No tears were shed in Cuba when the last seeds of El Corojo were planted in the rich red soils of the Vuelta Abajo, Cuba's premier tobacco-growing region. Cuban tobacco experts don't seem 100 percent sure when it happened, probably about 1997 or so, but what can be safely said today is that El Corojo is dead. That is something to lament.
I can't help thinking about the now extinct wrapper tobacco every time I smoke one of my beautiful well-aged Cuban cigars. I often feel nostalgic and sad when I gaze upon the dark brown wrapper. It satisfies my eyes and titillates my palate. Many cigarmakers say that a wrapper contributes very little to the overall quality of a cigar since it only accounts for 5 to 8 percent of the bulk of a smoke. But I disagree. It's like saying a gorgeous designer dress doesn't add to the attraction of a beautifully figured woman. Just take the wrapper off a cigar and smoke it and you know immediately that it does have an effect: the wrapperless cigar just doesn't taste as good.
First developed in the 1930s at the El Corojo plantation outside San Juan y Martinez, Cuba, El Corojo had served as the wrapper for some of the greatest cigars ever made on the island: from the aristocratic Por Larrañaga Magnum to the ritzy Cohiba Esplendido. It was the first thing to catch the eye of keen cigar smokers, from Fidel Castro and John F. Kennedy to you and me. Its oily, silky grain look was irresistible. El Corojo makes a cigar look so rich and beautiful that it makes you want to smoke it.
But that's over now. At least that's what José Redonet of the Tobacco Research Center says. This past February, during the final week of the tobacco harvest, I visited Redonet and a few of his colleagues in San Juan y Martinez, the Cuban town in which the largest percentage of premium wrapper tobacco is grown. Redonet coldly explained that El Corojo was too susceptible to diseases such as black shank, a root fungus that causes the tobacco stalk to wither and the leaves to droop, and blue mold, so growers could no longer risk using the tobacco. "If a grower planted El Corojo today, there's a very good chance that he would end up with little or no tobacco at the end of the harvest," Redonet said, as he walked through hundreds of rows of Habanos 2000 wrapper tobacco growing under cheesecloth netting.
Redonet said that most tobacco growers now opt for such alternatives as Habanos 2000, Criollo 98 and 99, and Corojo 99. These are all hybrids of El Corojo, meaning they have been crossbred with the original and then other tobacco types to make them more resistant to diseases. Apparently, the leaves from the hybrids are also larger, with a better, longer shape for making cigars. In addition, Redonet suggested that the new tobacco could be processed more quickly than El Corojo, making the wrapper available for cigar rolling a few months earlier than in the past. This is important, since the Cubans have been in a bit of a bind recently due to a shortage of large wrapper leaves. They even have had to close some of their more prestigious cigar factories or reduce their output.
However, I still had some concerns: How are these new tobacco types going to influence the way Cuban cigars taste? Is that rich, spicy, cedar aroma from a great Habano going to be a thing of the past? The officials at the research center certainly didn't think so. I posed the question to a group of them as we lunched on black beans and rice and some hunks of greasy roasted pork. They all agreed with Redonet. "I am sure that there is no difference organoleptically with these tobacco types and El Corojo," Redonet said reassuringly. "The experts have smoked the new tobacco types and they say there is no difference."
Strangely, after lunch I noticed that no one was smoking. So I offered them each a robusto-sized Partagas Serie D No. 4. There were no takers. I was shocked when I found out that none of them smoked. "You guys are like a great chef who doesn't eat his own food or a winemaker who only drinks water. How can you say that Habana 2000 or Corojo 99 is no different than El Corojo?" I asked. They thought this was very funny. But I wasn't joking.
Maybe it's my imagination, but I think that today's Cuban cigars taste different from my older cigars, although the quality of today's Cuban cigars appears to be better. A few years ago, you could find one box of super quality smokes but five or six that were complete crap. After visiting reputable tobacco dealers in London, Geneva, Milan, Bordeaux, Havana, Munich, Cancun and Paris, I can safely say that I haven't seen the smokes look this good in years. However, when I smoke these new cigars, they don't seem to have the intense spicy, earthy tobacco character that I have come to love and expect from a Cuban smoke. They are damned good smokes, but they seem more mild with a little less character. When I compare my current Habanos to those with four or five years of age in my humidor, I find the older ones much more powerful and exciting. Maybe it's a question of age, but I have my doubts.
The prehybrid smokes could one day be likened to the pre-phylloxera wines of Europe that have a legendary reputation among great wine collectors. These are wines that were made primarily before 1880 from old, gnarly vines whose roots were anchored deep in the soil to extract an amazing amount of nutrients. They produced concentrated wine grapes with character. Unfortunately, they had not been grafted or spliced to American rootstock to protect them from the ravenous root louse that destroyed most of Europe's vineyards during the latter part of the nineteenth century. On a number of occasions I have tasted such pre-phylloxera wines as 1865 Lafite, 1870 Latour and recently 1863 Latour and 1870 Climens, and the character and concentration they still deliver are out of this world.
I now find myself buying more and more cigars with three or four years of box age, thinking that these may be the last Cuban smokes of an era. Maybe the new cigars with their hybrid wrappers are better. Only time will tell. But they don't have the style of El Corojo wrappers--those irresistible, velvety textured, opened-grain oily ones grown in the heart of the Vuelta Abajo.