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Cigar Diary: The Virtues of Panetelas

Fine, Thin Cigars Offer Much More than Most Smokers Realize
By James Suckling | From William Shatner, Sept/Oct 2006
Cigar Diary: The Virtues of Panetelas

I organized a cigar dinner in June at my house in Tuscany for Andrea Vincenzi, the head of the Italian import company for Cuban cigars, Diadema SpA. The cigar world in Italy has changed over the last four years largely thanks to the hard work of Diadema. You can now find just about every serious Cuban cigar you can hope for in bella Italia, and at prices comparable to Switzerland or France. Before, it was difficult to find more than a handful of good cigars, and most were Romeo & Juileta Churchills in tubes.

My dinner was outdoors on the patio, with lots of good wine, hearty food and interesting conversation—not to mention some excellent Cuban cigars. There were 10 of us. The selection of the cigars was a bit of a revelation for some. I guess my friends expected some robustos, Churchills or double coronas, but I served only slender and long smokes, mostly panetelas.

The cigars included a Hoyo de Monterrey Gourmet (1984), Partagas La Flor de Partagas Rhein Selecta No. 13 (1982) and Montecristo Especial (1984). The largest cigar was the latter, which measured 38 ring gauge by 7 inches, while the Partagas was the thinnest, measuring 32 ring gauge by 6 inches. (The Partagas had the word "Maduro" printed on the back of the cabinet box. Read further down about Cuba's new maduro project.) The Selecta No. 13 was a special cigar produced years ago for the Geneva cigar merchant Rhein, and it was the most extraordinary cigar of the evening. Everyone agreed.

Despite its size, the Partagas was a blockbuster smoke with loads of spicy, coffee, cedar and tobacco character. It tasted more like a Cohiba Robusto than a long, elegant smoke. Nonetheless, some of my guests first thought it was a better fit for a girl to smoke than one of the guys. (Chauvinism still reigns in Italy!) The fact is, we all spend too much time focusing on big, bad and bold smokes—the sort of cigars that make you feel manlier, for lack of a better phrase. This is one reason why the robusto is so popular in the market at the moment. It is quickly becoming the No. 1—selling Cuban cigar shape, or vitola, and it has long been the favorite size of Cigar Aficionado readers. Granted, we also like the size because it draws so well and we seldom get a plugged cigar. And it's a good size for a relatively quick and satisfying smoke.

But we should all take a better look at thinner, finer cigars. You might be surprised if you try one.

Vincenzi was certainly impressed at my dinner. "I am amazed by this cigar," he said, dragging on the Partagas, which looked like a black pencil in his right hand. "It's very rich and flavorful. And it's aged as well. I can't believe it."

Just because a cigar is small and thin doesn't mean it can't deliver flavor. One of my favorite Cuban smokes at the moment is the Trinidad Fundadores, which measures 40 ring gauge by 7 inches long. It is the same length, but slightly thicker, than the once popular Cohiba Lanceros. The Fundadores I have are from the original launch in Cuba in late February 1998. And they are good smokes. They draw perfectly. I think the Cubans made the Fundadores 40 ring instead of 38, which was the size of the original diplomatic Trinidad, to improve the draw. And it offers loads of spicy, coffee and tobacco character. It's a full-bodied smoke, yet looks refined and elegant as you smoke it.

The fact is, thinner cigars need much less ligero—what Cubans call their strongest tobacco in a blend—than a fatter one. For example, a laguito No. 1 (the name Cubans call the Lanceros shape in cigar factories) may use only two or three leaves in the filler along with a third or fourth of a half leaf of ligero in the blend to give it flavor and strength. In contrast, a robusto would use at least a half of a half leaf of ligero with four or five other leaves for the blend, not to mention the binder and the wrapper. (By the way, I have some laguito No. 1—sized Opus Xs from Fuente that are wrapped in black-tipped cellophane, and they still are some of the strongest cigars in my humidor! They were some special smokes made for Carlos Fuente Jr.)

Interestingly, a strong cigar doesn't necessarily have the highest percentage of ligero. This May, I attended a cigar weekend in Catania, Sicily, that Diadema organized. One of the panels included a tasting of Cuban cigars made entirely of either ligero, volado or seco, the three types of tobacco leaves used in blends on the island. The cigars were petit coronas, measuring 42 ring gauge by 4 1/2 inches. In basic terms, the volado comes from the lowest part of the tobacco plant, the seco from the middle and the ligero from the top. The idea is that the higher the leaf on the plant, the stronger or riper it is.

This was certainly the case in the Sicily tasting. The ligero cigar was the strongest of the three—it almost blew my head off! But the seco and volado also showed some strength and flavor. I had always been led to believe that it was primarily the ligero that gave a cigar its strength and flavor, along with the seco to a lesser degree, and that the volado was just to keep the cigar burning. But this just isn't the case. All three types of tobacco offer a degree of power and character to a cigar blend, or filler.

The interplay of these types of tobacco was really fascinating. I smoked all three at the same time—one after the other. I could quickly see the way they worked together. The seco seemed to be the tobacco that held the cigar together. It balanced the strength, almost coarseness of the ligero, while it freshened and enhanced the flavors of the volado. I tried smoking the volado and ligero at the same time and they fought against each another.

The bottom line is that the tasting proved that all three types of tobacco smoke best together, rather than one particular tobacco smoked on its own. In other words, the blend works and it's essential to everything. That's what a great cigar—Cuban or otherwise—is all about. Moreover, it doesn't matter whether the cigar is thin or fat.

Deborah Garcia, the quality control manager of the Partagas factory in Havana, who attended the Italian event, said it in a different way. "What is essential is the blend. That is what is Habanos. You can make a cigar from one tobacco, but that is not what a Habanos is."And the Cubans are always fine-tuning their blends. They announced this summer that they will be launching the Lanceros size, and other vitolas in the Cohiba range, in a maduro wrapper next year. So it should be even more obvious that thin smokes are just as good or better than thick ones. Habanos S.A., the global marketing and distribution company for Cuban cigars, says that the maduro wrappers are all naturally processed (whatever that means) and have a minimum of two years of age. A number of growers in Pinar del Río I've spoken with said that they had been leaving the top leaves, which they call the corona, on their tobacco crop for an extra two weeks before harvesting for the project. This should help produce the riper and darker tobacco.

In any case, just how maduro the new line of Cohiba will be remains to be seen. What can be said is that the introduction of the new smokes is a boost for anyone who appreciates a finer and thinner cigar.

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