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Mon dieu...

I came across a bottle of Hine Rare VSOP Cognac the other day – a delectable liquid that must stand on the summit of the little pyramid of VSOP Cognacs currently available at the LCBO (CSPC 356857, $83.25). The label confirms it as Fine Champagne, which means it is made exclusively from eaux de vie distilled from grapes grown in the Grande Champagne and Petite Champagne areas of the Cognac region. Such brandies are racy, vigorous, nervous and aggressive and must be confined in oak casks and left for many winters in one of those damp warehouses down by the placid river Charente, until the long years mellow the harsh edges, allowing them to reach levels of length and complexity that are unsurpassed in the wide, wild world of brandy. Personally, I usually prefer Cognacs with a high percentage of Borderies eaux de vie. The Borderies area has clay soil and the spirits derived from its vineyards age a little more quickly and release notions of walnuts and violets into the air trapped inside a brandy snifter. Martell’s superb Cordon Bleu is heavy with Borderies spirits which become slightly pruney with oak and time, almost as if they had been hanging out with an Armagnac during their incarceration.

But it was the Hine Rare VSOP we were discussing. Very Special Old Pale is an 18th-century English shipper’s term, and that the Cognacais still use it hints at the historic importance of their English market. Some say it was created to designate the brandies preferred by the Prince of Wales, who disapproved of the habit of adding a dash of caramel to Cognac to make it look darker and more mature. As an accurate descriptor, however, it leaves plenty to be desired. Like Cognacs labelled VO or Réserve, VSOP must be at least 4½ years old; Hine Rare is blended from eaux de vie that are twice as old.

Thomas Hine, incidentally, was an Englishman, born and raised in Beaminster, Dorset. In 1791, his father (also a Thomas) sent the 16-year-old lad over to France to learn the language and the Cognac business. Despite the fact that England and France were at war for most of the next 25 years, Hine prospered, as did his fellow immigrants James Hennessy from Ireland and Jean Martell from the Channel Islands. Today, six generations later, Hine is still in family hands – which is a pleasant thought to ponder as you raise a pre-Christmas balloon of this amber nectar to your nose. Aromas of jasmine and acacia will be your reward, according to the Hine tech sheet. I’m not entirely sure what acacia smells like, so let’s just say “elegantly floral aromas.” And there’s fruit there too – juicy raisins and something akin to that plum tart tatin I described in my last posting on Frank’s Kitchen.

Can a brandy be delicate and round and intense all at the same time? My notes on Hine Rare would imply that it’s possible. Some Cognacs are thin, disdainful and austere. Others are clumsy and disjointed. This one is a slender beauty with a genuinely friendly smile. Definitely something to slip into a loved one’s stocking.

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