Pairing Wine and Cigars: An Intermediate Guide

It is a well known fact that most cigar smokers enjoy a smoke with some form of beverage. The most common are beer (Pairings 101: Cigars and Beer), spirits (Pairings 101: Cigars and Spirits), and coffee (Pairings Coffee and Cigars: Science or Serendipity?). It seems that, for some reason, cigar enthusiasts do not think of wine as an appropriate pairing. I have often asked myself why? I, for one, love wine; and these two pleasures in life definitely go together. I must admit that I have been trying to pair wines and cigars for some time now, and it is a very difficult to find the right combinations of wine and cigars. The wine and the cigar may taste great by themselves, but when paired together, it simply may not work.

As with any sort of pairing, taste is very subjective and I do not claim to be an authority in the subject of cigars and wines. Here is the basic premise I work from when I am asked the question which wine goes with either food or a cigar; my response is very simple: try anything, and if you like it, then that is the pairing. I do not subscribe to the idea that I must drink a white wine when eating seafood; nor, must I drink a red wine when eating meat. This goes for cigars as well; so the wines I am going to suggest here are my own choices. I encourage readers of this article to try different combinations and comment on the varying results experienced.

I would like to offer two suggestions to anyone trying to pair a cigar with anything (coffee, beer, wine, soft drink, etc.) One is that you keep a journal and jot down a few thoughts throughout the process. You will want to know how the drink affected the flavor of the cigar, and conversely, how cigar affected the flavors of the drink. You will also want to make note of how both cigar and libation pair worked together overall.

The second one is that you try each entity individually so that you can answer these questions with ease. As I mentioned earlier, you can have a great cigar and a great wine that when paired together may not work as well as you would like. The only downside to this is that it does take a bit of planning and a few attempts to find a pairing that you may find acceptable. But that is OK, as this is meant to be an experience, which should not be rushed.

Before I begin the discussion of wine and cigars, let me tell you a few words about how I got into cigar/wine pairings. I have been a cigar smoker since the mid 80s and a serious wine aficionado for the last six years. I wish I would have started appreciating wine sooner in my life. Not only do I enjoy tasting and drinking wine, but I also love making it; this is a hobby that has turned into a passion for me. My dream is to, someday, own a vineyard and share my passion with you, the consumer. I am a basement winemaker, and I truly enjoy the experience. I am a chemist by training, so this is a perfect extension to my daily routine – only much better. As a chemist and a winemaker, I have had the opportunity to learn more about the chemistry of wine and about the benefits to our health of drinking it, especially reds. This has also been carried over to the chemistry of cigars and cigar smoking. Now, having this knowledge is good, but the most important thing is how it all comes together in the individual palate. This is why I hesitate to offer pairings as what tastes good to me may not be suitable to others.

This article is a summary of some of the pairings I have come across that work best between cigars and wines. I have discovered that it seems that pairing these two pleasures of life is not as easy as with other beverages. In my notes, I have more “pairing does not work” written in my notebook than with beers and whiskies. I do pair cigars and other drinks such as coffee, and, again, it seems to go a lot easier and better than with wine.

The reason for this hardship in finding suitable cigar/wine pairings may be to changes in the acidity pH inflicted in the palate by both entities. Normally, table wine tends to run between 3.3 and 3.7 in pH due to the presence of malic and tartaric acids. Remember that a pH of 7 and below is acidic while a value above 7 is basic. Also, cool climate grapes have high acid and low sugar while warmer climates tend to favor low acid and high sugar.

With cigars, the acidity is measured by the sourness or tartness of the cigar. In order to understand this better, it is necessary to understand the components of a tobacco leave (scientific name = Nicotiana tabacum L). There are five essential components to a tobacco leave: phenols, sugars, nitrogen, alkaloids, and chlorophyll. Phenols are considered organic weak acids; however, they are so weak, that their acidity can be virtually ignored. Sugars are neutral compounds. The nitrogen in leaves is present in many forms (both organic and inorganic entities). To fully understand the contribution of the total nitrogen to the pH of a cigar is beyond the scope of this article.

