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for the Ages

By Mark Bernardo

Like connoisseurs of fine wines, today’s seasoned smoker is looking for age, rarity, and exquisite blending in his premium cigars - and in many cases, willing to pay top dollar for it. Fortunately, today’s cigar manufacturers are obliging them, with a growing selection of vintage and limited-edition smokes that are taking love of the leaf to the next level.

VINTAGE (Adj.): Of old, recognized, and enduring interest, importance, or quality: Classic. Of the best and most characteristic. - Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary

Evolution occurs in stages. Picture a couple of guys in the 1970s, sitting in a neighborhood bar, or even a restaurant or office, puffing on their favorite brand of stogies, probably talking about sports, or the movies, or when the hell was Carter going to get those hostages out of Iran. Fast-forward to the late 1990s, and find a gaggle of young big-city up-and-comers in a hot club, all smoking big cigars with ornate bands bearing popular brand names. The conversation is mostly about money: the market, the Internet, and the merits of their expensive cigar vs. the merits of their buddy’s expensive cigar.

Now fast-forward one more time to the near future: a collection of cigar smokers of various ages, vocations, and bank balances, relaxing in a well appointed, well-ventilated lounge. They’re all smoking what looks to be the same cigar, tasting it thoughtfully and debating the attributes of the 2002 version over those of the 2004. Others are salivating, and clearing space in their humidor, for the impending release of the 2005.

Far-fetched? Perhaps. And perhaps not.

From left - General Cigar’s Nuñez: Tobacco that’s merely old doesn’t automatically qualify as vintage. Indian Tabac’s Rocky Patel says aging and meticulous care of older tobaccos is the key to vintage caliber leaf, yielding very refined flavors, balanced taste and a conspicuous absence of bitterness. MATASA’s Manuel Quesada collects the very best tobaccos from each season’s crops for use in his vintage blends.
Cigar smoking, despite the best efforts of the anti-tobacco zealots, remains in the view of many a refined hobby of a connoisseur class - and nothing proves it better than the popularity of vintage and limited edition cigars. A gourmand-like appreciation of cigars reached a crescendo in the booming ‘90s, and the more recent proliferation of high-end, hard-to-get smokes would seem to indicate that the consumer pendulum is swinging that way again. As the economy begins to rise out of its stupor, even high prices which scared consumers away (and contributed to the early demise of a score of young cigar companies) are becoming more acceptable - provided the cigar in question is truly worth it. Many such cigars, in fact, are priced very reasonably.

But what makes a cigar, or the tobacco in it, truly worthy of being called “vintage?” There are almost as many opinions on the subject in the cigar making community as there are companies entering the recently bustling vintage category.

Some manufacturers take a very literal view of the term, applying it with the same exacting standards as winemakers. Macanudo, the popular flagship brand of General Cigar Company, appears to be the first cigar to have a declared vintage year, way back in 1979, and has designated only a few years since to be worthy of the term (1984, 1988, 1993, and 1997). As with most decisions on General’s broad portfolio of products, the declaration of a vintage tobacco year lies with the company’s veteran cigar master, Daniel Nuñez.

“Throughout the years, we find crops that are very unique,” Nuñez tells me, “with the uniqueness coming mostly from weather conditions that are optimum for the growth of tobacco. It only happens every so many years that the growing conditions are almost perfect. The tobacco just performs so much better than the regular crop, and it brings a slightly different flavor to the cigar.”

The Macanudo Vintage 1997, released last year, stakes its reputation on the quality of its wrapper. Connecticut shade from Macanudo’s farms in the Connecticut River Valley, harvested in 1997, it is regarded as one of the finest harvests in decades. The cigar’s binder is from Mexico’s San Andres Valley, harvested in 1998, another year regarded by Nuñez as vintage. “Roundness, clean aroma, sweetness, and an excellent combination of flavors” are terms Nuñez uses to describe the flavor profile of the Vintage 1997.

General Cigar has introduced a handful of special, limited-edition cigars in recent years, like the Punch Rare Corojo, Cohiba XV, Partagas Limited Reserve, and another Macanudo, the Gold Label, made from the first priming (first six leaves) of the tobacco plants from the 2000 harvest. While he takes pride in all of these cigars, Nuñez is quick to point out that vintage designations will remain a concept exclusive to Macanudo. “Vintages and limited reserves are different from my point of view,” he says. “Just being old does not, according to our concept, classify a tobacco as vintage.”

Bahia Cigars founder Tony Borhani (opposite page) was an early pioneer of the declared vintage concept, drawing parallels to the effect of specific soil conditions in growing grapes for winemaking.
Another pioneer of the declared vintage concept is Tony Borhani, the outspoken head of Bahia Cigars. Borhani is a believer that the idea of terroir - the French term used by vintners to describe the effect that a particular parcel of earth has on the taste of its fruits - applies to tobacco leaf as well as grapes. “I was in the wine business, and when I got into cigars, I realized that the process of making a cigar is similar to that of wine. The idea of declaring a vintage, like they do in Champagne or in Portugal, was really appealing and made sense. So I started exploring the idea of using one year’s harvest to make a cigar when that harvest is really exceptional.” The very first one was a lucky happenstance: when Bahia started up in the boom year of 1995, the only leaf available was from 1988 - which just happened to be an outstanding crop from the famous Perez family farm in Nicaragua.

