The answer to the exceptional character of Cuban cigars lies in the same set of circumstances that make a top Burgundy one of the finest wines in the world: terroir.
We may borrow the definition of terroir from the wine world where it was developed. Simply said, in a given region, it is the climate (temperature, rain regime), soil (rich or poor, water supply, composition), terrain (topography, altitude, inclination), and local flora.
If you cultivate Cuban tobacco seeds in a different terroir, you will not produce the same flavors and aromas as those from a cigar rolled with leaves grown from these same seeds in Cuban soil. Just remember that in 1960, when Castro turned all cigar factories into state-owned businesses, the former owners ran to other Central American countries such as Dominican Republic, Honduras, and Nicaragua to start their productions again, taking expertise, brands, and seeds with them – but the cigars made in those countries, after a modern-day exodus, did not taste the same.
A more recent example is the Davidoff brand. Produced in Cuba until 1991, they moved their production to the Dominican Republic in the early 1990’s claiming problems in quality, but the difference between them is huge. Proof of the quality and splendid characteristics of the Cuban Davidoffs is the price they attain in cigar auctions, especially the cigars with larger vitolas – jargon for the girth, length, and format of a particular cigar.
But even Cuba has different grades of tobacco. Look at the map above. The green area to the left is in the province of Pinar del Rio. In it, you’ll find Vuelta Abajo, a region that, simply put, produces the best tobacco in the world. You may say it is equivalent to the Romanée-Conti vineyard in Burgundy. Pinar del Rio and Vuelta Abajo, as well as the two most important districts on it, San Juan y Martínez and San Luis, are DOP – protected by the Denomination of Origin legislation. The other regions, shown in color on the map, also produce tobacco but their quality isn’t comparable to the elite Vuelta Abajo leaves.
Now, thanks to the government, American cigar lovers may bring home Cuban cigars. Many had already tried them, but now the comparison with cigars from other countries will be inevitable. So, what can you expect from Cuban cigars?
What to Expect from Cuban Cigars
The first thing that you may notice is that they are, as a general rule, stronger than the average non-Cuban cigar. That does not mean better, as many would surmise; it means that the nicotine impact of the smoke inside your mouth is stronger. In a wine world analogy, try to imagine the difference in tannins between a light Beaujolais and an intense Australian Shiraz.
While Cuban cigars are considered to the stronger than average, strength is relative. The mildest are typically Jamaican and Panamanian, while the strongest are Cuban. That being said, some Dominican cigars are stronger than a mild Cuban, and some Hondurans are milder than some Panamanians. There is also a world of difference between the mildest and the strongest Cuban cigars.
This means that, even in Cuba, not all leaves of tobacco were created equal. In fact, leaves destined to become wrappers (those that involve cigars and that are their main presentation asset) are usually from the Corojo variety and grow under a cheesecloth to prevent spots: after a rainfall, tiny water drops remain over the leaves, and the sun uses the water drop as a crystal lens, thus marking the leaf. To avoid a direct sun and prevent marks, the farmers cover the area of wrapper tobacco with the cloth.
Tobacco destined to be used as filler (the central leaves that give a cigar its flavor and combustibility) and binder (the leaf that holds the filler leaves together) is usually from the Criollo variety, as well as from hybrids developed in Cuba that show higher resistance to mold and other diseases.
Also, the position of the leaf on the tobacco plant determines its usage and relative strength: the lower leaves are Volado, and they are used for their combustibility; the middle section leaves are Seco, good for aroma; and the top leaves are Ligero and Medio Tiempo, contributing to the flavor and body.
Now, to understand the construction of a cigar you have to remember that its ash must grow evenly or, at the worst, as a cone; if the cigar foot shows a crater, it is because the roller didn’t do the right thing – he placed the faster-burning leaves (volado) in the inner part of the filler, and thus the faulty ash format.
The format is also a factor to be considered. Thinner cigars – such as a panatela or a Lonsdale – usually burn faster than the thicker ones, thus tasting more bitter. Go slower on your puffs if a Cohiba Lancero or a Rafael Gonzalez Lonsdale is your choice. On the other hand, thicker cigars, like a Partagas D4 (a Robusto) release their full flavors early on, gratifying your senses from the first puff.