Mention the art of smoking a cigar, and the heavies come out with instructions of what to drink while drawing-in those warm nicotine-filled clouds of dense and aromatic smoke. Whisky and cognac are deemed suitably classic partners to a Cuban cigar, as are Port and Madeira.
While the flavours of these spirits and the fortified wines might have the grace and power to stand-up to a good Cuban smoke, I find these drinks problematic. See, when I smoke, I smoke, drawing hard and fast and sending enough clouds of exhaled tobacco into the air to alert an American Indian war-party. And this taking-in of smoke, and the slight dryness it causes in the mouth makes me alternate every second or third puff with a sip of alcohol.
Which means that by the time I have knocked-over a Partagas No 4, I have had three to four glasses of liquor. Which might result in me setting the house on fire due to advanced inebriation or keel-over without finishing the bottle. Both extreme offences.
My drink of choice with a cigar, thus, is a cool white wine, a predilection that is sure to get me banned from the Woolstrat Club in London once South Africa is allowed to travel again. But mark my words, a Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc, sipped from a large glass hazy with condensation, matches the delights of a Cuban cigar like a hot-oil massage off-sets the rigours of bareback horse-riding.
My perfect cigar wine of the moment is an unwooded Chardonnay from Haute Cabrière in Franschhoek, home to the legendary Von Arnim clan. Founder and bon vivant Achim has passed the winemaking reins to son Takuan who shows much of his wine philosophy in this unwooded wine: terroir-driven (grapes from limestone soils in Robertson) and a lean thrust of steely sharpness on which hangs edgy and jittery shudders of citrus fruit.
I recently got this combination with a Sunday-afternoon smoking and wine session. The cigar was a Montecristo No.3, a thin diameter with a lengthy leaf that provides a spicy draw with hits of ground coffee and autumn bonfire. As the cigar burns to the final third, notes of vanilla, hazelnut-shell and vanilla bean come to the fore.
The me-time relaxation provided by the smoking process allowed for an in-depth appraisal of the Haute Cabrière unwooded Chardonnay, which happened to be from vintage 2021.
On the nose, there is harp-string tautness, a presence of clarity and calm, braced for doing exciting things. A scent of wet earth, peeled apricot tree bark and petrichor. A deep puff of Cuban smoke prepared the palate, fired it up, for the onslaught of the wine. This was heavenly, exuberantly refreshing as the purity of Cape Chardonnay broke onto a mouth dry and heavy, yet content, with the burn of fine cigar smoke. On this wasteland, the clarity of the wine bore great things.
As limestone soils tend to do to Chardonnay, the Haute Cabrière bore a riff of citrus: bergamot peel, fragrant and tender as the heel of a young woman who has spent her whole life walking barefoot on the beaches of paradise. The wine exuded lime, the tight fruit of Key West whose juice bears the splash of the ocean, the salt of Ernest Hemingway’s tears. And, as the Chardonnay warms on the mid-palate, there is a slice of green cantaloupe, iced melon as served for breakfast on those eerily warm mornings in the northern Portugal summers.
The wine is complete in its refreshment, delicious in its taste, decisive in its mission to leave a memory of the lasting kind.
Then, the beauty of this, one takes another deep pull on the burning Cuban leaf, launch the white smoke into the sky. You taste the wine, and now, it begins all over again. A never-ending story. Of beauty and taste.
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