Since I received so much positive feedback (mostly from non-vodka drinkers) about last week's vodka series, I decided I'd do the same thing this week with tequila. No other spirit has inspired me more over the last few months and no other drink has filled me with as much wonder and curiosity. This is mainly due to the advancements made in quality and production methods, mirroring many of the changes we've seen in the wine industry over the last two decades -- the same dynamic changes that inspired me to quit teaching to work in a wine shop. Wine appreciation has gone from merely enjoying the flavors of different grapes to understanding the influence of the land itself upon them -- terroir, as the French say. Part of the fun comes from knowing that only grapes grown in this particular type of soil, in this particular climate, in this particular part of the world can taste this way. That is, as long as the vintner doesn't fuck everything up by adding all kinds of new oak and designer yeasts during fermentation.
The idea of minimalist wine making, or "hands off" production, has become very fashionable over the past five years; stemming from the mindset that we should do as little as possible to alter the pure flavor within the grape itself. Look at Burgundy, for example, where grapes from one plot of land might cost ten times as much as grapes from another -- despite only being fifty yards apart on the same hillside. There are vineyard maps, geographical documents, and soil charts that point out which parcels have the potential for greatness and decide which wines are superior -- before the wine has even been made!! And this is all concerning a fruit that grows not under the ground, but on the vine -- far above the soil itself. The terroir is said to make its way into the grape via the roots and the stems, ultimately expressing itself within the juice.
Terroir is a tough sell to many wine customers already, let alone spirits consumers. The idea of geography and climate playing such an important role in a wine's flavor is sweeping and romantic, but suspicious if it results in a higher price tag. "I'm paying an extra $10 a bottle to taste earth?" When you distill that flavor out of the wine and into a brandy that spends twenty years in French oak, terroir isn't only tough to sell, it's also difficult to taste under all that wood. Terroir in whiskey? Good luck. Terroir in rum? Not when you're distilling from molasses. But what about tequila? Blanco tequila specifically. Not only does tequila come from a plant that grows in the ground, but more importantly, from a piña that actually grows within the ground. The agave piña itself spends six to eight years developing its flavors within various types of soils: rocky, gravelly, volcanic, mineral-rich. It might be said that an agave plant, even more so than a grape, is prone to flavors of terroir due to its actual, physical contact with the tierra itself.
I've already begun the dialogue about terroir and tequila this week by spending an hour on the phone with Siembra Azul's David Suro -- a man who strongly believes in agriculture's role within the flavor and quality of a tequila. That conversation is available to everyone via our podcast archive. However, I'm still looking for more clarity. How exactly does terroir affect the specific flavors of a tequila? What exactly makes an agave piña fruity, floral, spicy, peppery, or tangy? How can consumers use this information to help them choose a tequila that speaks to them? More importantly, why should anyone care about terroir in tequila in the first place? By shedding some more light on the producers who are actively working to express the intricate flavors of their agave, I think we can understand how the industry itself has developed to this point and where it still might take us.