The Hine company is named for its proprietor Thomas Hine, an Englishman from Dorset, England. The company was founded in 1763. Following his arrest during the French Revolution, Thomas Hine married a young maiden, Françoise Elisabeth, whose father owned a cognac house in Jarnac. Hine took the company to new heights, and eventually renamed it Thomas Hine & C°. in 1817.
The Hine House has stood at the banks of the quai de l’Orangerie on the banks of the Charente River in Jarnac, France since the 18th century. It is one of the oldest houses in Jarnac and serves as the company’s headquarters. In 1962, the house was granted a royal warrant from Queen Elizabeth II, as suppliers of cognac. Today it is still the only cognac house to hold this honour.
Hine Red stag
VS stands for ‘Very Special’: Alternatively, ✯✯✯ (three stars), means exactly the same as VS. So if you see a bottle with three stars on it, you know it’s a VS Cognac. A blend qualifies as a VS Cognac if it consists of eaux-de-vie aged in oak barrels for a minimum of 2 years.
VSOP means ‘Very Superior Old Pale’: Officially, according to the BNIC, V.S.O.P. stands for Very Superior Old Pale. However, it’s often referred to as Very Special Old Pale. A VSOP Cognac is where the youngest brandy in the blend is aged for at least four years in barrels. However, the average age of Cognacs in the VSOP category may well be older than this. It’s the youngest eau-de-vie in the blend that determines the actual quality of the Cognac. Meaning the moment a four-year-old eau-de-vie is incorporated in the blend it automatically becomes a V.S.O.P. Cognac – even if every other component is much older. Other designations for VSOP are “Reserve” or simply “Old”.
XO means ‘Extra Old’: XO stands for Extra Old, and it describes a Cognac consisting of eaux-de-vie that have been aged in oak barrels for a minimum of six years. However, XOs often have a much older average age, with many XO Cognacs being 20 years old and older. There has been much talk that the minimum age for a component in an XO Cognac is to be raised to 10 years. And this is now due to change from 01 April 2018. However, there is a period of adjustment, during which Cognacs aged six-nine years can still be called an XO until March 31, 2019, as long as they follow some predesignated BNIC rules concerning the packaging. An XO Cognac can also be called “Napoleon” or “Old Reserve.”
Other Cognac ratings
Cognac Napoléon: A Cognac described as Napoléon is equal to an XO in terms of age. However, a Napoleon Cognac is usually marketed as an in-between category of VSOP and XO.
Extra: This is a Cognac that is at least 6 years old, in theory, the same as an XO. The rating is often used to label a blend that is more superior to an XO.
Vieux: A Cognac marked as such represents a grade between the official grades of VSOP and XO.
Vieille Réserve: This means more or less the same as Hors d’Age, a grade beyond XO (see below).
Hors d’Age: Officially, the BNIC states this as being equal to XO. In the industry, it’s used to communicate a very high-quality product, one that is beyond an official age rating. The literal translation of Hors d’Age is ‘beyond age.’
Vintage: A Vintage Cognac means that the Cognac is a single blend from one particular year. It’s a single year’s harvest that’s aged for a certain period of time in oak barrels and then bottled. There is no age limitation. What’s important to know is that a Vintage Cognac from 1983, for instance, was harvested in 1983 but maybe bottled in 2013. What’s important is the year of the harvest.
Cognac can also be labeled with one of the six appellations of the region: Grande Champagne, Petite Champagne, Borderies, Fins Bois, Bons Bois and Bois Ordinaires (or Bois à Terroir). The two Champagne regions, like the famed sparkling wine region, are named for the high composition of chalk in the soil. If a bottle of Cognac is labeled “Fine Champagne,” it’s a blend of Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne brandies. However, to earn this designation, at least 50% of the blend must be Grande Champagne Cognac.
All these specifications are closely monitored by the French agricultural ministry.
In Western France, the regions of Cognac and Armagnac produce some of the world’s most venerated grape brandies. Although they share proximity—Cognac against the Atlantic, north of Bordeaux, about an hour-and-a-half from landlocked Armagnac to the south—they produce two very different styles of brandy distinguished by history, grapes, soil, technique and aging.
What is Cognac?
Cognac is a brandy specifically made from wine in the Cognac region of France. The primary grape used to make Cognac is Ugni Blanc, though smaller amounts of Folle Blanche (also called Picpoul) and Colombard are allowed.
What is Armagnac?
Armagnac is more rustic in production, which results in a full-flavored brandy. The brandy used to produce Armagnac was made historically by roving distillers. Stills in tow, they would travel to farms in the hinterlands, allowing the farmers to make brandy from their wine without having to buy equipment of their own.
The major difference between Cognac and Armagnac is the distillation.While Cognac is twice distilled using a pot still, Armagnac undergoes column distillation, though much different from the large, modern industrial stills often used to produce neutral spirits like vodka.
The difference in mouthfeel results partially from the concentration of alcohol. Armagnac tends to come off the still at around 52–60% alcohol by volume (abv). Unless it’s blended or bottled at cask strength, it will typically be diluted to around 45–47% abv. Cognac, on the other hand, is distilled twice in a pot still, which brings it to around 70% abv. Usually, it’s diluted and bottled at 40%. Neal says that the additional dilution contributes to Cognac’s lighter sensation.
A pot still allows for more control over the “heads, heart and tails,” or how distillers describe respectively the first, middle and final parts of the spirit to flow out of the still. Cognac contains a larger portion of heart, or the middle section of the distillation run, considered to be the purest in flavor. However, while there is a lot of potential for this heart-heavy spirit to develop, it also means Cognac can take more time to show its more exuberant side. Armagnac, meanwhile, it more likely to be fruity and intense when young.
Like Cognac, Armagnac is blended and labeled frequently with indications like V.S.O.P., X.O. and Reserve to show the minimum age. However, it’s more traditional to bottle vintage Armagnac than Cognac. Vintage Armagnac is relatively affordable compared to other aged spirits, and it’s a great option if you seek a bottle to commemorate a particular year.Cognac, Armagnac and their wine connection
For wine lovers, the differences between Cognac and Armagnac are much like those found between big-name wine regions and under-the-radar appellations that also produce competitive, high-quality bottles, but to less fanfare. While Cognac sets sales records year after year, Armagnac has re-emerged as a connoisseur’s drink. It’s beloved by professionals and those in the know, but outsold by its more popular sibling.
Choose Cognac and Armagnac like you would wine. Pay attention to importers and distributors that represent brands you like. When you’re ready to dig deeper, seek out smaller labels for a more distinctive experience.
It’s easy to overlook the details that define regional spirits, but their discovery can be very rewarding. Brandy is wine’s cousin in the spirits world, and Cognac and Armagnac have as much to reveal about where they come from as any wine region on earth.
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