By Gregory Mottola
The sun is a stranger here. The thick clouds over Ecuador’s Los Rios province can make one forget that the sky is blue, not a pearly shade of off-white. It isn’t the kind of weather that brings in tourists, but these are the precise atmospheric conditions that can grow pristine tobacco. This is the birthplace of Ecuador Havana wrapper leaf, and demand for this flavorful tobacco is greater now than it ever has been in the history of the premium cigar industry.
Oliva Tobacco Co., the tobacco farming and brokerage organization from Tampa, Florida, grows much of the Ecuador Havana crop. The cigar world can’t seem to get enough of Oliva’s Ecuador Havana, a dark, comely leaf with hearty flavor that is wrapped around such popular handmade cigars as Romeo by Romeo y Julieta, Rocky Patel 15th Anniversary, Arturo Fuente Rosado Sungrown Magnum R, and Herrera Esteli.
Cigar star José “Pepin” Garcia raves about the leaf. “Ecuador Havana wrapper from the Olivas is the best cigar wrapper in the entire world,” says Garcia, whose My Father Cigars uses the leaf on a variety of smokes, including his namesake Don Pepin Garcia. “It has all the characteristics such as a thick, rich and oily structure. It’s also great tasting in flavor and the veins are hardly seen, which makes for a unique type of wrapper.”
A.J. Fernandez, who uses Oliva’s Ecuador Havana on some of his San Lotano Oval cigars, says: “The final product gives very uniform colors and perfect combustion, which provides the flavor and balance of a fine cigar. Between the high natural oil content of those leaves and the ongoing consistency, I think it’s very high-quality tobacco.”
Oliva Tobacco grows hundreds of acres of Ecuador Havana on a host of plantations throughout Ecuador, from the outskirts of Quevedo to the foothills of the Andes mountains in Guayas, more than 100 miles away. The tobacco is spawned from Cuban seeds, and the constant veil of clouds here in this region of South America filters the sun’s rays, ensuring that the wrapper leaves grow not too coarse, not too thick but just right.
“I don’t care how the leaves look in the fields,” says John Oliva Jr. with a shrug, looking over green leaves that hang languidly from their stalks. Officially, he’s the treasurer of Oliva Tobacco Co., but in reality, he’s not only the broker of this end product, but the man who oversees every agricultural aspect of its production, from seed to crop to fermentation.
“How it looks when it comes out of the barn, that’s the important part,” he says, standing on a farm full of lush tobacco located about three hours north from Ecuador’s industrial city of Guayaquil. “Anyone can grow a farm full of pretty tobacco. Once you cure it in the barns, that’s when you know how good the leaf is. Or isn’t.”
At 55 years old, Oliva still has the large, football varsity build and clean complexion of his youth, despite his silver hair. But he’s gentle with the tobacco leaves as he looks them over. This particular farm is dubbed Don Angel, named after John’s grandfather, the late Angel Oliva Sr., who founded Oliva Tobacco Co. in the 1930s. Since Oliva Sr.’s passing, the operation remains in family hands. Oliva Jr. runs it with his father, John Oliva Sr., his uncle Angel Oliva Jr. and his cousin Angel “Trey” Oliva III.
Oliva is relatively new to Ecuador. In its early days, it worked with growers in the United States, primarily in North Florida’s Gadsden county, just west of Tallahassee, and in the Connecticut River Valley, the world’s top producing locations. As the business died out in the U.S. due to high labor costs, the company moved much of its operations to Nicaragua, where it still maintains ties before choosing its Ecuador locations.
Most of Oliva’s tobacco fields are symmetrical and flat, but the leafy plots of tobacco plants here seem to almost meander and undulate, separated by hills and trees while teak forests in the background frame the picturesque parcels. The tobacco here grows in the basin of the Macul River, which pours over its banks on a regular basis. “By March, this whole farm will be underwater,” says Oliva. “The river floods every year. It goes over your head, but I think the floodwaters do something to the ground—leave behind a sediment that adds to the nutrients. If it didn’t, the tobacco wouldn’t be as good as it is.
