Question about sweet tobacco/cigar box notes in Bordeaux

I’m exploring Bordeaux a little bit and got this nice sweet tobacco leaf and cigar box notes from a 2016 Chateau Cantemerle. What is it about the wine that gives it to these aromas? Is it one of the grape varietals, winemaking, appellation (all three)? Would be interested in trying to find other Bordeaux with this as part of their profile.

Older red Graves can show that too after some bottle aging.

I find it in Cab Franc/Merlot blends more than in others.

Aha, part of the old world Bordeaux perfume, you don’t see it as much in the modern concoctions! Brian we gotta get you to try some of the Cordier wines from the 1980s! Those wines sometimes felt like smoking an old Cuban cigar. Love them. I see it mostly now in Bordeaux with a more healthy Cab Franc cut. Older Figeac, Les Carmes Haut Brion, Magdelaine, Bourgneuf, et al. Mature Lanessan as well. It is intoxicating.

In the 80s the Bordelais fermented their wines in tank, put it through ML in tank, and barreled the wine down in January and February. The cleaner wine picked up more oak notes from the barrels…hence the cigar box notes. In the early 90s winemakers started to copy what was happening here, ML in barrel right after primary. This gives more integration of oak and wine but not so much in the way of cigar box notes.

I often find tobacco and cigar box notes in mature left bank Bordeaux wines, particularly in Graves, and especially Ch. Haut Brion. Had a ‘00 Smith Haut Lafitte last week that had complex tobacco notes, it was fully mature, amazing, and reasonably priced. I don’t often find these notes in younger Bordeaux wines though, in my experience they become more complex and noticeable with age.

While this has something to do with varietal character, I second Mel in attributing this to élevage practices. He might be able to expand on the kind of cooperage choices historically prevalent in Bordeaux.

Another change in wine making would be the barrels themselves. I think BX barrels are more heavily toasted than they were in the '80s and this would create a buffer between the wood and the wine. Another reason for fewer comments about cigar boxes.

Some chateaux, like Haut Brion, make most of their own barrels, sometimes in a partnership with a cooperage. Most buy barrels from three or four cooperages.

For those looking for a cab francy bdx, try Clos St Julien - which despite its name - is a St Em. It’s a sort of new estate I think (maybe only last 20 years or so) and they were very high in the CF cepage, maybe 60-80%. The wines taste different, and good.

Pyrazines. With the right barrel treatment they are able to transform from bell pepper to tobacco. (That transformation can also happen in bottle over an extended time, but not necessarily.) Of course pyrazines are a factor of canopy management, or sometimes a very cool site like Chaine d’Or Vyd in the Santa Cruz Mountains will always have a dose, and some will have some some vintages.

I don’t think extensive work has been done in isolating that particular attribute. My guess is it is a complex blend of toast levels of barrels and complex mixtures formed with vanillin, other phenolic aldehydes, methyl valerate and other esters.

An interesting experiment, though strictly anecdotal would be to taste an aged cab not seeing any wood or very old wood to see if that aroma is perceived.

I know a few winemakers in Sonoma County made cab with very old barrels. Will see if I can get one to try.


Thanks for the input. I’ve suspected this was oak related for some time, but I never knew for sure.

Around 1989 the Francois cooperage bought Demptos cooperage in Bordeaux after the death of Philippe Demptos. At that time I was working with both Taransaud and Francois.
When I went to visit Jerome Francois we went to a winery --I cannot remember which one-- where they used Demptos barrels and barreled the wine down after ML in tank. Bingo…cigar box city!!

I was used to wine made by people, mostly in California, who used Taransaud barrels.

So I think it’s technique and barrel.

Those Cordier wines were brett bombs, as I recall. Another piece in the puzzle!

1 Like

If it was mostly the barrel, wouldn’t we have this note in just about every red wine made, at least those that see oak? It get your point if the note was cigar box, but what about tobacco leaf?

I read Mel and Wes to be saying that some barrels are more conducive to this than others.

Yes, Wes’ posts says that, but I didn’t read any of Mel’s posts that way. Mel, can you clarify?

I’m saying the precursor in my first hand experience, as well as my experience with mature bottles that had previously shown bell pepper, as well as other redundancies, are pyrazines, which under the right conditions the bell pepper notes can transform into tobacco leaf. Managed well, the young wines will show more green peppercorn, with perhaps some tobacco, then age brings out more tobacco. That gives the wines a very attractive pop on the palate, as well as wonderful aromatics. So, that’s barrels playing a role in transforming pyrazines.

Mel is talking about some wood introducing same or similar compounds. Not the same thing. Oak does contain pyrazine. With all the variables of source, drying, cooperage, it’s not a surprise some barrels impart significant pyrazine while others don’t. Then there’s whatever characteristic of some barrels that help mitigate/transform pyrazines. Also, I’m not sure if any other types of compounds could also cause or contribute to these characteristics. Some signature aromas we experience are actually two or more compounds in conjunction.

I recently had a good tobacco scent from a 2008 Sociando Mallet, so the wines don’t have to be ancient for it to come through.

I thought I said that the way wines are barreled down has a lot to do with this. If you put wines through ML in tank, then put the wine into barrel in January, the cleaner wine will have less buffering between the wine and the wood. With certain barrels this is going to give you that cedar so called cigar box character. This can be compounded by racking the wine every three months as was done back in the 70s and 80s.

Now many California winemakers saw how Burgundy winemakers put their wines through ML in barrel, partly for practical reasons. So, they thought, good for Pinot why not Merlot?? Cabernet??
Also, in custom crush facilities there is a shortage of tank space so logistics can dictate wine making. In 1986 I went around Bordeaux with two winemakers. Whenever they mentioned this idea the Bordelais looked at them as though they proposed adding a dead cat or two to the fermenter. Seven years later they were all doing it. One of the results of this technique is that all the lees etc in the wine helps act as a buffer zone between the wood and the wine. Increased toast on the inside of the barrel also does this. So instead of a ‘cigar box’ character perhaps a sweeter less pronounced oaky character.

Of course, now we have winemakers popping the heads of barrels and fermenting the wine in the barrel.

I love that cigar box and tobacco leaf complexity. I’d be disappointed if it disappeared completely due to ML in barrel being done everywhere. But Brian’s 2016 Cantemerle was showing it. Maybe at too young an age for pyrazines to do the aging magic? Did that wine do ML in barrel? If so there must be some other things that can cause it.