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Cuban Cigars Complimented By Fine Wines

On an island best known for its world famous cigar brands, smooth tasting rums and thirst quenching Cristal beer, Cuba is attempting to resurrect, however slowly, its wine culture.

For the first time in recent memory, average Cubans, not just tourists, have been able to purchase white, rose and red wines manufactured by Bodegas Marques de Caceres, a producer from the Rioja Alta region of Spain.

As far as Cuban cigar smokers are concerned, the island's new interest in wine couldn't come at a better time. As more and more European and North American tourists travel to Cuba, their opportunity to sample their favorite Habano and a good glass of wine has never been better.

Some of the first cases of the Bodegas Marques de Caceres brand being imported into Cuba have come from the prestigious 1994 harvest. The Wine Enthusiast magazine has rated Rioja wines from this vintage 98 out of possible 100 points.

On-Again, Off-Again Love Affair With Wine

According to Granma International, Cuba's On-Line newspaper, Cubans have had an on-again, off-again relationship with wine since the late 1400's.

Cuban historians said wine first arrived in Cuba with Christopher Columbus and his crew. Even the Spaniards who settled in Cuba after Columbus never made wine as much a part of their daily lives as did their countrymen living in California and Spain.

On the Spanish Main, which included Cuba, the pirates and corsairs who cruised the Caribbean Sea looking for plunder were drinking wine long before rum. The switch to rum came after wine proved too expensive and at times far too elusive.

Before a fight, pirate captains dispensed wine to their crews to promote a false sense of bravado. If the wine wasn't available when needed then it was worthless.

In the Caribbean, rum had three advantages over wine: first, it could be produced locally; second, its was cheaper to manufacture and easier to locate and last, and perhaps most important it had an unlimited shelf-life, unlike wine that could spoil if it was exposed to too much air or saltwater.

Before the 1959 Revolution, wine, particularly sparkling wines and Champagne were popular in Cuba around the Christmas and New Year's holidays, but it was Cuba's 19th century sugar aristocracy that promoted the production and consumption of rum above all other alcoholic beverages.

Rum and Cigars Have A Long History

Granma has reported that because the sugar cane growers and distillers were so successful at promoting their product, Cubans became accustomed to toasting festive occasions with rum and rum-based cocktails, while wine remained a fleeting memory.

Adding to rum's popularity, Cubans also enjoyed the custom of taking their post-dinner cigars and dipping them in rum before smoking. It's a custom still enjoyed by many older Cubans, but it would be an unthinkable practice with a glass of wine.

In the 1960's a Spanish brand ``Pancho El Bravo'' cracked the tough Cuban market. The wine, a rustic and rather cheap brand, was imported in big casks for sale in Havana's numerous bars.

Although the Pancho El Bravo brand proved popular, by the 1970's it was Algerian and Chilean wines that were more readily available in Cuban grocery stores and they became best sellers.

As Cuba's ties with Eastern Europe strengthened in the 1980s, Russian, Hungarian, Bulgarian and Albanian wines became the new favorites.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing economic crisis in Cuba, wine disappeared altogether. The government stopped importing wine and according to Granma, wine acquired the label of a "luxury" item because Cubans weren't in the habit of drinking wine and it wasn't a product that was considered indispensable for surviving an economic crisis.

Today, with Cuba's tourist industry growing by leaps and bounds, Cubans working in the hotel food and beverage sector are becoming increasingly more familiar with wine.

Because of Cuba's economic woes in the mid-1990s, the problem facing Cuba's fledgling wine industry today is that most young Cubans don't know anything about wine. What memories of wine exist with these young people is only a vague notion that wine is served with food and sparkling wines are served to celebrate special occasions.

Wine Training Being Offered In Schools

To promote a further appreciation of wine in Cuba, restaurant schools are currently training wine stewards. Cuba is also getting assistance from Spanish wine producers like Freixenet, a major producer of sparkling wines, and a sponsor of sommelier training in Cuban and Spain.

Recent examples of the growing popularity of both still and sparkling wines in Cuba have been their inclusion at all four of Habanos SA's February-March cigar festivals and the growing popularity of wine lists being offered to guests at even some of Havana's smaller, less well known restaurants.

Granma said Jean de Boignes, the Latin American representative for the Bodegas Marques de Caceres brand, said his company supports the education and training of Cuban wine experts and will extend his company's support of such programs in Havana and Varadero into next year.

Havana and Varadero are two of Cuba's biggest tourist and resort areas where about 90 percent the wine imported into Cuba is consumed.
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