Terroir and the D.O.
Terroir is a French term (meaning land) from the word of wine - it’s used to describe the environmental factors which influence the flavour of the wine. These factors include soil types, climate, local farming techniques, and in the case of natural wines – resident yeast varietals. Grape vines are plants which are considered to be heavily affected by terroir. Some other plants considered to be heavily affected by terroir are coffee, tobacco, chocolate and agave – the base plant used for the production of tequila and mezcal.
Terroir is what makes these products regionally distinctive. Different regions have different environmental factors, which lend different flavours to the products. In France they’ve used this idea of terroir and regionality to create the system of appellations – champangne, bordeux etc. In France there are arguably too may, counting over 300, but there are the primary appellations which are well known and a useful tool to customers looking for a certain flavour profile. Mezcal also has a system of appellation. But there is only 1 – the denomination of origin “MEZCAL” which covers the 9 states in Mexico where mezcal can be legally produced. At roughly half a million km squared it is the biggest appellation in the world.
There has been a lot of debate about whether the denomination of origin is a good or bad thing. On the one hand it offers a degree of quality control and helps protect mezcal as a Mexican product – but it also takes control of a historical term and makes it very difficult for remote, small-scale producers to sell their products as "mezcal". I’m not going to try to determine an overall opinion on the DO in this post, but good or bad, one area in which it is definitely failing is to promote the terroir driven regionality of mezcal.
Although there is only one appellation, the CRM – the primary regulatory body – insists that any certified mezcal must list the state of origin on the label. This splits the D.O. into 9 regions, the implication being that these are the 9 distinct terroirs of Mezcal. But we don’t think this goes nearly far enough. Take Oaxaca – the most productive state in the appellation. Oaxaca is about 100 thousand km squared, and is the meeting point of 4 different mountain ranges, meaning it has a huge variety of climates and ecosystems. They also make mezcal all over the state, meaning there are several different regions, each with its own distinctive terroir and so unique mezcals.
At Pensador we think it is this local region which is the most important defining characteristic of any given mezcal. More important even than agave varietal or production process. This is why we have chosen to work solely with producers from the region of Miahuatlán, and champion their terroir.
For more discussion of the DO see our article on Certification and the Case for a Micro-Appellation.