The Question of Terroir: On the Mezcal Trail in Oaxaca (Part 1/2)

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 01-27-2015

IMG_1279Mezcal is commonly called the “next big thing” in the spirit world, largely because of its supposed ability to transmit terroir.

But because it’s produced in small batches through traditional, even ancient, farming practices — and scarce here in the States — it’s expensive. In Oaxaca Mexico, however, even great examples are dirt cheap and readily available. This is why you need to go to the source, where you’ll discover a world of cultural, environmental, and gastronomic interest that rivals even even the best wine regions.

Terroir is an imprecise word used too freely in the wine world. Of course, it wasn’t long ago that the term was actually underused here, and it’s no doubt a good, enlightened thing that the concept serves as the philosophical center of the post-Parker wine world. But as is always the case with philosophical centers, at the point they become centers, which is a kind of blind spot, there is a cost. Terroir is now omnipresent in wine marketing — now used to signify the relation of wine to soil and climate where that relation is essentially uninteresting, now used to obfuscate the hard reality of overt flaws like Brett infection.

Indeed, the vast majority of claims made about terroir in the wine world are, frankly, bogus. This does not in any way mean, however, that terroir is not an ideal worth pursuing.

Successful marketing campaigns work across industries. The rebellion you purchase when drinking a fun, young Pepsi product is the same rebellion you purchase when you “express your individuality” by choosing a Mac over a PC.

So it was only a matter of time before terroir would be used to describe beverages other than wine. And of course, beverage experts, like Michael Jackson in his Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch, have long made the argument that great spirits, opposed in his formulation to those that are merely corporate products, reflect their place of origin.

They have a point. But as a wizened wine geek, it is with some good healthy skepticism that I approach the claims by the spirit industry about terroir expression.

And yet, at least if those tastemakers behind the proliferation of on-trend urban cocktail bars are to believe, there is one specific example — mezcal — that has a definite claim to terroir.

Mezcal, that most Mexican of beverages, having the real claim to the working class spirit and cultural authenticity, has replaced Tequila in the heart of middle class Mexico City hipsters. Tequila, made in big factories, smacks of a product, while the handmade quality of mezcal suggests something more of an art. The fact is, in most of Mexico now, Tequila is out of style.

IMG_0466The major difference between the two is that Tequila, produced in the state of Jalisco, is made only from the specific variety, blue agave. Mezcal, on the other hand… well, that’s a longer story. Suffice it to say for now, however, that any notion you have about worms and tripiness is all, or almost all, mythology (yes, some varietals include worms and even scorpions — usually but not always in inferior bottlings — and worm salt is a common accompaniment).

So it was with a mind for terroir that I went deep into the Oaxacan countryside, the very heart and soul of Mexico, to see if I could sort things out.

Oaxaca is the culinary center of Mexico and the home of mezcal; in the Mexican imagination, it is the core of cultural authenticity — a magical place that serves as a space where the fundamental diversity of Mexican identity is reconciled on an imagined plane of cultural authenticity, shaped by shared social and especially domestic values, not totally unlike Munich in Germany or — and this is probably a better example — Kyoto in Japan.

I’m not sure if America has a corollary, but if it does, it’s probably Main Street at Disney World.

In order to get where I needed to go, I required a guide. Alvin Starkman, through his company Mezcal Educational Tours, is not just a guide but also an expert in the industry. Alvin would, I’m sure, balk at being called an expert, preferring to view himself as a student of the unknown and perhaps unknowable complexity of mezcal. But few know this world as well as Alvin, and if he’s not an expert, than who is, I ask?

His tour, personal, smart, and very reasonably priced, is outstanding. While you can visit mezcal producers on your own to purchase bottles the same way you can at wineries in California, it’s well worth contracting Starkman to not only make sense of this dauntingly complex world, but also because he knows where the best stuff is being made. On his curated tour, I walked away with multiple bottles for about $10 that would, I’m certain, cost seven to ten times that amount on American shelves. And while some producers sell their product to the big companies for marketing or export, others only sell on site.

IMG_1214What I found in the mountainous Oaxacan countryside, painted with colorful wildflowers, washed by the blazing sun, and punctuated by green and silvery agave plants, was an entire world, both sad and beautiful, trapped in time like a bug in amber. Here, a procession through the main street of a small town to celebrate a girl’s coming of age; there, a hired hand at an agave distiller asleep flat on his back, exhausted from making mezcal all night long the same way his relatives have for generations before, his face shielded from the sun by his sombrero. From higher vantages with views across the expansive valley, such as at the majestic and mysterious Zapotec ruins of Monte Alban, you’ll see plumes of smoke rising here and there — the telltale sign of the mezcal distillery.

Simply put: Oaxaca is magical.

Comments (3)

  1. I’m intrigued by Mezcal, but haven’t been able to locate a “good” one in local shops. Looking forward to part two!

  2. You could do a lot worse than Del Maguay, which is pretty readily available… if expensive here in the states.

  3. Thanks, Ed! I’ll check it out.