Green tobacco. Grows glossy and thick. Sprouting through the brick-red soil. That's a haiku, I think. And the best way to describe what I saw in Pinar del Rió's San Juan y Martinez growing region in Cuba on a long car ride from Havana to the farm of Hector Luis Prieto. Freshly tilled soil in this area is as red as bricks, red as rust.
Cuba's growing season is mostly over, but there's still some tobacco in the ground if you can find the right plots and the right plantations. The car ride from Havana to the famed Pinar del Rió is a few hours and mostly pastoral, if not nap-inducing. Occasionally, someone on the side of the highway is looking for a lift. I look at Pinar del Rió's Vuelta Abajo as the Bordeaux of the tobacco world with San Juan y Martinez as the Left Bank and San Luis as the Right Bank. I'm sure I'm not the first to draw this comparison.
Prieto is accepting guests on his farm these days. He has a series of charming casitas (or little houses) as well as a main enclosure overlooking the farm for visitors to have lunch and a cigar. It's like a tiny little village for tobacco curious day-trippers, but I imagine far more people have come out over the last week on account of the Habanos Festival, though only Hirochi Robaina's farm is part of the official tour.
This year, the Prieto farm grew 6 hectares of tobacco, all of it Criollo '98. The 2015/2016 growing season was not a great one. It rained when it was supposed to be dry and vice versa. Thankfully, Prieto planted his shade-grown wrapper crop later in the season, so the wrappers weren't as adversely affected. (Watch this video to see his farm in action.) An entire planting of filler, however, was a waste and had to be replanted when too much rain caused a deluge in the fields.
If you look from the farm house to the edge of the tobacco field, you'll see a series of mango trees. Beyond those mango trees is another plot of land owned by the Prieto family for many generations. He calls it Cuchillas de Santa Damiana and says that the tobacco from that plot is some of the best in the world and used for Cohiba's "selección de selecciónes." I couldn't see it from where I was. The mango trees were just too large.
The tobacco in the ground is probably the last of the season. His best crops have been harvested and this is just a subsequent planting to see if he can get a little more filler from the land. If not, he'll use it for something else.
The food at the farm—roast chicken, pork, beans, rice, yucca—was just the type of Cuban creole country food that Havana's El Aljbe was trying to emulate. At the farm, however, the chickens actually come up to you while you're eating. If you are a chaser of "authentic experiences," this might be something worth exploring once the next planting starts again. The trip just isn't as interesting when there is no tobacco in the ground.
After lunch, a roller was making rustic-style cigars for the guests. He was creating these 60-ring gauge smokes, and I asked him to roll me something smaller, so I got a gnarly 52 or 54 ring gauge cigar without much form, but with loads of strength. Meanwhile, the stocky Hector Luis Prieto lit up a colossal 75 ring gauge cigar and gave me one as a gift. I haven't smoked it yet, primarily because it's almost the size of an egg roll. Two normal sized cigars would have been preferable, but he seemed to really enjoy such a gargantuan cigar, so who am I to go off on a tirade about huge vitolas?
I took the final puffs of my smoke, bid Hector Luis goodbye and got into the car, which did surprisingly well on the dirt roads. Having only been to the farm once, I don't know that I'd be able to pick up a regular Habanos cigar—say, a Cohiba perhaps—and proclaim something like "there are three leaves from the Prieto farm in this blend," as much as I wish I could. At 6 hectares of tobacco a year, I don't even know how many cigars that will amount to. In the broader scope of Cuban cigars, I suppose it's not really the point. Habanos does not create "estate" cigars, whether it's the Cuchillas de Santa Damiana or otherwise. Unless of course, that "estate" is Cuba.