“These leaves here are probably going to end up on Fuente’s Rosado Magnum line. Maybe even Casa Cuba,” says Oliva, mentioning just a few of the brands that are made with his wrapper, a cover leaf that’s been growing in popularity since Oliva first planted the seed in 2001.
Oliva’s first plantings of Ecuador Havana were modest, only about 25 acres. At the time, the majority of Oliva Tobacco’s business was growing Sumatra-seed tobacco, along with a bit of Ecuador Connecticut.
“Cuban seed tobacco in Nicaragua was coming out so well we decided to do a planting ourselves, and the first harvest turned out beautifully,” says Oliva. The first Ecuador Havana varietal he tried was Havana 2000, which Oliva still plants to this day. “The problem was the bad reputation that Havana 2000 had for not burning well. People blamed the seed strain, but that wasn’t the problem at all. Cigarmakers were putting the wrapper on their cigars right out of the barn and weren’t giving it all the extra fermentation time it needed.”
Oliva wasn’t going to rush his product. He kept all the leaves from the first harvest for more than a year before he even considered selling it. Eventually, Carlos Fuente Jr. of Tabacalera A. Fuente y Cia. bought his first Cuban-seed crop. “I don’t even know what cigar the Fuentes put it on,” Oliva says, “or if they put it on any cigar at all.”
After seeing how well the leaves grew in that test crop, Oliva realized the potential of growing Ecuador Havana wrappers. In 2002, he tripled his Cuban-seed plantings by putting 75 acres in the ground. Each successive year, Oliva planted a little less Sumatra and added more Havana. Now, Oliva grows more Ecuador Havana than any other type of leaf.
The wrapper can be found on some of the most prominent cigars in the premium market. The list of clients is impressive and one would be hard-pressed to find a premium cigar smoker in the United States who has not tried a cigar with an Ecuador Havana wrapper. Part of the allure is not only the pristine appearance of Oliva’s Cuban-seed wrapper, but also its versatility. Wrapper like this melds equally well with either Nicaraguan or Dominican tobacco.
Consider the Romeo by Romeo y Julieta brand from cigar giant Altadis U.S.A. Inc. It consists of a dark Ecuador Havana wrapper around an all-Dominican blend, and earned the No. 3 spot on Cigar Aficionado’s Top 25 Cigars of 2012. Or the Arturo Fuente Rosado Sungrown Magnum R Vitola Forty Four, the No. 5 cigar from 2012, which is also made with a blend of Dominican tobacco wrapped in an attractive, reddish brown Ecuador Havana cover leaf.
Results with Nicaraguan filler are equally impressive. The Herrera Esteli from Drew Estate, Cigar Aficionado’s No. 8 cigar for 2013 sports a lighter shade of lower-priming Ecuador Havana wrapper with Nicaraguan filler. A.J. Fernandez’s San Lotano Oval Corona (the No. 25 cigar of 2012) is a hearty smoke of Nicaraguan tobacco paired with a dark, high-priming Ecuador Havana leaf. Other cigars from the 2012 Top 25, such as Macanudo Crü Royale and Headley Grange by Crowned Heads, are also wrapped in Ecuador Havana.
Like any agricultural product, soil, climate and seed strain dictate the character of the final wrapper. “You know the soil is fertile from the consistency of the dirt,” says Oliva. “This soil is very powdery and loose, but it holds everything you give it and turns black when it’s wet. Nothing drains out. Everything stays in the granules and goes right into the plant.”
The ground he’s describing is the color and consistency of fine cocoa powder, and Oliva’s boots are covered in the dusty soil after only one pass down a row of plants. He fortifies it with a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, along with a cotton-seed meal. But he also adds palm oil extracted from the African palm trees found all over the area.
Credit: Cigar Aficiando, www.cigaraficiando.com