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Smoke: Ground Swell

Richard Carleton Hacker

Nothing tastes like a Cuban cigar, except a Cuban cigar, because the taste is attributed to the rich, red soil of the country’s Vuelta Abajo, the only place on the island where all three components of a cigar—wrapper, binder, and filler—can be grown. However, the composition of that soil may not be unique to Cuba, and thus the flavors it produces may not remain unique to the Habano.

In the Jamastran Valley of southern Honduras, the San Agustin Valley, a remote plot of real estate, sits 690 feet lower than the surrounding land. Even during the dry season, this valley within a valley enjoys frequent and gentle rains that soak into an ultrarich topsoil deposited millions of years ago by a once-wide river, the gold-bearing Rio Guayambre. Although Jamastran is known for its tobacco farms, until fairly recently no one had grown tobacco in San Agustin.
 
Nestor Plasencia, a fifth-generation tobacco farmer whose family left Cuba when Castro confiscated their land, discovered this virgin valley in 1994, finding beneath the thick jungle a claylike soil that reminded him of the Vuelta Abajo’s. He purchased the property, cleared the trees, and began growing tobacco. It did not take long for word of his lush crop to reach Daniel Nuñez, executive vice president of Caribbean region operations for General Cigar, who formed a partnership with Plasencia that secured the San Agustin tobacco for his company.

“First, it was the site, the microclimate, that got my attention,” says Nuñez, also a tobacco agronomist. “It was not high, about 180 meters above sea level, which is ideal for tobacco. There is both sunlight and clouds, which makes for sun-grown and shade-grown tobaccos. The soil is deep, with good drainage, yet it holds the water very well. But most important is the flavor it brings to the tobacco.”

In 2003, General Cigar introduced the first cigar with a San Agustin wrapper, the Punch Gran Puro, which features all Honduran tobacco, including San Agustin leaf in the filler. The combination is rich and full, without being strong. Next came the spicy Partagas Spanish Rosado, which also features San Agustin wrapper and filler. The reddish sheen of the Rosado wrapper indicates the San Agustin soil’s unique mix of iron, magnesium, and phosphate. Last year, General Cigar added three new smokes: the meaty Partagas Cifuentes Blend, the tangy Excalibur Royal Sterling, and the hefty Sancho Panza Extra Fuerte. Each demonstrates the San Agustin wrapper’s versatility.

The tobacco’s unique qualities are apparent even in the field. The leaves are thicker, almost bulbous, and silkier than other tobaccos, with a velvety texture that clings to the fingers. As with Cuban tobacco, these shared characteristics of the San Agustin leaves can be traced to the soil. “The soil is very close to the soil in the Vuelta Abajo,” observes Plasencia, “and of all the cigars produced from this special valley, the Gran Puro is the best.”

The Gran Puro tastes similar to a Havana—exhibiting the earthiness associated with Cuban tobacco—but not quite the same. However, with hybrid Havana seeds and improved agricultural techniques, Nuñez continues to draw closer to his goal of reproducing the flavor of a Habano. To the question of whether General Cigar eventually will make a San Agustin puro, with wrapper, filler, and binder all from this valley, Nuñez answers, “We have to. We must.”

General Cigar Co., www.cigarworld.com

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