Monday, July 19, 2010

Terroir of Tequila?

Boy, time is going fast these days - I have a lot going on, and not enough time being spent writing! Has it been over three months already since I wrote anything? Sheesh.

A few months ago now, I attended a great seminar on tequila. Gary Shansby, the President & CEO of Partida Tequila (on the right in the picture below) and Tomas Estes, an official Ambassador for Tequila and one of the creators of Tequila Ocho, teamed up for this seminar. In addition to a tasting of their tequilas, we also discussed the concept of terroir in relation to tequila. It was a fun afternoon, full of tasty drinks and good discussion.

Given that these two companies do not have common ownership, and do not have the same distributor in most markets, it was unique to see them team up in this way. For me, it was also a very interesting demonstration of two markedly different styles of promoting and marketing a brand. More on that in another post.

Talking Terroir

The room was filled with educated drinkers - the audience included many members of the local US Bartenders Guild chapter, as well as a few members of the local drinks press. Therefore, we did not spend significant time on the concept of terroir in general. We did, however, begin with a wine tasting to highlight the differences, contrasting an Oregon pinot noir (rich mushroom and fruit notes) with a Burgundy (earthy, mineral, more restrained with notes of "barnyard").

As a starting point, both speakers stated that like wine grapes for wine, the agave piña provides the primary source of flavor in tequila, and that the flavor varies with age, climate, soil and weather conditions. The growth process is slow; it takes 7-10 years for an agave piña to mature. At maturity, a piña is 30-40 kilograms and contains 27% sugar, on average.

A Quickie Primer on Making Tequila
After harvest, the piñas are cooked. Partida uses a stainless steel autoclave (pressurized cooker), while Ocho uses stone or clay brick ovens, which are more traditional and less pressurized, but they can become coated with soot and are harder to clean. Next, the piñas are crushed and pressed to extract the aguamiel (honey water), which will be fermented. Yeasts are added, and the mash ferments - the duration depends primarily on temperature at the fermentation facility. Partida uses a proprietary strain of yeast from their agave fields, whereas Ocho uses wild, freeborn yeast.

After fermentation, the mash is distilled. Both producers distill their spirits twice (as required by Mexican law). On the second run, Partida's tequila is 53-54% alcohol by volume, whereas Ocho's is 47-48% abv. Neither speaker would comment about whether there is any other processing, filtering, etc. after distillation but before bottling. Given the final proof of the spirits, at a minimum, water is added.

Aging Tequila
Both producers age some of their tequila into Reposado and A
ñejo expressions. To label tequila Reposado, it must be aged a minimum of 2 months, and no more than 1 year. For Añejo, it must be at least 12 months, but no more than 3 years (there is also an Extra Añejo category, for over 3 years). Interestingly (at least to me), the distillers used the exact same distillant for the expressions they produce - the only variation is the length of time in the wood.

Both producers utilize used bourbon barrels for their aging (Partida uses Jack Daniels barrels, Ocho uses mostly Jack Daniels barrels). They each take different steps to prepare the barrels, and age for different periods of time. Ocho strives to age for only the minimum time, to preserve the maximum flavor from the agave - 2 months for Reposado, 12 months for
Añejo. They age their barrels in a one-story warehouse, where the barrels are stacked. Partida ages their Reposado for 6 months, and 18 months for the Añejo.

Highland vs. Lowland
Partida's Terroir
Partida is a lowlands tequila, meaning the agave is grown in a lower-altitude area, in a valley below a dormant volcano, at approximately 5,500 feet in elevation. The temperatures are higher there, both during the day and at night, than in the highlands area. The speakers asserted that lowlands tequilas are traditionally more masculine, more robust and forward in flavor. Partida was most definitely more masculine and more robust than Ocho.

Ocho's Terroir
In contrast, Ocho is a highlands tequila, grown higher up on the hills, where it is cooler in temperature, especially at night (it's 1,000 to 1,500 feet higher in elevation). Highlands tequilas were asserted to be more feminine, smooth and restrained. And Ocho was more restrained and feminine that Partida, clearly demonstrating their point.

So Did I Buy It?
Well, sort of. These two tequila producers are making very different products, but I am not buying into attributing the differences primarily to terroir. Admittedly, I have not studied the concept of terroir in-depth, but I struggle to see that as a primary driver for these differences.

Rather than being like wine from grapes (that vary with terroir), this is more akin to comparing brandy from grapes (or, for another base material, beer from barley vs. whiskey from barley). The grapes have an impact, but it is meaningfully less so than in the wine. In addition to the differences in the
piñas themselves, there are also differences in the cooking processes, yeast, maximum alcohol percentage at the end of distillation, additional processing (which was not disclosed), as well as aging durations and aging materials.

What do you think?

And in a future post, tasting notes on the tequilas, as well as more on the marketing approaches.


Aleta said...

I can definitely see how you would be dubious of a terroir only effect if comparing between the Partida and Ocho brands. I'm sure processing affects things pretty majorly. The way it really hit home for me was to try Blancos or Reposados side by side from the various ranches that Tequila Ocho works with. I definitely noticed a pronounced difference.

~Sonja~ said...

That's a great point, Aleta, and I hadn't even gotten into the sourcing of the agave, and whether they blend or keep the estates separate, and the vintage dating, and whether they taste them before they decide they're ready or not (Partida does not, he said, they pull it after 6 months, whatever it is, for example).

So many other variables.

Ryan Fitzgerald said...

Ocho most definitely harvests from specific estates each year. Tom Estes is a huge wine lover and he founded the brand in an effort to showcase terroir and it's affect on Tequila. The one variable that changes from each release of Ocho is where the agaves are harvested. Obviously the vintages mean much less than in wine in that the agaves are grown over a period of 6-10 years. They are more simply a guide to the different releases.

~Sonja~ said...

Thanks Ryan, and in re-reading Aleta's post, I definitely agree that tasting the different Ocho Blancos side-by-side was the most useful part of the exercise, in terms of demonstrating the terroir possibilities for tequila. I did find myself still wondering about what other variables might be there, but that really helped show the point, at least.