Borhani actually has two different sets of vintage years: one for his natural-wrapped cigars (1988, 1990, 1992, 1996, and 1998) and one for maduros (1993, 1998). The natural cigars’ vintages are declared based on the tobacco used for the filler and binder, whereas the maduro vintages are assigned based on the wrappers. “We have used Connecticut seed wrapper for the natural vintage because that wrapper is somewhat neutral in flavor, and allows the vintage in the blend to show itself,” Borhani explains. “The flavor in that cigar is a representation of the filler and binder. The wrapper doesn’t hide or overpower the characteristics. The maduro is the opposite: we declare the vintage based on the Connecticut broadleaf wrapper, because it’s so flavorful.” Vintage maduro years have been few and far between compared to vintage natural years, but Borhani is eager to release the latest one, the 1998, sometime this year.

Rocky Patel, the man behind Indian Tabac cigars, believes that while some years yield a better tobacco crop than others, the real key is aging - and caring for the old tobacco meticulously. Indian’s recent forays into the category, Vintage 1990 and Vintage 1992, are an expression of that philosophy. Seeking out good, aged tobacco for a new, limited blend, Patel contacted U.S. Cigar Sales, which had been sitting on about $30 million worth of raw tobacco leaf set aside during the boom for brands now discontinued. Patel inquired if the company had any older wrapper that was still usable. “They had lots of Ecuadorian Sumatra, and some broadleaf grown on their farm in Talanga,” he recalls. “It took a long time to recondition it, and bring it back to life so the wrapper was pliable and didn’t loose lots of its flavor. Fortunately, the materials were stored in perfect condition by U.S. Cigar.”

So what characteristics do a decade or so of age add to a cigar wrapper? “It bleeds out a lot of the tar and nicotine,” Patel responds. “It adds a very refined flavor, a balanced taste. It takes away much of the bitterness and edginess of a [younger] cigar, so you have a very smooth flavor.” Construction also benefits. “I’ve seen about 25,000 of my vintage cigars smoked at events across the country, and I have yet to see one that didn’t burn perfectly.”

Patel, who has always put aside a percentage of the best tobacco for use in special releases, will be following up these two cigars next year with another vintage (the year was not specified) as well as a limited-edition cigar utilizing eight-year-old ligero filler.

Another proponent of optimum aging is Henry “Kiki” Berger, the personable owner of Tabacalera Esteli in Nicaragua. Berger has been growing tobacco for 12 years and making cigars for seven, including the Cupido brand and his recent proprietary brands like Cuban Crafters and J.L. Salazar y Hermanos Reserva Especial. He cites what he feels is a common misconception among newer cigar enthusiasts.

“The non-educated consumer looks at [the term] “vintage” and thinks it’s too old,” he says. “He wants something fresh. People see cigar rollers at events and want a freshly rolled cigar. They think it’s like baking a pie, that it’s good right out of the oven. I would never smoke one; it’s full of humidity. I’d want at least two years of aging.”

Age, however, is not Berger’s only criteria to bestow a “vintage” label on tobacco. One of the few vertically integrated cigar manufacturers in Nicaragua, he feels that controlling the process from seed to completed cigar is the only way to ensure exceptional quality - and the only way for a cigar maker to know he’s getting well-aged leaf. “If you don’t own your own farms, you will never get real consistency,” he cautions. “What grower can afford to hold on to tobacco for five or six years? They want to get rid of it, put it in a bale and sell it. When you own your own farm, you can hold onto it longer, and obtain better quality.” Echoing Borhani’s nod to tobacco terroir, he adds, “My ground is thick and dark, and it grows a thick tobacco with a certain kind of taste. If I travel 10 miles down the road, it’s not the same ground, and it’s not the same taste.”

Berger is the man behind Savinelli’s popular Nicaragua Reserve line, and the even more exclusive Nicaragua Reserve Special Selection. I ask him what separates the Special Selection from the main brand, and his answer eloquently illustrates his point about what the earth contributes to a vintage crop. “The tobacco in that cigar is from the first crop that I grew on that farm,” he reveals. Berger’s farm had served for 60 years as cattle grazing land, and thus the first tobacco crop grown there had an abundance of rich, natural fertilizer that could not be duplicated in the subsequent crop yields. As he himself bluntly puts it,” All that cattle shit fertilized it so well that the first crop was incredible! The second was very good, but not like the first. It didn’t have the same fertilization. That’s why we called [the first one] Special Selection, because it was a one-time deal. I told Ruben [Ysidron, president of Savinelli], don’t ask me for this same cigar again, because we’re never going to have it again.”

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