In the last three years several states of Mexico have joined Mezcal’s Designation of Origin, with even more states, governors and businessmen, looking to join in and benefit from the «Mezcal label». But with this recent surge in territory, production and popularity, it has become more important than ever to understand why we must conserve and promote the distinctive characteristics of the different agave distillates and their regions (if you are interested in knowing about the Mezcal’s Designation of Origin and its obstacles to overcome, check out this post).
In @Agavache, we promote artisanal Mexican distillates and believe that it is a shame to lose the diversity, tradition and origins of the spirits in order to fit in with new standards. In this occasion we’ll talk about terroir and the recent discrepancies in relation with international Designation of Origin.
Terroir is a concept widely used in the wine world for some time, however, it has recently gained traction amongst other products, such as coffee, chocolate and mezcal. It literally means «soil» but in truth it means much more, such as environmental factors (climate, minerals, rainfall, sunshine, etc.), cultural and traditional factors, and the conditions in which the grapes or other primary ingredients are grown and that directly affect their flavour. Nils Bernstein from Wine Enthusiast, in their podcast episode «Terroir-driven food», points out that «terroir» is part of the communal psychology in places like France, Spain and Italy, where it is understood as authenticity and regionality.
Designations of Origin are based on the belief that the environment and the cultural characteristics of a place -its terroir- is transferred unto the food and drinks that are produced within its boundaries and must therefore be protected. However, commercialization at a large scale has manipulated the meaning and the use of «terroir». In her book «Divided Spirits», Sarah Bowen makes a list of the benefits and disadvantages implicit in Designations of Origin.
- The DO provides a «rentable reputation»; a premium price that the consumers must pay based on the collective reputation of the product and the region.
- Profits extend beyond the farms and the process of production, because more job opportunities are created in the region.
- Biodiversity is protected in the DO area, creating a benefit for the environment.
- Not an alternative to the standardization of global markets but rather an example of neoliberal legislation: privatization, marketing and regulation of what used to be a public good.
- Small producers and farmers are unable to fulfil the certifying criteria and are pushed out of the business model. With the possibility that the more powerful groups in the production chain (distribution, marketing, and commercializing) take control of the image of tradition and use it for their own benefit, excluding the original producers.
- The premium price profits do not reach down to the people in the fields.
At the end of the «Terroir-driven food» episode, Niels Bernstein and Layla Schlack mention specifically how mezcal obtains its «terroir» through the decades that it takes for each agave plant to mature. This observation is spot-on, as agave distillates from different regions of Mexico have different flavours that depend on their environments in addition to those that depend on their processes. So why insist on belonging to a poorly planned NOM which leads to industrialization and the loss of cultural diversity and heritage? And, unlike many might think, belonging to he DO does not guarantee success. The key is in making unique products, as mentioned by Julien Miquel in «Terroir: What it is and why is it controversial».