PINAR DEL RIO and VUELTA ABAJO, CUBA
There are those who disagree (the leaf producers of Connecticut, the Dominican Republic, and Honduras foremost among them), but it is still generally acknowledged that the finest cigar tobacco in the world comes from Cuba, and in particular from the Vuelta Abajo area of the Pinar del Rio province.
Pinar del Rio is the region at the western end of Cuba, situated between mountains and the coast, the island's third largest province. The area, which points toward the Mexican Yucatan peninsula, is undulating, green, and lush (it was under the sea in prehistoric times), rather resembling southeast Asia or parts of southern Louisiana and Florida. Life and living conditions there are primitive for the 600,000 inhabitants, with none of the sophistication or development to be found near Havana. But the agricultural conditions, climate, rainfall, and soil (a reddish sandy loam) are perfect for tobacco production, by far the main industry. Tobacco is grown on small holdings (many of them privately owned, but selling tobacco to the government at a fixed price), totaling about 100,000 acres. They create a patchwork effect across the plains. Before the revolution, large tracts of land were owned by the main tobacco companies, but today, although vegueros can own up to 150 acres, most cultivate from five to ten acres. Outside the tobacco season, maize is often grown on the same land. Vuelta Abajo takes up most of the 160 square miles of Pinar del Rio. Tobacco grows freely here, but the finest, destined for cigars to be known as Havanas or Habanos, comes from a surprisingly small area centered around the two towns of San Juan y Martinez and San Luis. Not much more than 2,500 acres are devoted to wrappers and 5,000 acres to fillers and binders. Amongst the best known plantations are El Corojo, where the Corojo wrapper plant was developed, and Hoyo de Monterrey, famous for its fillers.
The rainfall in Pinar del Rio is among the highest in Cuba, with 65 inches a year, although significant for tobacco growth, only 8 inches or so of rain over an average of 26 days falls during the main growing months from November to February. They come in the middle of La Seca, the dry season, by which time the soil has had plenty of rain from storms in the period from May to October. Temperatures during the growing season reach average highs of 80 degrees F, with around 8 hours a day of sunshine, and average humidity of 64 percent. The Semivuelta area is the second tobacco-growing area of Pinar del Rio, and produces thicker leaves, with a stronger aroma than those of Vuelta Abajo. This tobacco was once exported to the United States, but is now used for the domestic cigar industry.
The Partido area, near Havana, also grows high-quality wrappers for handmade Havanas. Remedios in the island's center, and Oriente at its eastern end produce tobacco, too, but not for top-quality cigars.
THE DOMINICAN REPUBLIC
The Dominican Republic, east of Cuba, has a similar climate and very good tobacco-growing conditions, particularly in the Cibao River valley. Over the last 15 years or so, it has become a major exporter of top quality handmade cigars, particularly to the United States, which imports around 60 million cigars a year from there. This accounts for half of the American handmade cigar market. It has attracted major cigar manufacturers such as General Cigar (with brands like Canaria D'Oro and Partagas) and Consolidated Cigar (brand names such as Don Diego and Primo del Rey). Consolidated moved its operations to the Dominican Republic from the Canary Islands. Most of the tobacco grown in the Dominican Republic is for fillers only. Virtually all the wrappers and many of the binders for cigars made there are imported from countries like the U.S. (Connecticut), Cameroon (for Partagas, for instance), Brazil, Honduras, Mexico, and Ecuador. A few fillers are brought in from abroad, as well. Major efforts, led by the Fuente family, are now being made to extend the variety of tobaccos grown in the country. Even wrappers, always the toughest challenge, are now to be seen on the Fuente's plantations and on some of their cigars.
The sandy loam of the Connecticut valley (where conditions suitable for growing top-quality cigar tobacco are created under huge, 10-foot high tents), and the use of the Hazelwood strain of Cuban seed produces some of the world's best wrapper leaves, called Connecticut Shade. The leaves are very expensive to produce and sell for as much as $40 a pound, adding between 50 cents and a dollar to the price of a cigar. The growing cycle begins in March, with the harvest taking place in August. The drying process, though essentially the same as in Cuba, is helped, in Connecticut, by the use of careful heating from below using gas burners. Connecticut wrappers are used for cigars such as Macanudo, and the Dominican-made Davidoffs.