A trip of the finest quality

Peter and Jean Conwell check out the vines at Domaine Hine
Peter and Jean Conwell check out the vines at Domaine Hine
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What was the verdict of Peter Conwell, winner of the 2011 Fiendish Quiz about the “prize that money can’t buy” – a trip to Hine Cognac in France?

“I think the tasting was the best bit, or maybe the tour around the barrel maker, but what was really excellent was the welcome we have had from everyone at Hine.”

Peter, who beat hundreds of other Yorkshire Post readers, has been entering the competition for many years and had come close to winning on several occasions, but this was his lucky year.

I met up with retired surveyor Peter and his wife Jean at Gatwick for our flight to Bordeaux. Ahead of us were two days of visits to the vineyards, a barrel-maker, a tour of the cellars and most importantly, the tasting room at Hine. In addition we were to join the Hine team for the Blues Festival in Jarnac and meet company chairman Bernard Hine, who at 73 still manages to take an active role in the business.

From Bordeaux it was about an hour’s drive north to Jarnac which lies on the banks of the Charente River, in the heart of the Cognac region, where we settled into the Hine house, a magnificently restored mansion overlooking the river.

The swimming pool looked inviting but there was no time – there was tasting to be done. In a room lined with samples of cognac, dating back decades, Hine Brand Ambassador Per Even explained the structure of the region. Cognac can only be made from grapes grown in this specific region. Centred on a patch of crumbly chalk, the Grande Champagne area produces the best cognacs, able to mature to a great age. Close by, the Petite Champagne area is on a different form of chalk and produces delicate, supple cognacs. Per also explained that Champagne in this context has absolutely nothing to do with the fizzy stuff. The word is actually derived from the French for countryside.

Ugni Blanc is the main grape variety, and 25 per cent of Hine’s production comes from their own estate in the Grande Champagne part of the region. The grapes are picked, fermented and then distilled in a two-stage process where the heart of the distillate is selected and then aged in barrels, sometimes for decades eventually becoming sufficiently aged and complex to become part of one of the Hine cognacs. Every stage of production is carefully controlled, from the picking dates of the grapes and the way the distillation is carried out to the quality of the casks.

Cellar-master Eric Forget is in charge of the whole process and it is his taste-memory of blends across the years which makes Hine one of the top luxury labels in Cognac. There are legal minimum age requirements for cognac, but Hine greatly exceeds these. While a VSOP must be a minimum of four-years-old, the Hine VSOP is usually six years old or more and in the same way, an XO cognac can be released at six years old but the Hine version usually averages 20-year-old spirit. This accounts for their premium prices.

We tasted through the range, starting with H by Hine which is a lively, fresh-tasting VSOP cognac with floral notes and a smooth, elegant finish. We were to encounter this cognac again later in the trip, served over ice, mixed with quality ginger ale and seasoned with a dash of Angostura bitters. This was a fabulous thirst-quencher at the end of a long day.

Next in the tasting glass was Rare VSOP, a blend of 50 per cent Grande Champagne and 50 per cent Petite Champagne cognacs, aged around 10 years and showing perfumed, spicy notes with long, well-balanced complexity. The next sample, Homage showed the speciality of Hine, a blend of Early Landed cognacs, including spirits distilled in 1984, 1986 and 1987, aged in the dampness of a Bristol warehouse where the cooler temperature and natural humidity give an intensity of flavour with spice and floral notes to the fore. At an average of 20-years-old Antique greatly exceeds the minimum age standards for XO and this shows in its fabulous supple style, still fruity but with liquorice, chocolate and baked apple notes. The final cognac of the tasting, Triomphe is made from a careful selection of aged spirits from the most precious part of the cellar, the Paradis, and contains cognacs aged between 40 and 50 years. It was a joy to taste, with ginger, spice and floral notes competing for attention above a silky smoothness. It is hardly surprising that Hine has held the Royal Warrant to supply cognac to Her Majesty for the last 50 years.

The next day there was a visit to Tonnellerie Doreau where production manager, Pierre Malingrey, showed us the careful selection that is made when choosing oak to be made into the barrels for Hine. Taking just the best part of the tree, which could be 150 years old, the planks are split, not sawn and then they are seasoned in the open air to allow all the harsh tannins to be washed out by the weather. Eventually the planks are shaped into barrels by a team of hard-working men who bend the wood using fire and water, without any nails, creating a container for the spirit that will last for generations, adding flavour nuances without dominating it.

A visit to the 110 hectare Domaine Hine at Bonneuil in the heart of Grande Champagne showed Peter and Jean the careful way the vines are tended and there was time for a tour of the local sights, including a fabulous Roman amphitheatre in Saintes. Heading back to Jarnac, there was just time to get in that pool at the Hine house before heading downriver to The Blues, an annual Jazz Festival.

With a tour of the cellars next day, our trip was almost over. “I can’t believe we have been here just two nights,” said Jean. “This region is so relaxing and the people at Hine have been wonderful.”

My thanks go to everyone at Hine who helped make this trip possible, but in particular to Carolyn Meunier who looked after us so well.

Hine cognacs are available at quality retailers such as Waitrose where they stock H by Hine (£31.49), Rare VSOP (£41.39), Homage Grand Cru (£80.75), Antique XO (£126.65) and Triomphe Grande Champagne (£200.75). Hine cognacs are also stocked by Latitude in Leeds (0113 245 3393), Yorkshire Vintners (01756 601701) and are generally available at good restaurants around the region.