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Cognac connoisseurs are tuning in to the new trend for vintage Cognac. Mark de Wesselow meets Bernard Hine for an introduction to the style
When Bernard Hine was in the army around 50 years ago, a miniature bottle of the family Cognac was part of the daily rations. Consumption patterns may have changed in the interim, but sales are currently enjoying good growth in the UK , and a trend for vintage Cognac is also emerging. Witness a brace of 1978 Hine vintages that have just hit the shops, one early-landed, the other Jarnac-matured. But what do these two descriptors mean?
For a start both are vintage Cognacs, Bernard explains. This means made in a single year, but the difference lies in the way they are aged. Bottles labelled Vintage Cognac are aged inland in Jarnac, where dry conditions and fluctuating temperatures (6°C in winter to around 22°C in summer) mean the spirit is subject to evaporation and oxidation, which help accentuate the rich, complex, woody character of the Cognac.
Meanwhile, the early-landed Cognacs are aged in the UK , in the case of Hine, in the chalk cellars of Bristol, where a steady temperature (8°C to 12°C) and high humidity (rarely below 95%) means much smaller volume loss. This makes for a more delicate, refined Cognac, giving light floral and fruity aromas and delicate hints of wood.
To demonstrate this, Bernard has organised a tasting of a 1981 earlylanded Hine together with a glass of 1981 Jarnac-matured Cognac. The early-landed Cognac is lighter in colour, and finer, more floral on the nose, showing crystallised fruit and discreet sweetness on the palate. Whereas the Jarnac Cognac is deeper in colour and the fruit more tropical –wild peach and passionfruit. The finish is clearly longer.
All of this explanation makes me sound like an expert, which I’m not. But as Bernard explains, before the liquid has even touched our lips, there is a technique to tasting Cognac. Hold the glass at a 45° angle and take a sniff half way up the opening. Here you get the lighter elements such as alcohol and floral notes. Then smell at the bottom of the glass where you find the heavier elements such as sweetness, fruit and wood. Try it. It really works!
A 1975 Hine Vintage from Jarnac is then poured. Full and powerful, reflecting the hot year, it has tannins, vanilla and spices (particularly cloves) on the palate. It is exquisitely balanced, full of finesse and, for Bernard, a perfect representation of the house style.
Mischievously, Bernard has thrown in a 1956 vintage, which is much darker, richer, more acidic and aggressive. Even to the untutored palate it is clearly unbalanced and, as Bernard points out, it demonstrates the antithesis of the house style. It’s no surprise that this vintage was never actually released, and it vividly demonstrates how very different one vintage can be to another.
As most Cognacs are blended, these vintage bottles are something of an oddity, but a lovely oddity nonetheless. Besides suggesting a terrifically complex range of flavours, the date gives clarity and adds the kind of reference point that most of us have long bought into with wine and port. It marks it out as a real treat, and something to remember an evening by. Hine 1978 Vintage, £195, Berry Bros & Rudd, 0870 900 4300, www.bbr.com
Editorial feature from Square Meal Lifestyle Magazine Summer 2008