Much consideration in cigar selection involves expectations. Often us cigar smokers are in the mood for a particular type of cigar (mild or strong, dark or light, etc) when it comes to time to smoke. The more cigars you smoke, the better you become at grabbing the “right” cigar for the occasion. It is not uncommon to have specific cigars you are familiar with on hand for specific moods, however, it is also normal practice to smoke something new-to-you that, with some educated assumption, should be inline with what you are looking for in terms of flavor, body, and strength.
The more you smoke different brands that utilize different tobaccos, the better you become at being able to meet your expectations when you select a cigar. Familiarity with blenders, tobacco types, factories, and companies all further refine your abilities to predict the future. I am not going to get into all of these things just yet. Instead, this article is about judging a book by its cover. This article is about wrapper leaves.
About Wrapper Leaves
The wrapper leaf is the outermost leaf on a cigar. It is what you see, it is what gets your attention, and as such, it is typically some of the cleanest tobacco available. This is not always the case, but it is most commonly the case. Different tobacco varietals have different characteristics in color, texture, size, durability, and flavor. Furthermore the farming, cultivating, curing, and aging methods all have an impact on these characteristics. Consideration of the location of the farm and the location of the leaf on the plant adds further complexity.
For this reason, I am not going to go much further than this in talking about wrapper leaves. There is plenty of information out there regarding tobacco, and often wrapper leaves specifically. Be warned, however, as it gets a bit confusing and overwhelming. There is certainly not a strict naming convention for wrapper colors, and there is plenty of misinformation regarding different terms. Ahem - looking at you “maduro”...
If you have any questions, and for some reason trust me, reach out and I’ll be happy to discuss this more!
A Wrapper’s Impact
Undoubtedly the wrapper leaf has an impact on the flavor of a cigar. This is indisputable. However, I have seen a lot of statements from people that say things like “The wrapper imparts most of the flavor,” sometimes using a number to make it seem more accurate like “The wrapper contributes 60% of the flavor.” Better yet, I see a lot of people that use the wrapper as a way to justify smoking a Lancero - “Lanceros are the best because the wrapper contributes the most flavor and you get so much more of the wrapper!” - Ugh.
So, attacking these arguments:
- The wrapper imparts flavor, however, you cannot say that it contributes most of the flavor. A cigar is made up of three components - wrapper, binder, filler. That means there are 3 different things contributing to the performance and flavor of the cigar. If you look at a cigar, it is also apparent that the ratio of each component used changes with the ring gauge of the cigar. So immediately that guy that told you a wrapper is x% of the flavor is wrong except at a very specific ring gauge.
- Based on the above argument, the Lancero guy may still have a leg to stand on, and in reality, a portion of his statement is correct. The smaller the ring gauge the more the wrapper comes into play. However, in the previous section I mentioned things like “varietal”, “location”, “farming”, etc. ALL of these things contribute to the characteristics of tobacco. These characteristics are flavor, body, and strength. In terms of levels, the industry standard is mild, medium, and full. Each leaf has characteristics that can be described in these levels, and these can vary greatly. For instance, a low priming, “seco” wrapper leaf is going to be far more mild than a high priming, “ligero” wrapper. This also applies equally to the binder and filler leaves. So, again, in some instances the statement “The wrapper contributes the most flavor” can be correct depending on the characteristics of ALL the tobacco used.
The last thing I want to remark on when it comes to the wrapper’s impact is expectation. In the beginning I discussed the importance of a smoker’s expectation when selecting a cigar. The wrapper is oftentimes, especially to more inexperienced smokers, the biggest contributor in expectations. It is incredible the response that the color of a cigar elicits. A light, shade grown wrapper is nearly immediately perceived as being mild and unassuming - tell that to the Porcelain by Black Label Trading Company. While a dark, maduro wrapper is almost always approached with caution as it is certainly going to be robust and strong - a Lost & Found Instant Classic San Andres will certainly let down those in search of a nicotine buzz.
Now, I understand these assumptions. They are well founded. The reason being is that cigar makers understand these perceptions and they utilize these perceptions when making cigars. A bold, strong maduro cigar will sell itself and satisfy an “average” cigar smoker. The same goes for a mild, Connecticut shade cigar. These “average” smokers buy with their eyes. If they want mild, they go light, and if they want full, they go dark. As a consequence of this, in reality most light cigars are intentionally blended to be more mild and most dark cigars are intentionally blended to be more full. It’s not until you begin getting into “cigar nerd” status that you begin to be able to see beyond this color scheme and find cigars that buck the trends. Soon you begin to realize that every cigar in that sea of brown is unique in some way and is just what some smoker is looking for.
So when I got to thinking about wrappers I thought it would be neat to be able to do some kind of experiment that fit the point of this article. I began thinking of some cigars that I could use for a wrapper comparison. It really is not as easy as it seems. There really are not many cigars out there that have the same binder and filler with just different wrappers. However, I did land on two cigars that I am nearly 100% certain is the same besides the wrapper. The RoMa Craft Tobac CroMagnon and Aquitaine.
Both cigars utilize Nicaraguan filler tobaccos and a Cameroon binder, but the CroMagnon uses a Connecticut Broadleaf wrapper and the Aquitaine uses a Ecuadorian Habano Ligero wrapper. In fact, as I write this, I am almost positive I recall co-founder Skip Martin talking about how the CroMagnon blend works with nearly any wrapper - Connecticut Broadleaf, Habano (Aquitaine for example), Candela (the Fomorian for example), and Connecticut Shade. Furthermore, what makes this experiment interesting is that the blend is full, robust, and strong, and the wrapper leaves on both cigars are also robust leaves.
