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Mr. Flores

Food & Beverage

Pairings: Are Cigars and Wine Good Partners? Lets Find Out

By Juan Carlos Flores, Executive Sommelier, Pueblo Bonito Hotels Resorts & Spas

From a personal point of view, how wine and other beverages react with the different kinds of cigars.

Cigars-where to begin when there is so much to say about them? I was studying for my sommelier's diploma while working in the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo when the world of cigars first opened to me. From the balcony of the hotel I could watch Ferraris and Lamborghinis arriving at the Casino, people wearing fashionable clothes, drinking the best wines and spirits, and very often complementing the experience with a long cigar. It was paradise for someone who was learning and wanted a taste of the best.

Before work the head sommelier used to practice blind tastings by smelling different spirits and trying to identify them. I began to do the same in order to improve my abilities at blind tasting. It was fun and not difficult to identify a vodka, gin, sake, whiskey, tequila, rum, Armagnac, cognac or a liqueur, but it was incredibly complex to determine the origin and specific characteristics of one glass when we were tasting a group of products of the same kind. When work was finished we used to enjoy a glass of some spirit while talking about the day, and often paired it with a cigar. The combination with aged rums, brandies and whiskies created great experiences. It seems that the years that spirits spend in oak impart weight and flavors that go well with most cigars.

When choosing a spirit to go with a cigar, we need to consider aspects like flavors and the flavor weight in mouth as we do when pairing wine with food. We can think of a perfect example of pairing Habanos with aged Cuban rum where both products come from the same place. The soft sweetness of rum is perfect for balancing the spices of these particular cigars. Of course all rums and cigars show differences depending on how they were made and on the quality of their ingredients.

In order to better understand cigars and how to pair them, let's remember how they are classified and what characteristics are obtained from each type. Though we can find cigars made in different countries, to make it simple let's keep our focus on Cuban Habanos.

The tobacco in Habanos, just as the grapes in wine, must come from the best microclimate to produce the best results. In Cuba the best and most famous area for quality is Vuelta Abajo, where the important city of Pinar del Rio is located, surrounded by the best fields of tobacco known as vegas. Each vega is worked and protected by a particular person called the veguero, and this person has an established link with a specific factory in order to produce the best leaves of tobacco for their needs.

Tobacco is grown in two ways: shade grown, which protects the plants from sunlight by a muslin cover, thereby obtaining longer and finer leaves for wrapping, and sun grown, where leaves reach full flavor and are used for blending the filler and binder. Leaves that are sun grown are divided in three parts in order to be separated during harvest, and then receive specific treatment during fermentation according to their characteristics. Fermentation is essential for quality, and depending on the strength of the leaves, more fermentation time will be required for sweating out impurities from the leaf and reducing acidity, tartness and nicotine. Fermentation also is important in shade grown leaves to determine the final color of the cigar. The range of colors could be more than 90 different tones that do not influence the flavor directly, but are the part of the cigar that makes it more attractive to the eye. All of the cigars in one package must be close to the same color, and there is a team of experts who choose them. This color will continue changing with the years of aging. A great cigar could be aged in correct conditions for 15 years or even more.

At the top of a sun grown plant we find the full flavored and slow burning leaves that are classified as ligero, which are thicker and have more oils. In the middle are the medium flavored leaves know as seco, the most important leaf for aromas. At the bottom we find the light flavored leaves, valued for their combustibility. These three classified tobacco leaves form the heart of the cigar, and depending on the different blends determined by the Master Blender of each brand, the right wrapper leaf and the time spent aging will finish with more than 200 different options in Cuban cigars.

There are about thirty-three brands producing Habanos, and each one offers their cigars following specifications in shape and size according to their preferences and Cuban laws. Each shape and size has a name (vitola de galera) inside the factory to identify each cigar, as well as the common name (vitola de slida) that the cigars receive in the market. Sometimes the name is the same, but when it changes they continue to respect the established measures. The most famous group for classifying these shapes and measures starts with a trilogy of cigars with a ring gauge of 42, which means that the diameter of these cigars is 42 units out of 60, which is the limit. What makes the difference among them is their length. The Mareva, also known as Petit Corona, is the shorter one at 129 mm in length and offers 25 min. of tasting. The second one is known as Corona at 142 mm, and the third one is Cervantes-also known as Londsdale-at 165 mm. which will offer 50 min of relaxation.

