While we've built up quite a reputation for Enrique Fonseca's ultra-mature, extra-añejo tequila here at K&L (both with the ArteNOM 1146 and our upcoming Fuenteseca blend), Enrique Fonseca was a farmer long before he was a tequilero. In fact, he's one of the largest landowners of agave in all of Jalisco and he worked in those fields for more than four decades, inheriting the trade from his father. In my quest to understand more about terroir in tequila, who better to ask than the man with agave fields in more than ten different regions? I called Enrique this morning and chatted with him for a half-hour about farming, the maturation of agave, and understanding how regional differences specifically affect flavor. The following transcript is an edited version of that conversation, edited both for brevity and to make sure you don't zone out halfway through reading it. I understand that we're still building an understanding here, so I don't want to overload your brain too quickly!
David: Enrique -- you're one of the biggest land owners of agave in Jalisco, is this right?
Enrique: Well, there are other companies that are larger in terms of the agave they contract, but they don't own the land. They purchase the agave from other farmers. So, yes, we are one of the largest owners of our own agave.
David: And you use only your own agave to make your tequilas?
Enrique: That's correct.
David: In the wine world we would call that "estate" fruit, meaning the difference between using someone else's grapes and using your own.
Enrique: That's right. We use only "estate" agave for our production.
David: Do you believe there's a big difference in the flavor of blue agaves that comes from the land?
Enrique: Completely. Agave is definitely the product of a specific place.
David: How did you get into the agave farming business? Is it something you inherited from your parents?
Enrique: Yes, my great-grandfather was an agave farmer in the late 1800s, so I am the fourth-generation in my family to harvest agave. I spent more than forty years of my life working with my father in the field.
David: And you own agave fields all over Jalisco, right?
Enrique: Yes, I am from Atotonilco so we have many fields in Los Altos, but we also own property in Arandas Tototlan, Tepatitlán, and over in the valley near Tequila where our distillery is.
David: Your distillery is in tequila? I was thinking it was also in Atotonilco.
Enrique: Yes, it's in Tequila. I purchased it from Bacardi in the 1980s when there was a glut of agave and prices began to drop. We had contracts with major distillers, but they didn't want to honor those contracts, so we needed to find a way to preserve our mature agave or risk losing it completely.
David: That's like the idea of distillation itself – preservation of the harvest.
Enrique: The distillery had been making tequila since the early 1900s, so it's quite a historic building.
David: Besides Jake's ArteNOM Añejo tequila, do you produce any other tequilas that are sold in the United States?
Enrique: Yes, I am a partner in Don Fulano, which I run with my nephews, and we produce Asombroso for another company that contracts from us.
David: How do you differentiate the two brands? What do you do differently to create them?
Enrique: With Don Fulano we have a profile we're going after. With Asombroso we do what the owners ask us to do to create the style they're looking for.
David: When you bought the distillery did you know anything about distillation, or did you have to hire someone to help you with the process?
Enrique: We had to bring in engineers to help us. I didn't know anything, so I was completely lost!
David: When did you start to become more interested in the process?
Enrique: In the late 1980s there was a push for higher quality and I wanted to educate myself about the business to make better tequila.
David: When did you start realizing that the flavors of tequila could differ depending on where you sourced the agave from?
Enrique: Probably about thirteen years ago, around 2000, when I decided to take more of an interest in the wood. I became fascinated by the aging process and wanted to educate myself further, so I travelled to Scotland and to France where I met with Cognac and single malt producers and learned from them about maturation in wood. It was then that I realized the ultimate factor would be the flavor of the blanco tequila itself, which would have to determine how I should choose to mature it. They've been aging spirits for 400 years in Europe, so I learned a lot from that experience.
David: And you think the flavors in blanco tequila begin with the flavors from the agave?
Enrique: Yes, but there are many other factors that also play a role.
David: How do agave plants from various regions of Jalisco differ from one another?
Enrique: The biggest difference can be seen in the agave grown near Tequila, around 1000 meters in elevation, and the agave grown in Los Altos – the Highlands – at a much higher elevation. When we harvest the agave on the plains near Tequila we're getting about 1.25 grams of penca (the leaves from the agave) when we crop. Contrast that with Los Altos where we get about .60 grams of penca per agave.
David: So you're saying that the size of the piña is smaller with the agave plants near Tequila, that's why there's a larger percentage of penca?
Enrique: Yes, completely. There are large agave plants near Tequila too, but usually they're much larger in the Highlands.
David: And you think this is due to the soil?
Enrique: Yes, that and the humidity, the altitude. The soil in the Highlands is mostly red soil and it's more arid. This creates an agave that matures more slowly, so it has the chance to get riper. You have to remember that the agave plants in each region differ in their window for maturity. You only have a certain window to harvest the agave before they start to go downhill. In the valley near Tequila, you might have a window of six months during peak maturity, whereas in Los Altos that window might be two years.
David: Wow, that's a big difference.
Enrique: Completely, and it's up to the producer to decide when that window is, depending on the type of flavors they want in their tequila.
David: So what would some of the biggest differences be in the way these agave would affect the flavor of a tequila?
Enrique: Tequila made from Lowland agave tends to be more vegetal in flavor, almost like you'll find in some of the mezcales from Oaxaca. Tequila from Los Altos is fruitier, but it can also be peppery, depending on exactly where the agave was harvested from. Because the agave from Los Altos can be riper, with more sugar, the flavors tend to be riper as well. The agave near Tequila will mature faster, but you have a shorter window of optimum maturity and the sugar levels are less.
David: Again these are big differences.
Enrique: Yes they are. Even when you look at just the penca from an agave in the Lowlands versus the Highlands, you'll see a big difference. They're not completely different, but you can tell that they're not the same.
David: Yet, even within the Highlands there are sub-regions where terroir affects flavor?
Enrique: Yes, entirely.
David: So ultimately the flavor of a tequila can be controlled by first selecting agave from a specific region, then harvesting it at a specific time by selecting the desired ripeness, and cutting off the pencas by leaving a certain length of jima (the stem of the pencas) in place for fermentation. Is that correct?
Enrique: Yes, all of these things will affect the ultimate flavor of a tequila. But then there is the production side of the business. I think you will have to come down and see our distillery so we can talk further about this. There is still so much more to explain and to understand.
David: Well that can be arranged!