froehlich kellner tasting tobacco chemical elements terroir

Terroir – What are the Factors that Influence the Flavor of Tobacco?

Plenty of iron in the soil gives plenty of aroma, the ratio between calcium and magnesium determines the amount of sweetness in the tobacco – therefore, the factor terroir is a decisive criterion for the taste of tobacco.


Hoyo de Monterrey is the name of a tobacco plantation in Cuba, located in the San Juan y Martínez tobacco production area. In 1865, this name – Hoyo de Monterrey – was adopted for a cigar brand by the Spaniard José Gener. It was this brand with its local links to a farm that the Cuban cigar experts selected one year ago for a special innovation: For the Hoyo de Monterrey Le Hoyo San Juan cigar, Habanos S.A. for the first time disclosed the origin of the tobaccos.

The seco and volado leaves of the blend come exclusively from San Juan y Martínez, the old home of this traditional brand. Cigar connoisseurs thus have the opportunity to discover the taste characteristics of tobaccos from this particular production area. The broad spectrum of influences on the taste of a cigar has here been deliberately extended by the addition of the factor “terroir”.


Photo: Manuel Fröhlich

The concept of terroir originates from France (French for “region”) and is used in the agricultural sector, in particular in viticulture, to describe the natural factors of an area of cultivation. It includes the characteristics of the soil, the microclimate and the geology, and the terrain can also be an important factor. A nearby range of hills can, for instance, protect a cultivation area against the wind, or a river can transport sediment to the fields. What is not a natural factor, and hence not part of the concept of terroir, is man and his use of different techniques to cultivate the land. The fundamental significance of terroir for the taste of the cigars is undisputed in the world of tobacco.

The Cuban Revolution accidentally started a large-scale terroir experiment. Together with the emigration of the tobacco elite as a consequence of the revolution, seed from Cuba also found its way into the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua and Honduras. These Cuban seed tobaccos are still used by many producers today. Every cigar connoisseur can discover the taste consequences of this uprooting: in other countries, the Cuban seed also produces strong and aromatic cigars, but these differ significantly from the taste of the original tobacco that flourishes on the fertile red soil of the Vuelto Abajo region.

Plenty of iron in the soil gives the tobacco plenty of aroma.

The cultivation of Cuban seed outside Cuba provides important indications about the effects of the terroir on the taste. Since, however, other factors such as the weather, the position on the stalk or the further processing of the leaves have an influence on the finished product, it is only possible to draw general conclusions. In order to be able to make well-founded statements about the influence of the terroir on taste, it is necessary to conduct a study in which only the terroir of origin is deliberately varied while all the other factors remain constant.

These ideal conditions were offered to us by Davidoff. Master blender Hendrik Kelner had three cigars rolled for us from three different production areas in the Cibao Valley in the Dominican Republic. All the cigars were rolled from tobaccos from the San Vincente seed, and only seco tobacco from the “centro fino” middle position on the stalk were selected. The tobaccos of all three cultivation regions were harvested in the same year and were fermented in an identical way. In this way, the terroir was isolated as the influencing factor – none of the other factors differed.

When testing the three end products, the first thing that strikes one is that the cigars are significantly different in terms of strength. Hendrik Kelner explains why: “Strength is determined by the percentage of organic material. The more organic material contained in the soil, the more nitrogen enters the plant. Nitrogen is the basis for nicotine and it is nicotine that determines the strength of the tobacco.”

hendrik kelner tobacco flavor tasting with froehlich

Photo: Manuel Fröhlich

However, the organic material is only one of seven elements that Davidoff systematically records and analyses. In general, nutritional values in the soil can tell the experts a lot about the taste of the tobacco. The ratio between calcium and magnesium, for instance, determines how much sweetness there is in the tobacco. The greater the Ca/Mg value, the sweeter the tobacco.

The soil’s iron content also has an effect on taste, as shown by the test cigars from the Santiago Rodriguez region (cigar 3) shows. In comparison with the Jicomé (cigar 2) and the Damajagua (cigar 1), it contains more than ten times the quantity of iron.

The tobacco develops a certain acerbity, causing the tongue to prickle. “Plenty of iron in the soil gives the tobacco plenty of aroma”, confirms Hendrik Kelner. The higher iron content of Santiago Rodriguez is deliberately used by Davidoff for the “Millennium Blend” series, and is the source of the aromatic character of this brand.

The expert also recognises the high iron content of the soil by its red color. For this reason, Hendrik Kelner does not need soil samples to analyse the Cuban tobacco production region of Vuelta Abajo. The iron content is high in Cuba, which in turn corresponds to a low pH value. And the lower the pH value, the longer the aftertaste of the tobacco, as the Davidoff expert explains. The low pH value is one of the key factors for the unique taste of the tobacco that flourishes in Cuban soils.

It is nicotine that determines the strength of the tobacco.

The characteristics of the different production regions are also studied in Cuba. The state tobacco research institute in San Antonio de los Baños focuses its studies on the analysis of the dried tobacco that grows in the various sub-zones of the Vuelta Abajo region. These studies have shown, for instance, that tobacco from San Luis contains considerably more nitrogen and hence more nicotine than that from the San Juan y Martínez cultivation zone. For this reason, the San Juan region is the first choice for the mild Hoyo de Monterrey Habanos brand. There are also differences in terms of the organic acids, which vary by up to 50% depending on the position on the stem.

During a blind tasting with experts and with members of the Cuban “Cata General” tasting panel, held as part of the Festival del Habano in 2014, the effects on the taste were discussed in the light of two cigars from the San Juan and San Luis production areas. The cigar from the San Juan region developed a peppery note and plenty of sweetness, a typical feature of tobaccos of this region that can also be found in the Hoyo de Monterrey de San Juan. The cigar from San Luis, in contrast, tasted less voluminous and more vegetal.

The tastings in both the Dominican Republic and Cuba showed impressively that the terroir has an enormous influence on the taste of the tobacco. The blessing of a fertile soil is reflected in high-quality tobaccos. By selective fertilisation of the soil, it is possible to give nature a helping hand. However, the important factor is that the tobacco farmer knows his soil and can select precisely the seed that best suits his terroir.


three tobacco production areas dom. rep.

Photo: Wolfgang Hametner


This article was published in the Cigar Journal Spring Edition 2015. Read more

At the age of 18, the Swiss Manuel Fröhlich founded an online trading business for cigars. He expanded the business during his studies at the University of St. Gallen, and then, in Zurich in 2014, opened Manuel’s, a Caribbean drink and tobacco shop for cigars, coffee and rum. For Cigar Journal, Manuel Fröhlich reports from Cuba and other cultivation countries to which he regularly travels, and researches background topics on everything to do with the enjoyment of cigars.


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