Alkaloids are probably the components that make cigars more alkaline. Although it sounds like a horrible component, most of us enjoy an alkaloid every morning when we drink coffee as caffeine is an alkaloid. The alkaloid that we are mostly familiar with in a cigar is nicotine. The chemical reaction to product nicotine in tobacco plants is catalyzed by the sun. This would explain why sun grown leaves have a higher percentage of nicotine than shade grown leaves. The process of fermentation which releases ammonia (NH3) may be another contributor the alkalinity of a cigar.
So, to bring this back to how the flavor a cigar and wine may affect each other, your mouth becomes sort of a buffer where an acidic beverage comes together with a basic smoke, and depending on the changes in pH, it may either a pleasant or unpleasant pairing; this is just my theory.

To explain what I have discovered so far as far as wine/cigar pairings, I will break the wines into four major categories: whites, reds, fortified, and sparkling.

Whites

I have attempted several varieties of white wine in order to find suitable pairings. White wines have not been very forgiving as far as finding a successful pairing. This does not mean that there are no white wines that can be paired with cigars; it just means that the types of wines that I have focus are not the correct ones.

White wines like Chardonnay tend to have a citrusy taste and fairly high acidity. In my experience, a Maduro or an Oscuro wrapped-cigar will dominate and diminish the flavor of the wine. It is in this area that more works needs to be done. As fortified wines work well as pairs (these will be discussed later), maybe a Vignole-based wine may work as these tend to be sweeter than traditional white grapes. Also, similarly, a demi-sec wine (sugar content ranging from 32-50 grams/liter of wine), may provide a suitable pairing with a cigar.

On a recent trip to Long Island’s Wine Region, I discovered Waters Crest Winery. They produced a 2008 Chardonnay that paired well with a CAO Gold (Ecuador Connecticut Shade wrapper). Each did not overpower the other, and the experience was very enjoyable. Hints of vanilla were detected on both which really complemented each other.

Another good pairing for a cigar with a white wine was one that I had back when I started this pairing project: a Davidoff Grand Cru No. 2 paired with a Vignoles from a winery in Massachusetts (Truro Vineyards). I would have expected the sweetness of the Vignoles to dominate or even pollute my palate; however, the cigar did pair well, as the wine seem to add to the creaminess of the cigar.

Reds

My original thought on reds was that if I accept the premise of “like with like,” a more tannic grape (Merlot) would pair best with a Maduro or an Oscuro cigar. I tried several Merlots, and this theory, so far has not worked. It seems that, in this case, the wine overpowers the cigar. With merlots, one tends to identify a very tannic taste with hints of berries, tobacco, and vanilla. In theory, this would seem like a perfect pairing, but so far, it is far from it.

Pairing Wine and Cigars - Red WineAnother red that would seem to offer an opportunity for a nice pair with a wine would be a Cabernet Sauvignon. A “Cab” has an almost identical flavor profile to a Merlot, but since it is aged longer, these flavors tend to be more mellow; and it offers a perfect blending partner to the winemaker.

Penfolds winery in Australia produces some of the world’s most exquisite wines. The Koonunga Hill is a Shiraz-Cabernet blend which offers a great balance of berries, chocolate, and spices; these are traditional flavors that resemble the flavor profile of a Maduro cigar. It runs about $12.00, and it is great wine to enjoy by itself or with a medium-to-full bodied cigars. A Padron 3000 Maduro or a more exclusive 1926 or 1964 series cigar are excellent cigars to enjoy with a glass of the Penfolds Koonunga Hill. The spiciness of the Ecuador grown Ligero wrapper of a Man O’War Ruination also matches well with the spicy character of the Shiraz-Cabernet blend.

Fortified

For those new to wine, fortified wines are wines where the fermentation of the wine is stopped by the addition of alcohol (mostly brandy). The “fortification” of the wine kills the action of the yeast; hence, fortified wines are sweet, and they have higher alcohol content than traditional wines. Wines that fall under the category of fortified are Ports, Sherry, and Madeira wines.

Pairing Wine and Cigars - FortifiedThe sweetness of the wine and high alcohol offer great attributes that contributes to a successful cigar/wine pairing. A more recent pair include a Warre’s Warrior Special Reserve Port (~$17.00) with a Carlos Toraño Exodus 1959 Churchill. Port Wines have been the subject of many pairings for cigars. I encourage the readers to visit Doc StogieFresh’s website (www.stogiefresh.com) and search his cigarcast episodes for cigar/port pairings. Also, my friends Jim and Mike at The Mind of Men have done two podcasts in which they introduce and extensively describe port wines (www.mindofmen.com, episodes 8 and 114).

