On the Trail

The First Grand Cru Tequila

David Driscoll

The big mezcal boom that was supposed to happen at some point during 2016 never really came to fruition (at least not at K&L), but there’s one important lesson that the Oaxacan spirit has taught adventurous drinkers over the last few years: agave distillates are much more like wine than they are whiskey. It took the emergence of a second agave spirit to really elucidate that lesson to tequila drinkers. The fact that tequila must be made from only one particular species of agave—agave azul—I think is lost on many people. Imagine if all wines in the world were made only from cabernet sauvignon and you’ll begin to understand the importance of mezcal’s emergence in the spirits world. Oaxacan distillers have much more freedom than those in Jalisco and they work with a number of both cultivated and wild agave species. With the push for single varietal mezcal expressions now on the market, agave enthusiasts have become familiar with species like espadín, tobalá, cuixe, madrecuixe, arroqueño, and mexicano; to name a few. Imagine if, as a wine drinker, you’d just discovered syrah, grenache, zinfandel, and pinot noir. That’s what mezcal’s rise to fame over the last few years has offered tequila drinkers—the chance to compare and contrast. Yet, at the same time, there’s a reason that cabernet is king. There’s a reason that both Bordeaux and Napa are the two most prestigious wine capitals of the world, and that cabernet sauvignon continues to be cultivated all over the planet. After centuries of trial and error, vintners from around the globe have decided that particular varietal is one of the best tasting, and the wine-buying public has reinforced that conclusion.

“There’s a reason we’ve stuck to blue agave over the years,” tequila distiller and Jalisco landowner Enrique Fonseca told me over the phone this past week, “It makes a delicious tasting spirit.” I couldn’t argue with him. While the flavors of mezcal’s many agave varieties offer wild, complex, and intriguing characteristics, there’s no doubt in my mind that tequila’s inclusive and mild-mannered profile resonates with a larger audience. However, much like cabernet can offer a wide range of flavor profiles depending on where it’s grown and the climate in which it matures, Enrique believes the same terroir-driven elements are at play in the many blue agave fields of Jalisco and that altitude, location, and soil types have the same amount of influence on the ultimate flavor of a tequila—beyond the simple Highland or Lowland designations. The reason this isn’t a more widely-known theory is because few distillers (and few drinkers alike) have shown an interest in pursuing that level of tequila connoisseurship. However, just like Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne have districts of classified vineyards and properties, each ranked by their geographical potential for greatness, wouldn’t a similar approach in Jalisco help raise the bar for an individual tequila’s standing? If a wine can be considered a grand cru based on the supreme growing conditions of its vineyard origins, couldn’t the same case be made for a single-site tequila? Enrique Foneseca thinks so, and he’s the largest single owner of agave in all of Mexico. With dozens of agave sites (or huertas) at this disposal, Enrique recently began fermenting and distilling individual parcels separately, searching for what we thought was a unique and individual style of tequila. After a few years of trial and error, he found the flavor he was looking for; from a locale known as “El Maguey,” as fate would have it. 

“It’s to the south of Atotonilco, about a mile and a half, where we have a medium-sized mountain,” Enrique continued to explain; “The other side of that mountain is well protected from the cold of Los Altos, so there’s a temperate climate throughout the year. The tequila we made from this agave is characteristic of mid-elevation agave, about 1600 meters above sea level. The soil is yellowish-brown and not very deep. The agave we used comes from the slope of this soil where the water drains downhill into a creek at the bottom of the basin.” As someone who’s worked in the wine industry for ten years at this point, I’m well-versed in the superiority of grapes grown on a mountainside. The angle not only prevents the vines from flooding during rainy seasons (and remember that agave piñas take roughly seven years to mature), but also from long exposure to sun and other elements. It only makes sense that similar conditions in Jalisco would lead to perfectly-mature blue agave piñas. “It’s also part of a small canyon that helps to protect the field from cold,” Enrique added, “so there’s a good microclimate for the development of agave. I wanted to present a different side of tequila though. People are always talking about agave from Amatitan and Los Altos, but I wanted to show tequila drinkers that there are other terroirs in Jalisco besides those two; something in the middle. That particular flavor comes from the agave grown south of Atotonilco.” 