The experiment is, I will smoke a CroMagnon and take notes, then do the same with an Aquitaine. Then I will repeat the exercise with each cigar, but I will remove the wrapper leaf to the band point (I will stop at the band so I don’t risk unraveling). This will allow me to compare my notes of all four cigars, and in theory, be able to better identify what the wrapper contributes to the cigar vs the unwrapped blend.
I elected to smoke the 4x52 Knuckle Dragger vitola. I am very familiar with both the CroMagnon and the Aquitaine in this format. I know that these cigars smoke quite differently from one another, which is good for this experiment. Given they are two very different wrappers, both of which are powerful, it makes sense that the resultant cigars should be notably different. However, I do know there will be some similarities in the smoking experiences. Again, that is not surprising.
What I am most interested in is smoking the unwrapped versions. I predict, and hope, that both cigars smoke extremely similarly until I hit the wrappers at the band point. It makes sense that they should, however, these are handmade products that utilize volatile material. I also am very interested in seeing just how different the blend is without any influence from the wrapper. Honestly, I believe that the blend is going to stand up well on its own and that the two wrappers will certainly add to the profile, but not significantly alter it.
We shall see.
The cold draw is faint but there’s maybe some plum and a bit of earth. First light brings medium bodied smoke with medium-full flavors of a tannic, charred wood, a bit of cinnamon earthiness, and some vanilla. About a half inch in the tannins have backed down and the wood is more of a creamy, general woodiness. The first third ends with some citrus and a bit of pepper joining the still present wood. Approaching the band the flavors have remained fairly consistent. There’s still wood, citrus, and some pepper, but there’s also some nuttiness present. Coming to an end at an hour and 24 minutes there’s not much to report in flavor changes. The performance was flawless throughout.
This CroMagnon smells of barnyard and molasses. The cold draw has some plum or raisin-like sweetness, with some damp earth, and maybe a touch of cocoa. The plum/raisin is very reminiscent of Red Man Chewing Tobacco. First light shows flavors of deep earth, some black pepper, and a bit of cedar. About an inch in there’s more sweetness - cane sugar-like sweetness. The black pepper and earth are still present. Nearing halfway the performance is perfect. The profile is rolling along consistently. Passing halfway it’s getting a bit more earthy and woody. Ending at an hour and 49 minutes the flavors remained the same. Performance was not flawless in the final third. It required a couple relights, but they weren’t impactful to the flavors.
This Aquitaine smells a bit citrusy and mildly earthy. The cold draw is 100% cacao nibs. First light brings full flavored, full bodied smoke. There’s some tannic wood, coffee, citrus, and earth. About a half inch in the tannins and coffee have subsided and left wood and earth, primarily. Nearing halfway the retrohale is showing some sweet vanilla and citrus. A touch up is needed at the end of the second third. There’s some oily wood taking precedence in the profile. Hitting the wrapper I’m getting an interesting soapy aroma off the smoke. The profile is relatively the same through the end. I’m calling it here at 56 minutes in since I’ve hit the wrapper.
This CroMagnon has a faint smell. There’s a bit of plum and earth. There’s not much in the way of cold draw flavors. There’s a little sweetness and some earth. First light brings some oily wood, a bit of tangy, slightly acidic coffee and earth. Entering the second third there’s a sweetness that’s between molasses and vanilla. There’s also some earth and a bit of tang still. Approaching the band the earth and wood are picking up. There’s a bit of oily tannins and a smidge of black pepper. Hitting the wrapper around 57 minutes, things stepped up in intensity showing plenty of earth, wood, and pepper.
First and foremost, no notes were compared or reviewed prior to, or during the smoking of any of these cigars. Any and all notes are representative of what I experienced during the cigars.
Here is a recap of the flavors experienced during smoking:
Looking at those notes alone, it is pretty plain to see some commonalities across all the samples. These common notes of tannins, wood, and earth were all also the prominent notes across the board. Each cigar showed some differences when compared to their unwrapped version. The Aquitaine was equally as complex, however, the nuanced notes were slightly different. The CroMagnon actually became less complex with the addition of the wrapper. The two unwrapped cigars were very similar, as expected.
I think that it is obvious that the wrapper leaf has an influence on the flavor profile of the cigar, that was never up for debate. However, I also think it is obvious that the wrapper leaf did weigh in as heavily in resulting flavor profiles as some smokers tend to claim. I cannot put specific percentages on this, as it is not quantifiable, however, I would say the Habano wrapper of the Aquitaine contributes less to the overall profile than the Broadleaf of the CroMagnon. The wrapped Aquitaine maintained a more complex, nuanced profile with the addition of the wrapper. The Broadleaf wrapper on the CroMagnon seemed to hide some of the intricacies in the blend.
This makes sense and follows reason, as each leaf is different and will have different impacts on the resulting profiles. Also, this is consistent with my predictions - for the most part. I did not expect the Broadleaf to take away from the profile (or mask flavors - that may be a more polite way of saying it). The unwrapped versions being very close to one another was also in line with my predictions. All in all, I think that this was a neat experiment that had the results I believe make the most logical sense. The wrapper impacts the profile of the cigar, however, the level of impact is dependent on the type of wrapper, the size of the cigar, and the other leaves in the cigar. It is not an accurate statement to say the “wrapper imparts the most flavor” or “the wrapper is responsible for x% of the flavor”.
Some other considerations I wanted to note: I do not know the age of these cigars as a whole or relative to one another. They were purchased from the same distributor, in the same order, however that does not guarantee the same age. Also, these are handmade products, made from volatile materials. Each cigar can, and likely will, have their own nuances.
Lastly - I actually think I preferred the blend without a wrapper leaf in both instances. The fellas at RoMa Craft Tobac should consider making a blend with a low priming, insignificant wrapper leaf.
If you made it through this whole read, I appreciate you sticking it out and would love to hear your thoughts, criticisms, questions, or recommendations in the comments below! Thank you!