What is Red Virginia & Why is it So Special?


A few years ago, I first wrote the following blog and was blown away by all of the people who read it, later emailing me saying “thank you for the information,” because, like me, they had misconceptions about Virginia leaf in general and Red Virginia leaf in particular. So, I thought it would be fun to replay that blog and here it is:

As I note each week when publishing my new listings, there seems to be a calf scramble for blends containing either some Red Virginia or being a 100% straight Red Virginia like all McClelland’s Christmas Cheer vintages. I know that I prefer Red over any other Virginia because over the years I have found it to age extremely well, and the aging smooths out the tart, yet sweet taste that I so enjoy. So, I did a little research to see if I could find out exactly what “Red” Virginia is and why it is indeed so special. I used to think that there were various Virginia fields growing separate plants that produced Lemon grades , Red grades, Orange grades, etc., but boy, was I wrong!

Red Virginia is not a specific tobacco type. That’s right, the same individual tobacco plant can produce Lemon, Brown, Orange, Red or Bright Virginia leaf. Factors determining which type of Virginia is identified in blends is a combination of the part of the leaf it comes from and the processing of it. The higher up the stalk that you go, the better the quality of the tobacco that is being harvested and Red Virginia usually comes from anywhere between mid stalk and up. Another eye opener for me was discovering that some types of Red Virginia actually start out as Bright (sometimes called Lemon) in color, but get the dark red coloring only after the harvesting, processing, and then being pressed and aged in cakes. This allows the leaf to ferment further and develop the dark red color that we associate with Red Virginia tobacco.

Since Virginia tobacco is grown not only in the USA, but also many different locations around the world, it’s all a little different in flavor presentation. Each growing region develops its Red Virginia in close to the same manner, but due to different soils and different climates, the flavors are in variance. And to further allow for various Red Virginia flavor presentations, growers even know when and how to harvest their tobacco at different levels of maturity to produce a specific flavor that they are looking for. Fascinating!

Here’s another gem that I discovered; the location of where the Red Virginia was taken from the leaf itself can also make a big difference in its presentation and flavor. I learned that the leaf at the top of the stalk will produce the sweetest, yet mildest Red, while the portion of the leaves around the middle of the stalk will have a little more sharpness and lighter depth of flavor, yet is highly sought after because it adds perfect depth to the smoke when used in combination with Oriental forward blends to add the body necessary to enhance the presentation of the Orientals without overwhelming them. And since Latakia is also classified as an Oriental, you will find a lot of mid-stalk Red Virginia leaf in Latakia blends, too.

Let’s talk sugar content for a moment. I love sugar. I love it in my coffee, I love it in my tea, and yes, I love it in my tobacco! It is not necessarily true that the higher the sugar content the better the Red Virginia. Blenders know how to combine the various sugar content levels of Red Virginias with specific blends that they want to produce to enhance the overall presentation. I think most pipe smokers – myself included – thought that Red Virginia had the highest sugar content of any of the varietals. That is the case a lot of times but even Bright Virginia leaf can have more sugar content than some Reds. And the sugar content in quality Red Virginia can range from about 8% to well over 20%. That’s quite a spread. And it is those high sugar content Red Virginias that are most often found in straight Virginia blends. Blenders have learned over the decades that a quality Red Virginia that has been properly processed and contains a high sugar content, seems to lose the rough edges and present the most naturally sweet taste. And the longer it ages, the more mellow and naturally sweet the taste is. My mouth is watering just thinking about that!

So, the next time I light up a favored tobacco that is 100% Red Virginia, I am going to thank the expert growers, the expert harvesters, the expert processors, and the expert blenders, for working so hard to provide this old pipe smoker a little slice of heaven with every puff!