When we talk about terroir the unsaid assumption is we’re talking about wine. But this isn’t necessarily true. Over the last decade many spirit categories, and even some beers, has been striving to overturn that thought and prove to the world they too possess terroir.
Leading the way by sheer leaps and bounds has been agave spirits. While you might have though brandy would be the more obvious category, especially appellations such as Cognac or Armagnac which have been deeply entrenched in French vinification for hundreds of years, it is in fact tequila brands such as Ocho that has shaken the wine world around.
Tequila & Mezcal
Mexico has one of the most unique climates in the world, covering verdant valleys and scorching dry plains, where the mists hang low over dense green vegetation, where the buildings are painted shades of straw, rouge and burnt orange, where the days amble by and where the scent of spices wafting from kitchens lingers on your palate. How could its native spirit not smack of these heady scents and landscape? Some of the first people to recognise this were Tomas Estes and Carlos Camarena.
By sampling tequilas from across different agave fields these men were shocked at the different flavours that survived the distillation process and realised these incredible plants could carry their heritage just as well as any vineyard. Emboldened by their discovery they went on to launch Tequila Ocho which, as with wines, is released in a different vintage each year, proving to the world that agave plants have terroir.
While many Cognac houses may claim terroir this is almost impossible for large Cognac brands who buy in most of their spirit from smaller producers across the appellation, blending the spirits and aging according to the house style. In the more independent area of Armagnac terroir is much more relevant, here grapes are harvested from vines on a specific estate and distilled and bottled on site.
Terroir in beer is still a contested issue. Barley needs to be mass produced for brewers, so small variations are almost impossible to achieve and beer is expected to be much more consistent than wine year by year. Hops are less of an issue but whether these ingredients can actually carry their terroir through the brewing process and into the beer is being debated across the craft brewing movement. The best step is looking likely to be in using local yeast to better represent where the beer comes from rather than using a commercially isolated and laboratory stored strain.
Working with the same issues around barley, which needs to be grown in huge quantities for Scotch producers, it is only the small producers who can afford to source their barley from one area. Islay whisky certainly tastes of the island thanks to its process of burning peat into the barley, but that isn’t conveying the environment in which the agricultural product was grown. The salty brine which you can pick up in some coastal whiskies was about as close as terroir and Scotch came until Bruichladdich decided to make a whisky from specific fields in an effort to prove that malted barley could carry through terroir. The resulting small batch bottlings provoked a lot of debate but eventually it must be conceded that after a certain period of aging no terroir can come through the oaky, vanilla characteristics imparted from the barrel.