshing, which smells and tastes and matches with the spicy and nutty taste of the cognac. It’s marvelous in the summer, or anytime as an aperitif because it makes a very long drink which you most people I am certain will enjoy. Or you can have it on the rocks, or just with a splash of water to reduce the strength of the cognac. A lot of people like to mix it with tonic water and we call that “Cognac Schweppes” .

PS: I’d like you to explain the difference between Cognac and Armagnac, if in fact you admit Armagnac does indeed exists!

BH: Yes it does….. we don’t ignore our cousins. First, I would like to say, and I did say it at the beginning, that cognac was one brandy and there are many brandies produced around the world. Cognac it is what we call an appellation d’origine controllée – AOC, and Armagnac is also an AOC. Armagnac is farther south from us and they have the advantage of the climate where they can still use the Folle Blanche grape which goes to the ripening stage. Whereas in the north, we have difficulty getting it ripe and even, this year, the Ugni Blanc has difficulty getting ripe because of the weather conditions. So Armagnac is mainly based on the same grapes as in Cognac, but the main difference is the distillation. Cognac is doubly-distilled, therefore, refined and Armagnac is distilled in just one “go”. The end product for the Cognac is about seventy percent by volume; with Armagnac it’s about fifty to fifty-five percent. So the Armagnac has more of robust character. The Armagnac has stronger charm than the Cognac and appeals to people who like the robustness of it -you really get a mouthful. There are very magnificent Armagnacs, and there are very good Cognacs, as well.

PS: You seem to have enormous pride in your work!

BH: When salespeople try to sell anything they give brochures, they talk on the telephone, but it’s very seldom that they come with their own “product” . When I open a bottle in front of the customer, whoever he or she may be, whether I am in Asia, Australia, in the States or in Europe, I open the “job” I made a few years before. And that’s a great responsibility because it bears my name and it is the work I have been doing. So if I were not sure of the quality of the product, I would certainly be very afraid of appearing in front of you with this product. But I don’t have this problem, on the contrary, I am very proud to let you see what we can do in Cognac.

PS: For anyone who hasn’t been to your region could you give us a brief description of the area?

BH: Jarnac and Cognac are the two towns along the river Charente, in the southwest of France, just about one and one-half hours drive north of Bordeaux. It’s a very quiet little river which goes straight into the sea. It is the reason why the Dutch and the English could sail into Cognac and Jarnac. They were originally towns where the salt produced on the Atlantic Coast was transported from the barges into the carriages. That’s why they have had a very important merchant philosophy and merchant activity. There was a lot of trade being conducted in those two cities. The cities smell of cognac. Whether you want it or not, they smell! The smell comes from the moisture of the ground, from the humidity from the river. The smell comes from the dark warehouses and I don’t just speak of the lack of light in the warehouses. When you look at the warehouses, the walls are black and the tiles are black, This is because a young fungus was born on the walls, inside the walls and outside the walls and this is something we call in Latin “torula compniacensis richon”. Torula, is the name of the fungus, compniacensis, is the old Latin name for cognac, and richon was the name of the scientist who discovered that. So you get this sweet, soft, alcoholic aroma in the streets of Cognac and Jarnac. And, believe me, in the summertime it’s even more perceptible by everyone passing through.

PS: I have a very favorite wine author Hugh Johnson. In Hugh’s second book, called Wine he dedicates it to the “genie in the bottle” referring to something wonderful that happens to the wine in the bottle after it leaves the winery. Does anything like that occur to the product that you produce?

BH: Cognac, once in the bottle will not develop. All the developments are before it is bottled and, let’s say, maybe as far as we are concerned, sometimes before it is blended. The magic of the cognac doesn’t come only from the wine, or from the grapes but it starts really with the distillation and the style of the distillation you want. The law gives you certain limits , but the art of the distiller will give it a certain life. Then my job is to educate people about this wonderful product which we have distilled in our own special manner. The cask we use for the first year, a newly-made cask, giving the tannins which have been softened for some years, is the first gift we give the product. The second one would be the slow aging in damp warehouses where the cognac has plenty of time to soften, to mellow, to really become the product you know. And, after that blending is an art, it is the follow-up and philosophy, which we call the house style. The vintage has very great importance, by the way they’ve been distilled and the way they’ve been handled, and that will give the time for the great magic. If you were to mention just one “genie” I would call it “time”. As a blender, as a cellarmaster, please don’t ask me to prepare something special for you tomorrow morning. I can’t. Give me a couple of years, give me three years and I can come back to you with a good product.

PS: Now that cigars have become trendier, I see that Hine has benefited from this cigar renaissance.

BH: That’s true, I’m not a smoker but I enjoy my occasional puff with great pleasure. You have to be careful not to have a strong cigar and a smooth cognac or vice versa because the idea is not for one of them to kill the other but for both of them to complement each other. And if you can find the right style of cigar with the right style of cognac that is something quite marvelous. We’ve conducted various tastings around that theme; it’s not an easy job but as a general rule, a young cognac goes with a smooth cigar, something that does not have a great personality just yet. You see again, cigars and cognac do gain in personality with the blend which has been made. I know that Antique, for example, goes very well with the Monte Cristo Number Three- it makes me very happy. I’m not going to heaven, I don’t have time to go so far, but it gets me very close! And then when you want to match the Triomphe and the very old cognac you should go into more robust styles of cigars, like Punch, or Churchill, or Lusitania – big-bodied cigars.

PS: What was the most exciting cognac you tasted in recent years?

BH: I’ve spent most of the last twenty years trying to reinstall the vintage cognacs on the market, so I’m very fond of those. If I had to mention just one, it would be the one that I saw growing in front of me and which I saw developing into a marvelous cognac the 1948. 1948 has got this depth and at the same time the balance you expect from a cognac. It is fruity, it is flowery, it is deep, and it is absolutely gorgeous. But that is a single vintage, I think you should never forget that cognac is the result of a blend and as a blend, I think the Antique is my favorite because the Antique is the perfect art of blending whereby you try to get this smoothness and the balance. The type of cognac which is rich and which is a little bit older offering rich and nutty and musty aromas.

PS: Well, when you are having that vintage cognac, would you send me a note so I can have a small taste?

BH: Be quick, because there aren’t very many bottles left of it. The last ones are going to be presented to very distinguished consumers.

PS: Well, that’s me out of the picture! Today’s interview was conducted in The Four Seasons Hotel, Philadelphia, so lots of love and kisses to the brilliant Ruth Hirshey, head of PR at the hotel, who made our chat most comfortable. The interview was organized by Clicquot , Inc (New York) who are the national importers and marketing company for Hine Cognac in the USA.

PS: If anybody wants to come over and visit is that a possibility?

BH: We are not organized for tours, but any friends of yours are our friends and if I am around It will be my pleasure. But don’t expect to see me everyday of the year. I spend half of my time on the road and I am, in fact, flying more than I am driving. I travel to all parts of the world, so I hope to be there when you come but it’s not one hundred percent certain.

PS: Well, as I only have two friends, that’s not going to be a problem.

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