When you think about tequila, the last thing that comes to mind is probably terroir. Long viewed as a spirit to slam back, chased with bitter lemon wedges, or as a crowd-pleaser in Margarita cocktails, tequila has moved on from its traditional party image in recent years. Indeed, this distinctive spirit, so evocative of Mexico, can now command a space at the connoisseurs’ table, as education that this is a spirit to sip and savour trickles down.
The increasing popularity of premium, high-quality tequila has gone hand-in-hand with more intellectual ways of appreciating the spirit – and the discussion around terroir is certainly part of this newer discourse.
So how does the concept of terroir apply in tequila? Going back to basics, the raw material used to make tequila is Blue Weber agave, a particular strain of plant that looks like a giant pineapple, with long, sword-like leaves. Much like grape vines, the agave plant has many different varieties, all with their own shapes and flavour characteristics.
You can try many of these different strains in other agave-based spirits such as mezcal. However, tequila producers are only legally allowed to use Blue Weber, a variety that takes roughly six to eight years to mature before it can be harvested by hand.
‘Blue Weber agave was chosen for tequila because it’s one of the sweetest,’ explains Arantxa García Barroso of Patrón Tequila, as we walk the fields, avoiding the razor-sharp ends of the agave leaves stretching up into the azure-blue sky.
Sugar highs – and lows
Tequila’s party image can be traced back to producers in decades gone by, who decided to chase a ‘pile ’em high, sell ’em cheap’ strategy. Out went the old, traditional equipment that was more time-consuming and less efficient to use yet produced a more flavourful spirit, and in came highly industrialised equipment that stripped every single sugar out of the Blue Weber agave plant for fermentation, scorching it in the process.
This approach saw the advent of mixto tequila – the recipe for this can legally include as little as 51% Blue Weber agave, with the remaining 49% made up of ‘other sugars’, such as cane sugar. Unsurprisingly, these blends were rough-and-ready spirits that damaged the tequila category’s reputation.
The last 10-15 years have seen a steady move against mixtos. Spirits lovers will now often look for the magic words ‘100% agave’ on a label before buying, treating it as a signifier of quality. And so tequila’s status has risen.
Lay of the land
While tequila is made in a handful of Mexican states, the heartland of production is in the state of Jalisco, which can roughly be split into two: the highlands, or Los Altos, with its rust-red soil and higher elevation; and the valley, or El Valle, boasting a mountainous backdrop and the evocative town of Tequila with its cobbled streets and numerous distilleries.
It is here that discussion of terroir in tequila starts, as tequilas made with agaves grown in the highlands are more floral and fruity, thanks to the cooler nights and iron- rich soils in which the agave are grown, while those from the valley have a more vegetal, herbaceous and peppery profile.
‘According to historical references, the Blue Weber agave was originally found in the valley of Jalisco, and it’s believed that it was then transported to the highlands somewhere in the late 1800s, with the first production of those highland tequilas in the very late 1800s or early 1900s,’ explains Tomas Estes, the European tequila ambassador and co-owner of Tequila Ocho.
‘What I find interesting is that the agaves grown in the highlands now have a higher market value than those in the valley,’ he continues. ‘This indicates that the producers value the highland agave more, so from a terroir perspective, where they have found this plant growing naturally seems to be less attractive than where it’s been transported to.’
While most tequila producers happily espouse the differences between highland and valley tequilas and leave it at that, Estes and his business partner Carlos Camarena – a revered distiller who makes tequila in the slow, artisanal way – have progressed the conversation concerning tequila and terroir much further in the creation of their Ocho Tequila brand.
The story doesn’t start in Mexico, but in Burgundy in the 1980s, after Estes opened a Mexican restaurant called Café Pacifico in Paris. ‘I started going to Burgundy in 1984 and fell in love with that spot. This is the way that I arrived at my interest in terroir. For 19 consecutive years, starting in 1989, I went every single year to taste the wines en primeur,’ he remembers.
‘In June or July I would go and see the producers, including Bruno Clavelier in Vosne-Romanée and Franck Grux of Olivier Leflaive in Puligny-Montrachet, and would often walk their vineyards with them. They would show me grand cru, premier cru, village and generic plots of land. I became fascinated with the idea and it was the basis of my idea to look at the role of terroir in agave,’ explains Estes.
When Camarena approached him with the idea of jointly producing a tequila, Estes’ first idea was to create a product that was exceptionally expressive in terms of the agave flavour. ‘Once we had the sample that we thought was the best, then I said to Carlos: “You know what many people say about the relationship between valley and highland tequilas? Can we go 1,000 steps further than that and make a single-field, technically single-vineyard, tequila?” And he replied: “Yes we can, but be careful, because they’re going to be different…”
‘I thought, bravo, let’s go against conformity. In those days, producers were going for distillates that brought the customer a consistent taste profile or product.’
This consistency of flavour is brought about through the blending of distillates from different sites in order to reach a specific profile – something at complete odds to what Ocho does.
In the 12 years the duo have worked on the project, they have released 24 vintage tequilas from 23 different ranchos (agave ranches), including two from El Vergel in 2007 and 2018, publishing details of the altitude, aspect and character of each site. While each tequila is undoubtedly different from the other, there is still something distinctly Ocho running through them all, with the fruity, distinct agave character of citrus fruit, earthiness and sometimes a honeyed sweetness, sitting alongside a distinct peppery character.
And despite tequila and wine being worlds apart in terms of flavour and product, Estes sees the similarities between Ocho’s tequilas and the wines of Burgundy. ‘Both use one variety – Pinot Noir for Burgundy, Blue Weber for tequila – and it’s the same producer using the same production methods, but the agave or the grapes are coming from different specific plots of land. So the variable in these products is the location from which the raw material has been sourced.’
As tequila’s image as a premium spirits category develops, so too will the fascinating exploration of the nuances of this product, and Ocho’s travels in terroir will continue to be central to this exciting movement.
Three terroir tequilas to try
Olmeca Altos Plata
A typical highland tequila, Olmeca Altos was created by maestro tequilero Jesús Hernández and two internationally renowned bartenders. Aromas of agave and spring blossom lead onto a floral palate of chalk and lemons, with a pleasing cocoa finish. Alcohol 38%
Tequila Fortaleza Blanco
The tiny Fortaleza distillery is situated in Tequila town and makes small batches of tequila by hand. Sourcing its agave from the valley, there’s a distinctive grassiness and warm agave character, plus lemon zest, cooling mint and sea salt. Alc 40%
Ocho Las Presas Blanco 2018
Las Presas, or ‘The Dams’ is a ranch that was owned by distiller Carlos Camarena’s great-grandfather. With an altitude of 2,170m and an east-west aspect, the agave rows are planted north to south in order to receive the most sunlight without the plants shading each other. The unmistakable Ocho pepper and clear agave characters are present, along with tropical fruit notes of guava, melon and pineapple, and a green olive note too. Alc 40%