Tequilaworld, Tahonas, and Terroir

Last Tuesday Edinburgh was graced by Phil Bayly of Sydney’s Café Pacifico, who’d come over to see his son compete in a climbing competition at Ratho.  While he was here, he thought it would be nice to organise a little tasting session for Ocho Tequila, a ‘concept’ Tequila created by EU Tequila Ambassador Tom Estes and El Tesoro/Tapatio’s Felipe Camarena.

Those who know me can probably tell you that I love tequila.  Those who’ve read this blog before will probably have noticed this too.  El Tesoro and Tapatio are two of my favourite ‘brands’, and are produced by the Camarena family in the Highland (or Los Altos) region of Jalisco.  They exemplify the more delicate, almost sweeter floral style of tequila that is associated with the Altos region.  Comparitively, Valley tequilas tend to be more earthy and robust, with grassy and powerful vegetal notes.

As I explained in my previous post, there are five main regions of tequila production, Jalisco being the most significant, and these were classified as appellations (much as the French do with wine) in 1995.  Four years ago, in 2006, the Agave fields of Mexico were classified as a cultural landscape – something so significant to the culture of the country that it forms the very fibre of their livelihoods – joining the Rice paddies of China and the Grapevines of France.  Recently, Oaxaca received similar appellation status with regards to the production of Mezcal.

Just grab a straw, mate!

For those of an impatient bent who don’t want to troll through the interweb elsewhere (or previous posts), the story of Tequila begins with the arrival of Cortez in Mexico.  There he found the Mayans and Aztecs drinking and using Pulque (an agave beer made by hollowing out the heart of an agave and collecting the fermenting sap that gathers in the wound).  Because of its alcoholic content, it was often used during ritual sacrifice as a sedative and analgesic.  Tasting this brew he quickly declared it vile (and having tasted modern Pulque, I can see why), but to this agave beer he added his knowledge of distillation, and thus Vino de Mezcal was born.

Mezcal wine grew in popularity (sometimes referred to as agave brandy) and was originally made from many different subspecies (of which there are over 300), however it was recognised that the wine from the volcanic Tequila region near the town of Tequila made the very best.  Today, 97% of all tequila is made in this part of Jalisco state, predominantly in the Valley (formerly referred to as the Lowlands until it was decided that this felt pejorative) and the Highlands.

In the lower valley region, the climate is relatively steady, with warm days and warm nights.  The Highlands feature warm days but with contrasting cool nights.  If you know anything about wine production, you’ll be aware that these conditions stress the plant, which increases the production of starches by the agave and therefore sugar levels.  This is, essentially, why Highland tequila tends to be sweeter.

A Jimador sharpens his Coa

The agave and the grape, indeed tequila and wine, share so much in common in a way that no other spirit does.  Just like the vine, agave are a replanting of cuttings of the mother plant, making them clones of the generation before.  In the first three years of an agave’s life it is trimmed and the cuttings thus replanted.  It is not until the final year of the agave before it is ready for harvest that the Pina forms, and this is some 8-14 years for some.  The harvesting is carried out by a Jimador using a tool called a coa – a pole with a spatula-like blade on the end.  This is the same tool that has been used since the Aztecs – there is no more efficient way to harvest the fruit of the agave.

The Pina is then cooked in ovens, arranged in such a way that they cook evenly.   There are two principle ways of doing this, either in a clay oven (hornos) or a pressure cooker.  This converts the natural starches into fructose and glucose.  The first three hours or so of juices are filtered off – these are bitter and full of bugs.  The cooked pinas are then pressed and washed with water to lower the brix level (sugars by mass, essentially) to extract the ‘agua miel’ for fermentation.  Almost universally through producers, the by-product from this process is used as fertiliser.  The actual chemical extract, I understand, is inulin.

Now, there’s two ways to press an agave – in a giant mechanised press (fast and effective) or using an old-fashioned mill.  You’re more likely to get bitter notes from using a press, but since these can be regulated so as to provide varying degrees of pressure, this isn’t so much of a problem as it sounds if you’re trying to produce a quality tequila.  The mill method is still used by some producers, such as 7 Leguas, who even use a horse to pull the giant volcanic stone wheel – known as a Tahona – around to press the juices from the fibre.

The juices and fibres (sometimes separate, sometimes together) are then fermented using either brewer’s yeast or allowed to ferment with the wild yeasts present in the juice – choice of yeast fermentation will affect how long the process takes and ultimately the final flavour profile, so large producers such as Jose Cuervo will understandably opt for a purchased yeast for speed and (theoretically) consistency.  As with some wine production (notice a theme here?) where a ‘press’ juice and ‘fibre’ fermentation are done separately, the results can be blended to add different flavour notes to the final tequila.  Once fermented into a beer, Tequila undergoes an initial distillation to become ‘Ordinario’ and must undergo a second to become Tequila.  Some producers (notably Patron) undergo a third.

