Pairing Cigars And Wines (And Food Too)
A cigar and wine pairing is not exactly ideal. Or is it? For me the two rarely go together. If ever I have a cigar, my favorite pair is a fine and ancient Bual or Malmsey Madeira. But the reason why I have to pair a fortified and indestructible wine is because I need something as intense and flavorful to stand up to the cigar. Cigars are all-consuming to the senses, in fact overpowering to my own. But last week I met Pete Johnson, the owner of Tatuaje Cigars and a myriad of other fine cigar brands. He also is an avid lover of fine wines who might just convince anyone that a great cigar can definitely meld with fine wine.
Along with being one of the luminaries in the cigar industry – not to mention a genuinely cool guy – Johnson is a Bordeaux lover. More specifically he loves
Right Bank wines made with a predominance of Cabernet Franc. We rap about a few Chateaux, and it is obvious that his knowledge of the area is deep. He is on a first-name basis with several top Chateau owners and makes a couple of barrels of Saint-Emilion wine himself, interestingly in the cellar of Chateau Lynch-Bages. Cabernet Franc to him carries an aroma, weight and structure unlike anything else. And he loves it with cigars.
I ask him if it might be because Cabernet Franc can also exhibit some of the leafiness and spiciness that one might find in a good cigar, and he immediately agrees with the idea. But it is also about the way the tannins grip the palate and how the wine ages so well. There are the notes of blueberries, anise and plums; there is a power aligned with elegance in Franc that is unique and ineffable. I recommend to him the Alzero made by Quintarelli, a Cabernet Franc made in an Amarone style which he has never tried. I know he will find it as compelling as I do.
I have always wondered if cigar producers talk about terroir in their cigars, and Johnson’s eyes light up like I just stoked a flame: “You can make terroir anywhere.” This is not to say that there is good terroir everywhere, but where good tobacco or grapes are grown, there is a type of terroir underlying it. He makes the comparison about how fascinating it is to taste the same type of tobacco, from the same seed grown in different plantations only miles apart and how different they taste. He also draws the parallels of the growing season for tobacco as well as grapes: “We have a lot in common.”
Even in the blending process, he has an ideal blend of specific seed or variety for tobacco, much like a Bordeaux Chateau’s recipe. In fact he credits Don Jose “Pepin” Garcia with giving him the prototypical blend that he has personalized and tweaked for his own cigars, just like a winemaker who once learned from another master.
I ask him what cigar and wine pairing he would have if it were his last day on earth. He cogitates and answers 1970 Mouton with 2008 La Verite Churchill – “but it has to be in Bordeaux.”
There is that terroir thing again.
“There is something about drinking the wine in the place that it comes from,” Johnson says, and I totally agree. There is a harmony a sense of belonging and sense of place when the two are intertwined. I was also surprised that he chose 1970 Mouton, as it is not Cabernet Franc, but for him “it is a wine with a lot of memories,” and it also happens to be his birth vintage.
Recommendations: 2013 Pomelo Sauvignon Blanc ($12) Bursting with citrus accents, melons and guava, this light and crisp SB is perfect for any fresh white-fish preparation involving cream or citrus. It is also great with salads with vinaigrette topped with shrimp or scallops. Clam or mussel stew, anyone? 2011 Coup de Grace Red ($29) This Zinfandel, Petit Sirah, Petite Verdot and Cabernet Franc blend is a showstopper. It has gargantuan extract with black and blueberries galore, thick and plump, juicy even. It would be great with a grilled slab of red meat, rare if you like it that way. Lamb and baby back ribs also come to mind.
Roberto Viernes is a master sommelier.