Tea & Terroir
Tea represents a seemingly endless world of colour, shape, flavour and aroma. So much goes into producing this beautiful natural beverage, not least the skills of those who grow, pluck and make the final product.
Just as for wine, coffee or chocolate, terroir is important also to the distinctive flavours and aromas produced in tea. Terroir (pronounced terr-WAH) is often referred to as 'the magic of place' – it is the complex interaction of physical elements delivered to a place by Mother Nature.
Tea is generally classified into the main categories of white tea, green tea, yellow tea, oolong, black tea, and pu'erh. The differences between these are largely to do with the way the leaves are processed – but they all come from the same plant family – the Camellia sinensis plant! *
So, what are some of the ways in which terroir makes a tea unique to its locale?
Tea generally likes a moderately hot and humid climate. But it can be grown in a diverse range of ecosystems, and the temperature and amounts of sun, wind, and rain affect its growth.
Sri Lanka is famous for its teas, and it is often said that it has an ideal combination of sun, wind and rain, allowing it to grow teas year round.
One interesting aspect of climate in Sri Lanka occurs in the Uva District. Each year from around July to August, Uva experiences cool, dry winds – called the Cachan winds – coming in from the North East off the ocean.
Tea leaves react to the Cachan winds as they would in draught, and begin to close up. The oils in the leaves become concentrated with the lower moisture levels, producing an intense flavour when the leaves are rolled in processing. The prices for tea in this district rise sharply during this period, and return to normal at other times.
Altitude and slope
The altitude and degree of slope of a particular location determine its hours of sunlight and shade, exposure to weather, and drainage.
Some of the most sought after teas are grown at high altitudes, where the air is cool and thin. Under these conditions, the leaves mature more slowly, allowing them to develop a smoothness and greater complexity, rather than expending all their energy, as they would growing more quickly at low elevations. (This is not to say low grown teas are inferior!)
Darjeeling, in India's Himalaya, is a well-known example. Tea species indigenous to China, grow here at elevations ranging from 550 metres in the foothills to 2500 metres at Tiger Hill, on slopes of up to 70 degrees. Its teas display a musky spiciness referred to as 'muscatel'. Darjeeling is a designated area tea, which means only tea grown and produced within a defined zone can be referred to as 'Darjeeling'.
Taiwan is also famous for its high grown teas. In the misty mountains of Taiwan, the tea plants experience extreme differences in temperature between night and day – receiving strong sunlight in the morning, and fog in the afternoon. It is thought that the thick fog allows the leaves to retain L-theanine that would otherwise be converted to polyphenol under longer exposure to sunlight. Theanine is thought bring about a state of calmness, balancing the effect of caffeine on the body.
As an interesting side note, some of Taiwan's most famous teas, such as its Oriental Beauty, rely on a leafhopper or 'tea jassid' to produce a distinctive honey flavour in the finished tea. As the leafhopper bites on the leaves, the leaves produce an antibody in defence, releasing an aroma of ripened fruit and producing the honey flavour upon processing.
Geology refers to the soil and rocks, which influence the water and drainage plants receive.
It is not possible to talk about geology and tea without mentioning the famous Wuyi Mountains in China's Fujian Province, and one of UNESCO's World Heritage sites. This awe-inspiring landscape is known for its extreme limestone formations, gigantic valleys and sheer precipices. Here, tea bushes are perched on top of limestone peaks and in between the rocky cliffs.
The thin rocky soil in which they grow, gives these teas a distinctive flavour, sometimes described as 'rock charm' or 'rock rhyme'. Only teas grown within a designated area of about 70 kilometres can be considered Wuyi rock teas.
These are just a few examples of the relationship between terroir and tea. It is worth noting that, to talk about terroir is in no way to diminish the efforts and skill of those involved in tea production, or the importance of the many decisions that are made along the way. It is instead, to highlight yet another fascinating aspect of tea, and marvel at the extraordinary interactions of people and nature. It is also a good place from which to follow the journey of the leaf to your cup!
Thank you to the Tea Detective for the useful background.
*To avoid confusion, I should note that infusions from other plants and botanicals, often referred to as 'herbal teas' are not strictly 'teas' as they are not from the Camellia sinensis plant .