Hine: “the future of Cognac”
Author: Hannah Crosbie
What Hine Cognac lacks in size, it more than makes up for in quality. This is thanks to Cellar Master Eric Forget’s encyclopaedic knowledge of its single casks. Here, we speak to Eric and our Spirits Buyer, Rob Whitehead about the private cask that has been specially selected for our collectors.
Spend any period of time in Cognac, and there’s no mistaking where you are. That there are big names here is obvious: if the myriad road signs don’t give it away, gigantic logos on the distilleries themselves do. But drive to the nearby commune of Jarnac, and you’ll find an altogether more subdued scene – and the house of Hine.
Hine is not a Cognac house with a mile-long driveway or ostentatious signage, nor does it want to be. Its barrel cellars lie in an understated, sandstone building that sits conspicuously along the river Charente. It’s where a young Eric Forget arrived in 1999 – a stark contrast, surely, to his time at Hennessy.
“The thing that immediately surprised me was how much less Cognac Hine made,” Eric recalls. “But I soon realised that it’s because we are so focused on quality. We’re working with very small batches to get single casks of the very finest eau de vie. In this way, I sometimes feel like a parfumer, or like I work in haute couture.”
THE PROCESS BEHIND HINE COGNAC
Single-cask Cognac – the unique expression of specific vintages and plots – are Hine’s raison d’être. You need only visit their labyrinthine cellars to see how seriously they take this meticulous process. Here, you’ll see row after row of wooden barrels, each with the region, vintage and batch written in beautiful French cursive.
And Eric has knowledge about every single one. But how does he single out a cask out of hundreds?
“It all starts with the client,” Eric says. “Usually, they have a good idea of their personal taste, and I go from there. Say they want something a little more full-bodied, I look at the vintages that yielded that specific style. And then I look at the batches within that vintage to find something that will fit their taste.”
There’s no prescriptive ageing process here, Eric explains. Rather, he tastes every single cask during an annual inventory check. Three or four years after the vintage, he starts to get an idea about how a given cask is developing. “Perhaps we use this one for blends, but this one,” he creates an explosion in his hands. “This one is so fine, so delicate, so we put it in the corner – these are the ones that become special casks.”
THE BERRY BROS. & RUDD HINE COGNAC CASK
Having been the custodian of our spirits range for over a decade, there’s little that Rob Whitehead doesn’t know about the tastes of the Berry Bros. & Rudd collector. So when he approached Hine for a Berry Bros. & Rudd single cask, he had a clear idea of the style of cask he wanted.
“Our customers have always enjoyed delicacy, poise and elegance,” he gestures to Eric. “That’s why we work with houses like Hine. Those graceful qualities tend to come from a certain type of Cognac production, from houses veering towards less new oak and less toasting. It’s all these careful choices that lead us away from more heavyweight styles.”
From Rob’s brief, Eric sifted through the batches in his mind. From his multitude of single casks, five samples were selected and sent to London. And on a sunny day at No.3 St James’s Street, Rob got to work – although the decision was quickly made.
“As soon as I tasted ‘the one’, I knew it was ‘the one’”, Rob recalls. “It’s ironic, you wait years to taste these casks and then it only takes a few minutes to make your selection. I chose the 2010 vintage – that cask showed something individual, distinct and worth exploring.”
“WE’RE WORKING ON THE FUTURE OF COGNAC”
Our visit falls in early May, but the sun beats down on our backs – the cool cellars provide welcome pit-stops. It begs the question, how are more southerly French regions like Cognac being affected by change?
Eric tells us that for over 15 years, Hine has harvested a little earlier each year. You need a certain amount of sugar to make Cognac, but you also need a high acidity to provide balance. With warmer temperatures, that crucial acidity decreases. “This affects the quality of the wine,” Eric admits. “If you have no good wine, you have no good Cognac. Last year we did our harvest in the night-time like we were in South Africa!”
How else is Hine meeting the challenge that the climate poses?
“One project we’re working on right now is finding the best vines for the future,” Eric reveals. “Something different from Ugni Blanc that is more resistant to rot, disease and can keep acidity in balance. We’re working on the future of Cognac.”
Rob echoes this sentiment: “I often find that when we’re talking about sustainability, it’s usually young, nimble producers that do the important work. But I find it just as inspiring when older, more established houses realise we have to be there for the next generation.”
“Precisely,” Eric quickly responds. “In the last French election, who do the young people vote for? They vote for the ‘green parties’, because they want to protect the future. Sustainability is so important to them, as it is to us. Eventually we will have to switch from gas to electric to heat our stills – we will have to change everything.”
THE RISE OF SINGLE-CASK COGNAC
Despite its growing challenges, the future looks bright for Hine, as a growing demand for single-cask expressions spreads across the industry. Eric has his own beliefs as to why that might be.
“More than ever, we want to understand what we purchase. It’s like when you buy your bread, you want to understand where it came from, how it was made – it’s much the same for a bottle of Cognac. A private cask is something unique, you can tell people exactly which distiller, parish and parcel it came from.”
“And people want to know everything,” says Rob. “They don’t want to be given half the truth. Today, they get to have the whole truth, but also a connection to Eric, to the soil, to the cellars beneath our feet.”
Discover our single cask Cognac here