The next shape is Laguito No.1 with a ring gauge of 38 and 192 mm. of length, which will provide a little more than one hour of pleasure. Then Prominente or Double Corona with a ring gauge of 49 and 194 mm I length, is a cigar in which the smoke is not very warm and is lighter in flavor at the beginning, but soon changes into richness and strength. Julieta No. 2 with a ring of 47 and length of 178 mm, is also known as Churchill in honor to Winston Churchill, who used to smoke this shape as one of his favorites. Dalias is known as 8-9-8 because of the way it is packaged and has a ring of 43 and length of 170 mm. Robusto, with a ring of 50 and length of 124 mm, offers slow burning with intense flavors. Piramide or Semi Figurado looks like a pyramid and has 50 of ring and length of 156 mm. Exquisito or Figurado tactually has a torpedo shape with a ring of 46 and length of 145. This shape is not always easy to find and Cuaba is the brand most representative in this kind. A shorter size is Perla with a ring of 40 and length of 102 mm. The last one is Laguito No.3 with a ring of 26 and length of 115mm. It is also known as "entre acto" which means between acts, referring to the short time that a person may have in the theater during the break for smoking this cigar.

Before pairing cigars with any beverage we need to understand the differences between each brand-their vitolas. Following is a brief guide to the flavor strength profile of the most famous and easy to find brands in the world of Cuban cigars.

Cohiba flavor strength may be from medium to full flavor in their classic line and medium in their 1492 line. Montecristo may be from medium to full flavor as Vegas Robainas. Hoyo de Monterrey is light and elegant as Fonseca. Romeo y Julieta is medium as Punch. Bolivar and Partagas are considered full flavor producers and H. Upmann is considered between the light and medium strength brands.

Knowing these characteristics, we can relax and smoke some cigars while tasting different wines and spirits. We know that cigars match well with whiskey, cognac, brandy and aged rum, and it is not hard to choose something that we will enjoy. After tasting some spirits with cigars, I perceived differences from one single malt to another and from one fine Champagne XO to another. But what really caught my attention was when I was sipping a glass of wine that was good by itself and a friend offered me a cigar and the experience was not good at all. I was concerned about how well or badly a cigar or a wine can be affected if it is not correctly selected for the match. The range of mistakes with wine is wider than with spirits and definitely you can have a bad aftertaste if you do not choose the right option, so I took the challenge and started tasting wines and beers with different cigars to see the result.

I invited a couple of my sommelier friends to share in the tastings and asked them to bring some wines from their personal cellars. The wines included a Sileni Pinot Noir 2005 from Hawks Bay, New Zealand, an Abadia Retuerta 2000 from Sardon de Duero, Spain, and some wines from the north of Baja California, Mexico. These were a Roganto Tempranillo 2005 made by Antonio Escalante, and Nera 2005 made by Jos'e Luis Durand, which is 60% Nebbiolo and 40% Petite Syrah. Another wine was Oremus Tokaji Asz'u 5 puttonyos 1999. We also tasted a beer produce by Gouden Carolus Cuv'ee Van De Keizer 2004, and finally we had a glass of Tequila Maestro Tequilero A~nejo from Mexico and one of Brandy Torres X from Spain. It was very interesting what we found with the cigars we choose.

The Cigars were the full flavored and spicy Cohiba Siglo VI, the strength and earthiness of the Montecristo No.2 and richness of the elegant Montecristo Edmundo. The freshness and honeyed flavors from Fonseca No.1. The light and friendly Hoyo de Monterrey Epicure No. 2. Romeo y Julieta No.2 de Luxe offering notes of wood and we finish with the elegant and easy to enjoy Arturo Fuentes Churchill from Dominican Republic. We started tasting all the cigars in order from light to full flavored as we did with the wines. So we picked the Pinot Noir Sileni 2005, and what a nice surprise it was to find that even if it was not the perfect match with all the cigars, it was pleasant with the lighter ones like the Hoyo de Monterrey. It seems that the red and fresh fruit from the wine appears when the light smoky flavors of the cigars cover the other aromas of the wine. This wine, with light tannins and perfectly balanced acidity, was an interesting experience with light and almost neutral cigars. I think the ring gauge of 50 from this cigar helps obtain a pack of rounded flavor that is similar to the body of the wine. When the ring is smaller it concentrates more the flavor in the tongue, changing the perception.

