About 77 miles from the famed vineyards of Bordeaux are another swath of older grapevines destined for a similar yet disparate fame—for the eau-de-vie and aged spirits of Cognac. With 54,360 acres under vine, grapes here are destined to be an aged spirit whose production is engrained, in its location and traced back to the 1600s. Cognac is part of the same Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée that also regulates wine regions designated in 1936. Here, grapes such as Colombard, Folle Blanche, and Ugni Blanc are harvested, fermented, and distilled twice in copper pot-stills to a clear spirit. These eau-de-vie are destined for barrel for aging, followed by blending and bottling. The spirit produced may seem to undergo multiple steps from the vineyard, but it’s a spirit that still shows the region’s character—in its vineyards, its terroir, and its generations of history. HINE Cognac’s goal is to do just that by relying on six generations of experience.
Founded in 1763, Thomas Hine traveled to France from England, establishing their distillery house that sits on the Charente River in Jarnac, France—in the heart of the Cognac region. They have been producing cognac ever since. Their portfolio consists of a range of blends that hold the well-established VSOP (min. 4 years) and XO (min. ten years) aging designations. They also simultaneously ideate ranges unique for the category—cognacs aged in the UK, single vineyards and vintages, and a VSOP mixing cognac named H by Hine.
The man currently responsible is Cellar Master Eric Forget, who has worked for HINE since 1999, bringing with him 14 years of experience at houses such as Prince Hubert de Polignac/Reynac, Monnet, and Hennessy. He took over for Bernard Hine, who retired in 2001, but was able to work with him to learn the wisdom of the family process, how to expertly build blends, and how to encourage their maturity and aging without losing the spirits’ sense of place. The best and most necessary advice from Hine for this process, according to Forget, is “humility and patience.”
Forget is also a trained oenologist; in addition to blending, he also sees the final product from its origins and is responsible for managing the vineyards at Domaines HINE in the commune of Bonneuil. Their property includes estates in two of Cognac’s highest-esteemed crus, Grande Champagne, and Petite Champagne. Keeping the character of these sites in the final product is essential for Forget. He explains, “What happens in the vineyard is the starting point for producing the best wine to produce cognac.”
HINE is unique in that it uses one grape variety, different from many cognac and even Armagnac blends, to showcase the vintage and the specific vineyard sites. That one grape variety is Ugni Blanc and Forget explains, “Two of the key requirements for any grapes used to make cognac is that they are high in acidity and low in alcohol – both qualities for which Ugni Blanc has the capability to offer in spades. Ugni Blanc grapes are a late-maturing variety that first yields a dry, delicate white wine before being distilled in a fragrant and floral eau-de-vie.”
Most wine connoisseurs know it’s not just the variety in the vineyard that has the potential to make a great wine, but more specifically, it’s about where those grapes are planted. This is why HINE stays laser-focused on their vineyards in these “grand” crus of Cognac. Forget continues, “When white wine grapes like Ugni Blanc grow in limestone-rich soils such as the soils cultivated in Cognac’s Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne, the berries effortlessly maintain their acidity, which ultimately creates a finer distillate.” Forget will argue the final product will showcase as much terroir as any excellent wine region.
He continues, “The terroir in these growing regions is unmatched. The limestone-rich soil coupled with the cool maritime climate creates cognacs with extreme finesse and excellent aromatics. As it relates to what I’m looking to achieve in the vineyard to ensure a quality wine base for our cognac, I aim to achieve good maturity with all elements like sugar content while also simultaneously maintaining high acidity. These elements are the precursors of the final bouquet and richness of the cognac.” The dedication to the vineyards doesn’t end there. HINE’s estate vineyards are certified by the Certification Environnementale Cognac and the Haute Valeur Environnementale or HVE. These require vineyards in Cognac to meet 13 standards for sustainability, including regulating chemicals used, protections for biodiversity and fertilization management, and criteria for protecting vineyard workers.
HINE offers a line of single vintage, single estate cognacs called Bonneuil. Bottled only in vintages deemed exceptional, each release in the Bonneuil collection showcases a single unblended harvest that exemplifies the essence of Grande Champagne, home to the village of Bonneuil where the HINE House vines flourish. They have released 2005, 2006, 2008, and 2010 vintages. Forget has this experience and insight, “A vintage cognac comes from the best batch of Grande Champagne every year. After ten years of aging, I will assess the eau-de-vie and determine if the quality is good enough to be or become a vintage. Our goal with bottling a vintage is to capture the specificity of the vintage and its specific expression of the Grande Champagne limestone terroir.”
Cognac is well-known for its blends, but HINE’s wine-centric approach stands out even when blending for their VSOPs, XOs, and even its cocktail-bound cognac, H by HINE. “Every decision we make—in the vineyard and the cellar—is fundamentally important to achieving the finesse, delicacy, and fruitiness that we expect from every blend we produce. In the vineyard, we harvest when we believe we have reached our targeted maturity, but we also take into consideration a variety of intangible factors beyond sugar content that come with years of experience and understanding how the fruit I’m tasting today will translate 10 and 20 years down the road.”
One of the biggest challenges for terroir-based spirits is not allowing the wood to take over the nuances of the vineyard, grapes, and the resulting eau-de-vie. HINE makes sure this isn’t the case, using wood with a light toast and fine grain rather than more aggressive and tannic oak. Forget confirms, “In the cellar, we are very strategic about controlling the amount of wood influence in our blends because we never want the wood to overpower or mask the fruit. Our goal is to honor the terroir and enhance the beautiful aromatics and flavors of our fruit throughout the aging process.”
HINE is continuing to celebrate its history and master the category while looking forward to sustainability and innovation in its future. Their newest release, HINE Antique XO 100th Anniversary 1920-2020 – an exceptionally rare, limited edition cuvée blended with a 100-year-old eau-de-vie from vintage 1920 – demonstrates their enduring commitment to crafting timeless cognac that is rich, elegant and everlasting. This is a prime example of the core values instilled by Thomas Hine to the family business more than 250 years ago—unique, expertly-crafted, and approachable cognacs that speak to the vineyards, the terroir and generations of history and innovation.