Saturday, April 30, 2011

Tequila Terroir

F. Martin Ramin for The Wall Street Journal

This Cinco de Mayo, skip the pitchers of margaritas and school yourself on the distinct regions of Mexico's finest spirit

More discerning tequila drinkers know it comes from the agave plant and can recognize the difference between the major types: the unaged blancos; reposados, which are aged in oak between two months and a year; and añejos, which spend between one and three years in barrels. But more advanced types treat it like wine, digging into its appellation of origin and learning about how a variety of factors like soil and weather will effect the final product. You could spend years studying, but if you just want to choose one to sip this Cinco de Mayo, here's a cheat sheet to the major regions.

JALISCO LOWLANDS: Most of the agave used in tequila is grown in the state of Jalisco, in or around the city of Tequila and a few others like Amatitán. Here the volcanic soil imparts a spicier and earthy quality as in the finish of 1) Herradura Reposado ($50), or the small batch 2) Casa Dragones Joven ($275). Lowlands tequila usually has more citrus notes.

Jalisco Highlands: Because this region gets less rain than the lowlands, and the solid red clay soil makes the agave roots work harder to get down to water, the plant gathers a lot of minerals. The result is a richer product high in natural sugar like 3) Avión Reposado ($55), with its fruit notes of pear and peach.

Tamaulipas and Guanajuato: A small amount of agave is grown in the states bordering Jalisco, like Guanajuato, where you'll find similar conditions. From there, 4) Corralejo Reposado ($30) is a standout, with ripe agave, a bright honey finish and mint notes. Tamaulipas is closer to the Gulf of Mexico, which can affect the aging process and impart a salty, sea quality to the agave. The result can be tropical and spicy, as in the butterscotch nose and banana-peel heat of 5) Chinaco Reposado. ($50).

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