Tomas Estes on the terroir of tequila
We were lucky enough to catch Tomas Estes’ session on tequila terroir at Agave Love back in March, and he illuminated how the geography and geology of the Highlands and the Tequila Valley influence the agaves grown there.
Estes made the point that where the agave is grown influences the flavour of the tequila it makes.
“Tequilas from agaves growing in the Tequila Valley, as a generality, have a different taste profile than those in the Highlands,” he said.
“I would call Tequila Valley tequilas masculine, to use a wine term — they’re very forward, they’re very earthy, they’re full of herbaceous qualities. And in contrast, the tequilas from the Highlands would be feminine: a little more recessive, one has to chase them a bit more. They’re going to be fruity, round, sweeter, floral — again as a generality.”
The crux of it is that the Valley offers more fertile soil than those of the Highlands.
“Arandas and the Tequila Valley — those two places are very different georgraphically, geologically. The Tequila Valley is very volcanic, one of the distinguishing characteristics of Tequila town is it’s very volcanic. It’s a valley soil, so rather rich,” he said.
“The altitude is about 1600m above sea level, so because it’s a valley it collects the heat. It’s got warm to hot days, and warm to hot nights.
“So [it is] rather conducive to growing agaves. Good soil, good rich soil and a warm climate.”
The Highlands area is higher, and with higher altitude comes cooler temperatures. A good rule of thumb is that with every 100 metre rise in altitude, the average temperature drops by 0.6 degrees Celsius.
“In the Highlands it’s very different. 2000m above sea level — at 2000 metres in France we ski in the Alps, it’s very high up. It’s a very different soil, it’s red. It’s clay, which is not great for crops, and this iron soil which when the air hits it, it goes red and oxidises.”
Given that the soil is poorer in the Highlands — or Los Altos as it’s known — it’s no surprise that the blue agave used to make tequila is not native to the area.
“The blue agave is native to the Tequila Valley region,” said Estes. “There are about 200 or 300 — well it depends who you talk to and how much they’ve had to drink — varieties of this plant the agave. They’re all over Mexico. And the blue agave somewhere back in the past was thought to be superior to all the others in the making of a distillate, so this is the only one to make tequila. In the latter part of the 1800’s, someone took the blue agave to the Highlands — it wasn’t native to there.”
The first production of tequila from the blue agave in the Highlands was in 1903, Estes said.
“What’s curious about this to me is that now there is more agave grown in the Highlands than in the Tequila Valley. Why? Because it’s prized more. I find it a curious irony that what is indigenous to one place pleases man more in another place. It pleases the people who want to drink tequila and who make it.”
And within the Highlands area, there are stretches of land which produce agaves of a quality higher than other areas.
“There’s a section in the Highlands between three cities, which makes a triangle that they call the Golden Triangle which would be considered the grand cru.”
The towns that constitute the Golden Triangle are Arandas, Atotonilco, and Jesus Maria. In Arandas, the altitude can get up to 2,200 metres in parts.
And just as with wine, what the climate was like, the rainfall, the temperatures, what was going on at the ranches where the agaves were grown, all affect how the agave will taste. The difference is, the agaves take longer than the one year it takes for grapes to grow.
“What is different about this plant,” said Estes, “is that the agaves that are planted for Ocho are on average about eight years old. Not one year, like with wine or brandy or all the other raw materials for spirits — it’s one season.”
When it comes to grapes, there’s around 100 days that really matter for growing great wine grapes. With the agave, it can be closer to 3000 days that matter.
That means there’s a lot that can happen to the agaves in that time.