According to Enrique, the climate in the area known as “El Maguey” is almost subtropical. In addition to blue agave, there are also banana and coffee trees growing inside of a canyon into which the slope runs. The locale provides ample sun, but also protects the produce from wind and weather. “The sugar levels in the agave there are normal, but the flavors are very balanced. They’re neither too fruity, nor too spicy. They’re not too vegetal, either. There’s a perfect mix of all those characteristics, which is why we chose it.” And what about the resulting tequila? The single estate, single huerta distillate made entirely from blue agave sourced from Enrique’s “El Maguey” property? It’s without a doubt one of the most concentrated, clean-tasting, and pure agave-laden tequilas I’ve ever tasted. It’s so fresh and packed with succulent roasted agave flavor that it took me more than a half dozen tastings before I fully understood the pleasure signals my taste buds were sending to my brain. “The key to the purity of flavor is the second distillation in a copper alembic to remove any impurities,” Enrique told me later on during our conversation. Many distilleries are still using stainless steel for their stills. That’s where that metallic or unclean flavor in tequila often comes from.” The care with which Enrique produced this batch of single-site blanco tequila is akin to the same care a Burgundian vigneron would give to chardonnay grapes from Chassagne-Montrachet, removing stems and leaves by hand to make sure the fruit was given its full ability to shine. The resulting 2013 vintage-dated Fuenteseca “El Maguey” blanco tequila is simply immaculate. It’s stunning. It’s solid evidence—proof, no less—that single-site tequilas may offer complexity, delicacy, and simple deliciousness beyond the stifling blanco, reposado, añejo paradigm. It’s a tequila that instantly redefines the category and calls into question the methodology with which the spirit is made. 

After a long rest in stainless steel tanks, Enrique is finally ready to unleash his "grand cru" expression, to our great excitement. Let’s start with the aromatics. From the minute you pop the cork and begin nosing the bottle, sweet smells of incense, roasted agave, and tropical fruit completely inundate the nose. Absent entirely are the aromas of pepper, savory spice, or vegetal notes that usually accompany the fruitier tones. It’s as hedonistic as unadulterated tequila can smell, in my experience; but the spirit is not without spice on the whole. The first sip builds on those enticing aromas, but a huge dollop of baking spices, sweet agave nectar, and candied papaya lights up the palate before they take hold. I can’t reiterate strongly enough the pure and electric nature of the roasted agave flavor. I’m not sure how many people have ever chewed on a piece of cooked blue agave, but having done so numerous times I can safely tell you that never have I tasted this literal of a translation into the spirit itself. The finish is where all of these elements come into focus. The lift of the baking spices builds with the alcohol and turns into sweet citrus. The roasted agave notes breath heavily thereafter and the combination lingers for a full minute before fading gracefully. To be honest, I felt the same way first tasting the 2013 Fuenteseca “El Maguey” as I did my first sip of Richebourg or Haut-Brion: an understanding that the quality wasn’t so much in the intensity of the flavors, but rather in the harmony and the grace of their presentation. It still tastes like blanco tequila, just on another level of sophistication.

But it’s too early to say if “El Maguey” is Jalisco’s Romanée-Contí just yet. It took the growers in Burgundy centuries of trial and error before coming to the conclusions they did. The idea of single-site tequila is still in its infancy and it will take decades of experimentation before we know which locations have the best potential for greatness. What we do know, however, is that the 2013 Fuenteseca is huge step forward for true aficionados of Jalisco’s fine spirit. It’s easily one of the best tequilas I’ve ever tasted and it’s more proof that, unlike whiskey, the spirit's most complex qualities may not necessarily develop with maturation. Moving forward, it may be that the best tequilas will be judged and designated by their origins and the specifics of their individual campos, rather than by brand and how long they were aged. What's most exciting about Enrique's approach is that it puts quality and flavor clearly into focus. The 2013 Fuenteseca Single Huerta Blanco Tequila isn't some brazen attempt to capitalize on the fashion of terroir. It's clear and indisputable proof that agave and grapes have more in common than we think.

-David Driscoll