DeVine Wine: Tequila — for more than just margaritas

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Tequila was rarely included in my vocabulary and was nearly extinct from my daily lifestyle until a recent visit to Mexico. I had the occasion to visit the JW Marriott Resort in Cancun during a much-needed respite from Chicago’s harsh winter. I ventured into a tasting room for an in-depth excursion into tequila.

Tequila is a mythical spirit and part of Mexico’s heritage. The tasting was held at Marriott’s chic fine-dining restaurant Gustino’s and was hosted by its astute beverage director, Omar Lopez. As I entered the room, I became enthralled with the character and aroma of tequila. Interestingly enough, tequila requires the same attention to detail in its distillation and aging process as winemaking.

The history of this sipping spirit evolved northwest of the town of Guadalajara, Mexico, in the city of Tequila, from which it derived its name. Mexico retains the right to the protected term “tequila” and there are five denomination of origin (DO) states where it is produced and strictly controlled. More than 95 percent of tequila is produced within the state of Jalisco, Mexico.

Tequila can have a unique personality from each zone and producer. If produced in the hills of Jalisco, for example, hillside plants can lend a more honeyed character to the spirit.

The heart of the blue agave, or pina, is used for producing tequila and is harvested from this succulent plant when it reaches eight to 12 years of maturity. It is slowly baked in an oven to convert the starches into sugars. After it has fermented, the juice undergoes a first and second distillation before being transferred to toasted barrels for aging.

The best tequilas remain 100 percent blue agave, although mixtos are produced using a minimum of 51 percent agave nectar. Tequila styles are categorized according to how they are aged, reflecting their flavor profile. Biancos are clear and unaged, although they can rest for up to two months before being bottled. They are typically herbacious and minerally in flavor with a noticeable hot finish. Reposados are aged for at least two months but less than a year in barrels and retain a smoother finish in the back of the mouth. Añejos (aged) spend a minimum of one year in small oak barrels, usually American or French Oak.

Some distillers prefer to age their tequila in previously used whiskey or bourbon barrels, which impart muted vanilla overtones. Extra añejos spend a minimum of three years in small oak barrels and can lean toward bright citrus flavors.

As I learned from the JW Marriott in Cancun, well-crafted tequilas are best enjoyed from stemware resembling narrow, fine white-wine glasses. These allow the aromas to be captured in the glass and enhanced.

My introduction included the Don Julio Silver, which showed a subtle grainy character and a herbacious edge. The mid-palate was even with a slightly hot grassy finish. It is perhaps best for margaritas or with a little lime and salt, which is used to decrease the edginess of the alcohol.

The Maestro Tequilero Reposado had a pale yellow color with slight floral elements. There was a creaminess in the front that lingered throughout. This tequila was paired with orange and cinnamon, which highlighted its true essence.

The Desde 1800 Reserva Añejo revealed the characteristic sweeter Jalisco style and was among my favorite of the group. This amber tequila possessed a candied caramel element with fresh vanilla bean and dried fruit aromas. The finish was very even. Dark chocolate with pecans provided the best compliment for this spirit.

The Jose Cuervo “Reserva de la Famlia” Extra Añejo revealed orange citrus zest and clove from its extended barrel aging. Lopex suggested that tequila has also evolved into some perfect pairings with Mexican cuisine, such as mole sauces and preparations incorporating dark chocolate.

Representing more than 52 different tequilas, this resort understands today’s clientele and realizes tequila has come of age and is more than margaritas.