Glamorous cigar festival lights up Cuba

Updated: 2011-02-25 07:56

By Andrea Rodriguez (China Daily)

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Glamorous cigar festival lights up Cuba

Ariadna Gomez smokes a cigar next to an image of Cuban leader Fidel Castro during the 13th annual Cigar Festival in Havana, Cuba, on Monday. Cigar enthusiasts from around the world come to Cuba during the annual celebration to visit tobacco farms and factories and savor new cigar brands. Franklin Reyes / Associated Press

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HAVANA - Debora Garcia sits at a table in a room choked with smoke, gently rolling an unbanded cigar between her delicate fingers. She uses her thumb to measure its width and length, then holds it up to her nose to get a sense of its scent. Finally she writes down her answer and moves on to the next cigar.

Garcia is one of 27 cigar sommeliers and other experts taking part this week in a blind "tasting" of Cuba's world-famous smokes - part of the island's glitzy and glamorous Cigar Festival, which draws many of the biggest vendors from around the world each year.

There are also black-tie dinners, trips to lush tobacco fields, cigar factory tours and lots and lots of schmoozing.

In the tasting competition, Garcia and other participants must first guess the type of cigar they are holding based on its size and the type of leaves used. There are Churchills, Marevas, Robustos, Coronas and Panetelas, to name a few.

After the blindfolds come off, they light up and try to guess the brand.

Cuba is awash with famous cigar brands like Cohiba, Romeo y Julieta, Partagas, Montecristo and Robaina, each with its own passionate followers around the world. All are put out by Habanos SA, a joint venture between the Cuban government and the English tobacco giant Altadis.

The most expensive Cuban cigars, currently the Cohiba Behike, can cost upward of $60 each in Europe and Canada. The sale of Cuban cigars is banned in the United States because of the 48-year trade embargo.

This year's event, which organizers say has drawn 1,400 aficionados from 80 countries, is being held with a mix of optimism and concern.

The sale of Cuban cigars ticked up by 2 percent in 2010 to $368 million, the first increase in three years after a dip brought on in part by the global economic meltdown.

Sales in Asia were particularly strong, and there is high hope for a boom in the fast-growing Chinese market.

"China has become our third biggest market, passing Germany," said Javier Terres, vice-president of Habanos.

But there is also concern for the future of the market as more and more countries approve restrictive smoking laws.

Spain, the largest market for Cuban cigars, passed just such a measure in January that bans smoking in all enclosed public spaces.

Terres said sales in Spain dropped 30 percent after the law took effect, though he hopes they will recover by the end of the year.

Even Fidel Castro, perhaps the island's most famous smoker - and a big fan of Cohibas - gave up the habit years ago, citing health risks.

He used to attend the festival's formal closing dinner each year but has stayed away since stepping down as president in 2006.

This year the festival is celebrating a new cigar called the half corona, which is being put out under the brand name H. Upmann. It is smaller and designed to be smoked more quickly, a nod to the fact that many cigar lovers in countries with smoking restrictions will need to step outside to take a puff.

The week-long festival wraps up on Friday. At the gala dinner, handmade humidors will be auctioned off, often for hundreds of thousands of dollars apiece. The proceeds will be donated to Cuba's free universal health care system.

Associated Press



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