The next wine was the Spanish Abadia Retuerta 2000, made with tempranillo. This elegant wine turns into red fresh fruits when interacting with cigars. It is a perfect wine to be enjoyed by itself, with food, and in this case the Montecristo Edmundo turns both very smooth. It was pleasant as well with the strength of the Cohiba Siglo VI.

The third wine was the Mexican Roganto Tempranillo 2005, which has a high extraction from the skin and eight months of new French, American and Hungarian oak. This full bodied wine offers ripe red & black fruit aromas, toasted notes, cocoa, tobacco, coffee beans and spices from the oak. This wine needs the strength and spiciness of the Cohiba Siglo VI to swing in harmony. This cigar turns the wine experience into something lighter, refreshes the fruit, reduces the strong tannins from the oak, and brings the caramel to the fore. This wine does not, however, react in the same pleasant way with the rest of the cigars.

The fourth wine is also from the north of the Baja in Mexico. Its name is Nera 2005 and it blends the red fruit aromas of the Nebbiolo with the strength of the Petite Syrah, obtaining a full bodied wine with great balance of red & black fruit with tobacco, spices and interesting synergy between the tannins and fresh acidity. This wine was the surprise of the night because it was very pleasant with all the cigars. Specially with the Hoyo de Monterrey and Montecristo Edmundo it showed a wonderful rich & enduring cassis flavor.

Another wine was the famous Oremus Tokaji Asz'u 5 puttonyos 1999. I was curious to see if cigars could turn this wine into a bad experience, but it is impossible. To drink this wine on its own is a great moment. I recommend this wine pairing light cigars in order to better enjoy both. With Arturo Fuentes, Hoyo de Monterrey, Fonseca No. 1 was a cocktail of citric and exotic fruits, while with Romeo and Julieta No. 2 and fuller bodied cigars it shows more the honey. In my opinion it is better when the cigar is light to medium in strength with a higher ring gauge.

Our next surprise was with one of the best beers in the world, Gouden Carolus Cuv'ee Van De Keizer 2004 from Belgium. This rich and complex beer is like a cream of different flavors that change depending on the cigar, but definitely if we want to pair with some dark beer, this is the one! My favorite experience was with Montecristo Edmundo, obtaining dark cherries, coffee and cedar in every sip of the beer.

Finally we tried pairing with distilled products. The first was an elegant Tequila Maestro Tequilero A~nejo that was surprisingly good paired with the Arturo Fuentes. This elegant cigar turns this A~nejo into the best smooth cream taste of tequila with hints of almonds, honey, and vanilla. This same Tequila with Cohiba Siglo VI was also memorable a it increased the flavor of the spices from the cigar into a elegant experience.

The Brandy Torres X produces pleasure on top of pleasure. All you need is to know what flavors you want to experience with your pairing. With the Hoyo de Monterrey I had dry fruits like dates, figs and dry prunes. If coffee, toffee and caramel is what you are looking for, be sure to ask for the Cohiba Siglo VI.

I hope these experiences I shared with you today will invite you to find other new and exciting ones. It is said of cigars: "It's not a habit like cigarettes, it's like a wine palate issue. It's a taste, a relaxation; it's also a camaraderie with friends trading tasting information."

I wish you good luck with your future tasting.

Juan Carlos Flores, executive sommelier with Pueblo Bonito Oceanfront Resorts and Spas, was named Mexico’s champion sommelier in 2004, and in 2005 won the Five Star Diamond Award for best North American sommelier. Mr. Flores was educated in Mexico, France and the United States and speaks fluent English, Spanish and French. As executive sommelier, he oversees the extensive wine collections of Pueblo Bonito’s seven resort hotels and numerous restaurants, provides pairing recommendations, and serves as wine advisor and instructor. Mr. Flores can be contacted at jflores@pueblobonito.com.mx Extended Bio...

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