Sherry wines are fortified wines, but they are dry as the fermentation of the wine is completed before the brandy is added for fortification. There are several types of Sherry; the most popular are the Fino and the Oloroso. The difference between the two is that the Oloroso is aged longer, and it has a higher alcohol content (18% alcohol by volume). A Bodega Dios Baco Oloroso Sherry (~$20.00) with a Carlos Toraño Virtuoso does pair well.

Future work on this area includes trying additional Tawny and Ruby Ports as well as Fino Sherry and Madeira wines.

Sparkling Wines

Everyone has had the opportunity to try sparkling wines in their lives. At weddings, for example, we all probably have pictures of people smoking a cigar and drinking some bubbly. So, this seemed like a no brainer of a pairing.

There are two schools of thought regarding carbonated beverages and cigar smoking. There are those who subscribe to the theory that these two do not pair at all; there are others which suggest that the cleansing power of the bubbles enhances the flavor of the cigar. I subscribe to the theory as I stated earlier that if the pair presents a great experience, it is a great pair.

Sparkling wines are actually my favorite type of wine to pair with a cigar, especially Brut sparkling wines (less than 15 grams of sugar per liter of wine). So, Brut sparkling wines offer a contradiction to earlier statements about wine. These are dry sparkling wines, and they tend to be predominantly white. However, most sparkling wines are a blend of Chardonnay (white grape) with Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier which are both red grapes, so it is not a 100% white grape wine. Other types of sparkling wines include the proverbial favorite Champagne, the Italian Proseco, and the Spanish Cava.

Pairing Wine and Cigars - SparklingOne particular brand of sparkling wine which I enjoy with cigars is an American classic: Korbel. If I may digress for a minute, I would like to add a personal message about Korbel. A few years ago, Korbel had an opening for a laboratory chemist; as I stated earlier, I would absolutely love to own a vineyard someday, and I figured I needed the experience of working at a vineyard to gain the experience. I applied for this position knowing that I was extremely under-qualified. As expected, a letter came in the mail stating the obvious; however, the letter was so inspirational that I kept it, and I look at it periodically to remind myself of my aspirations in life. In a nutshell, they wrote to never give up in the pursuit of my dream, and to continue working hard with wines, and one day it would happen. This is the main reason that I favor Korbel; and besides that, it is an extremely good American made product.

In my opinion, if anyone is interested in pairing cigar with wines, I believe sparkling wines are a great place to begin pairings. Sparkling wines can be relatively inexpensive – Korbel goes for ~$10.00. These will establish a good foundation on the pairing of wines and cigars, which can then be carried into other types of wines.

As Korbel comes from California, I paired this with a cigar that reminds me of our great nation: the CAO America. The CAO America has both a Connecticut Broadleaf and a Connecticut Shade leaves which give it a pinstripe look. The cigar had very deep tobacco flavors, and the Brut Korbel had an enhancing effect not so much on the flavor, but on the finish of the cigar; it made those deep flavors linger longer in the palate.

For a special occasion, a pairing of the Veuve Clicquot La Grande Dame Brut Champagne (1998) with a Padron Family Reserve No. 45 Maduro would really bring two quality products into a big special occasion. It carries a pretty hefty price tag: $180.00 for the Champagne, and $20.00 for one Padron cigar. However, both offer great earthy notes, and they are both very smooth together. The hints of tobacco from the Champagne definitely enhance the earthy flavors from the cigar.

Conclusions

I hope that this article has given readers a good look at wine/cigar pairings. The document has not only given some suggestions for pairings, but it has hopefully given the reader an idea of why these pairings can be difficult to make. Even by offering some suggestions, every palate is different. So, what you think may be a good pairing for you may not work for someone else. To enjoy wine/cigar pairings with friends, I usually serve three wines so that there is an opportunity for everyone to find a wine that they can enjoy with their cigar. These two entities are just amazing sources of enjoyment by themselves, and when they are enjoyed together, it is an incredible experience.

Even after offering suggestions in this article, one main principle still applies: the best wine/cigar pair is the one that you enjoy. Cheers!

Ed Mantilla has been enjoying the fine pleasure of cigars since the mid 1980s. He enjoys pairing cigars with spirits such as whiskeys (Scotch, Bourbon, and Rye) and micro-brewed beers; but his favorite pair is cigars and wine. As a basement winemaker and wine drinker, Ed is working on a project to find wines that enhance the cigar experience. Ed has recorded a segment with Jim from the Mind of Men (www.mindofmen.com, episode 109) where fundamental principles of wines are discussed. He can be reached by email at egui5304 at me dot com.