After that it’s about ageing.  Like wine, again, the type of oak or vessel used will influence flavour, and being as delicate as it is, just like wine, the wrong oak or finish can have a dramatic effect on the flavour, even completely overpowering the agave flavour that makes tequila so distinctive.  New American Oak will impart toasty coconut and vanilla, but because of the grain it will have a dramatic impact on the tequila in a very short space of time.  Since all producers are relatively new to using wood ageing compared to other spirits, there’s still a lot of experimentation and much learning to be done, especially when you consider that between 126 distilleries over all Tequila appellations (though less than a fistful are not in Jalisco), there are over 4000 different expressions of Tequila.

Which brings us to Ocho.  You’ll have noticed I keep drawing parallels between the production of Tequila and the production of Wine.  This is not because I am a broken record.  The EU Ambassador for Tequila, Tom Estes, was approached by the Camarena family and asked if he would be interested in creating a new tequila with them.  “Well there was only one thing to say,” he would later recount. “Affirmative.”

The first thing he found himself wondering was how he could make a tequila that was good, but different from what the Camarenas were already doing with El Tesoro and Tapatio.  Tom had been travelling to France, to Burgundy, every summer for around 17 years, and took inspiration from the Burgundian wine tradition, seeing that it could be translated to Tequila.  Looking at Los Altos, he saw that it had similar climatic traits to Burgundy, with hot days and cool nights in which acids and starches would develop in the plant – Pinot Noir or Chardonnay that lack in acidity are often ‘jammy’ or ‘flabby’.  He reasoned that just as soil, elevation, water table, exposure – terroir – could affect whether a vineyard could be considered Grand Cru, Premier Cru and so on, there was reason to believe that the same could be true with the agave.  Thus, his proposal was to create ‘single vineyard’ tequila from a single ranchos or campos.  The Camarena family liked the idea, and had more than enough estates that this could be done.

And this is where we meet Ocho.  Tequila and Terroir.  Every year, Ocho will release from single estates and bottle the tequila with a vintage label stating the year and name of the field on which the agave was grown.  Because of the time it takes to grow an agave, the 2009 release will be one planting, the 2010 another, and we won’t see that ranchos again for another ten years or so.  The 2010 Blanco, for example, is from Los Mangoes, a region sitting at about 1800ft above sea level.  It is sweet, but with a delicate dry finish, and I picked out fresh green fruit, tropical notes like banana, lychee and pineapple.  There are hints of vanilla pod and a grapey, almost elderflower element, along with a strong honeyed agave aroma that tinges on herbaceous.

The Camarenas grow all their own agaves, which gives them full control over the crop, which is organically grown with no pesticides, and allowed to ‘overripen’ and rot slightly before harvesting in the case of Ocho, which increases the sugars and acidity in the agave.  To draw the wine card again, this is not dissimilar to practices used in the creation of fierce Amarones (where the grapes are partially dried) or allowing botrytis cinerea to infect grapes for the production of some of the world’s most sought after sweet wines.

As far as distillation goes, after fermentation the alcoholic content of the liquid sits at about 5%.  Tom uses an alembic still for the first distillation bringing it up to 25%, and the second distillation is done in a tiny copper still.  The name Ocho comes from this stage, because it was the eighth tasting sample from various different methods of distillation that was the most expressive – and Ocho is of course the Mexican for Eight.

Anyway, very interesting little concept, I’m very keen to see where they go with aged expressions, whether or not they use different estates or do small batch Anejos from an estate they have used to produce a Blanco or a Reposado, and the type of oak they choose.  My gut would be to play around with refill French oak, something like Troncais, and maybe play around with ones that have previously been used for wines rather than spirits.  At this point they do have a single estate Anejo, and we’ve got it at Bon Vivant, and yes, it really is gorgeous.  One of my biggest gripes about aged tequilas is that while you do get a lovely smooth spirit, you also run the risk of totally obliterating the agave character that makes tequila so interesting with a shed-load of oak.  The Ocho Anejo, like El Tesoro Paradiso, is a great example of an Anejo that gets the balance right.

So that’s Tequila and Terroir.  What about Tahonas?  Well the following day, Stuart (my boss and owner of The Bon Vivant) hosted a ‘Tahona Society’ lunch.  It was a great opportunity to chill out, drink some Palomas and Batangas,  chat about tequila, eat some fantastic mexican food prepared by our chefs (and trust me, it was awesome), do a little comparative tasting, and introduce those present to the new Altos range from Olmeca.  No mixto here, a 100% Agave tequila made with the brief of really bringing out the character of both agave and highlands, tasted against some other highland tequilas and a few valley ones to highlight the differences.

It was a really cool afternoon, my only wish is that I hadn’t been working straight after we finished…

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