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Tobacco Land: The Dominican Republic

The Dominican Republic Has Some of the World's Best Growing Regions for Premium Cigar Tobacco
James Suckling
From the Print Edition:
Demi Moore, Autumn 96

(continued from page 1)

It was slightly difficult to imagine this as Kelner's Jeep sped over the dirt road, turning the farms and trees into a constant blur of green. (Kelner used to drive road rallies in the region as a young man and, apparently, he likes to keep in practice even today.) It was difficult to focus on the hundreds of rows of bright green tobacco plants in the fields as we zoomed past. The occasional low-lying tobacco curing barn with its palm-frond roof added texture to the colors. We were only about an hour and a half outside of the town of Santiago, where many of the major cigar factories are located, including one of Kelner's factories, as well as Fuente, General Cigar and Manufactures de Tobacos S.A. (MATASA). Yet the clean, almost antiseptic rooms full of rollers and finished cigars seemed a thousand miles away.

The Dominican Republic has become the world's largest producer of handmade premium cigars in recent years, but its top tobacco growing region remains for the most part a mystery, even to many members of the cigar trade. "You've just seen more than most of the top people in the cigar business have ever seen," Kelner says with a laugh, as he throttles the Jeep northwest towards the village of Cruce de Barrero (forcing a man on a bicycle off the dirt road and into some bushes in the process). "They never come out and see the farms. But it is the key to making great cigars. You have to know the origins of your tobacco."

Kelner is always one to poke fun at his industry, although his deep affection for the tobacco and the cigars of his country is unmatched. The fact is that almost none of the Dominican Republic's cigars are puros, or pure, that is, made from 100 percent Dominican tobacco. (One exception is the Opus X brand from Tabacalera A. Fuente). Most cigars produced in the dozens of Dominican cigar factories are a blend of tobaccos from nations other than Cuba (although bales of Cuban tobacco have been known to pop up in factories' warehouses on occasion), including Nicaragua, Honduras, Ecuador, Brazil, Indonesia, Mexico, Cameroon and the United States. The producers blend the tobaccos to their own specifications for specific cigars, much in the same way that coffee producers mix coffee beans from various countries for their proprietary blends.

The amount of leaf and the number of different tobaccos greatly depends on the size and shape of the cigars and, of course, the blending style and skills of each cigar manufacturer. Basically, the larger the cigar, the more tobacco that can be used; thus, the greater variety of tobacco. For the most part, Dominican tobacco is used for filler, although some cigar makers use it for binder as well. The only cigar maker using Dominican-grown tobacco for wrappers is the Fuente family, although a few others use it to make candela cigars.

Few cigar producers on the island make their blends according to the specific location where the tobacco has been grown. Of course, none of the cigar makers interviewed for this story would reveal what exactly went into their blends, which is a closely guarded secret. In fact, key employees from some well-known cigar makers are occasionally wooed away by competitors in hopes of gaining access to such information. It is well known that the industry standard is the tobacco grown northwest of Villa Gonzalez, usually called La Canela, or southwest, called Jacagua. "La Canela is usually a richer, more full-bodied tobacco while Jacagua is finer and more elegant," says Miguel Dosal, the manager of Compania de Tabacos Quisqueya, one of the major companies processing tobacco for cigar manufacturers. "We could be much more specific in processing and selecting our tobaccos according to where they originate, but it is too costly and there isn't the demand."

Nevertheless, a growing number of cigar producers, including Kelner and the Fuentes, are selecting and growing tobacco according to its Dominican origins. In the aging warehouses of the Kelner and Fuente factories, hundreds of bales of tobacco carry various codes printed on their burlap or palm-leaf wrappings. These markings not only indicate what type of tobacco is in the bale, but they also frequently reveal the date of harvest and the name of the particular farm. "You have to know exactly where the tobacco comes from," says Carlos Fuente Jr. of Tabacalera A. Fuente. "This is the only real way to maintain a consistency in your blends. Each harvest is different, producing lighter or richer tobaccos. So you need to be able to blend a little more of this tobacco or a little less of that tobacco to maintain the style of each brand and cigar you make."

Even if some cigar producers are less "finca specific" than Fuente and a few others, most do use different varieties of Dominican tobacco: olor, piloto Cubano and San Vicente. These represent the three key tobacco types grown in the Dominican Republic for premium cigars. Piloto is the best of the three, with the seed type originating from Cuba's Vuelta Abajo. Due to the variety's richness and intense flavor, cigar makers use it primarily as filler to supercharge their blends. San Vicente, a hybrid of piloto and originally developed on the farm of San Vicente in the Vuelta Abajo, is slightly less powerful than piloto and more acidic in stimulation, while olor is salty and rather neutral in flavor. Cigar producers usually use varied amounts of all three in their blends, which are typically available in three strengths (in descending order of strength, ligero, seco and volado) depending upon what part of the plant the leaves originate. "It is just like a chef," says Kelner. "You use so much of this tobacco and a little of that. For example, I may only use 10 or 20 percent of olor in a certain blend, but it acts just like a little salt or spice in a particular recipe for soup or something."

Wrapper tobacco growing has had a spotted history in the Dominican Republic. Although some farmers tried in the late 1970s and early 1980s to grow premium wrapper tobacco, the results were not good and the demand was low. It was only after the Fuente family began growing wrapper tobacco that anyone took much notice. "I hope that one day a large amount of the cigars here will use home-grown wrappers. It's the future of premium Dominican cigars," says Kelner, who has conducted some highly successful experiments on his own plantation just north of Navarette. He was skeptical of the Fuentes' project at first, since his experiments about a decade ago were less successful, but he is now highly supportive of the idea.

This year's harvest, said to be the largest in two decades, will provide Kelner and his counterparts plenty of tobacco for their blends. The Dominican Republic Institute of Tobacco reported that 18,214 acres of olor and Cuban-seed tobacco were planted for this year's crop, about one and a half times larger than the 1994-1995 crop and more than double the 1993-1994 harvest. The only down side will be the quality, since most tobacco experts say the tobacco is slightly lighter in style than other years, meaning most blends will need to be fortified with tobacco from other areas, past harvests or stronger varieties or types.

This said, however, it was difficult to detect any doubt in the faces of Dominican tobacco men like Kelner as they drove through the region, looking out at the vast fields of beautiful tobacco during this year's harvest. The boom in the demand for premium cigars from the Dominican Republic has been a boon to tobacco production throughout the Yaque Valley. Anyone associated with cigars in the country is doing much better now than even a year ago. "A few years ago, many farmers were replanting their fields with just about anything but tobacco," says Kelner as he slides his Jeep around a corner of another nameless dirt track in the valley. "It's not like that anymore. We should see more and more better tobacco grown each year now." The Land of Opus X


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