An Introduction to Tea and Terroir
Terroir in tea is the idea that flavor is something going far beyond the genetic makeup of the plant varietal, or even the processing techniques we introduce as humans. The concept has been explored deeply in the world of wine, where specific valleys and regions are credited with providing a distinct taste through their unique soil and weather conditions. Terroir is the reason that French wines in general are respected more than Australian wines, or more specifically why Napa Valley wines are sought after far more than wine from Verdant’s home state of Minnesota.
Terroir as a concept is becoming more and more familiar, proclaimed as the key indicator of flavor in cheese, chocolate, coffee, tea, wine, and even wheat, corn and other veggies. Restaurants focused on local foods triumph the regional specialties and work to highlight the specific “flavor” of a region. We work to highlight the beautiful commonalities and differences between regions, comparing Yunnan to Fujian, to Shandong, to Zhejiang. As you taste more and more tea you truly do start to see that teas within a region all share some element. For example, the members of the Zhenyuan Dongsa Farmers’ Cooperative pick and processes both black tea and sheng pu’er. Their wild-picked black tea tastes more like sheng pu’er than it tastes like any other black tea. In many ways, this is due to the unique terroir of Mt. Ailao’s Qianjiazhai region.
Having a solid understanding of what goes into terroir should help us gain a greater appreciation of tea, seeing flavor not just in terms of tea type, but in terms of region. To get to this understanding, we have to isolate what exactly is influencing flavor that falls under the category of terroir.
What Influences Terroir?
The composition and chemistry of the soil, and the dissolved mineral content in any spring water that feeds the tea are two of the most direct influences since their contents will be absorbed to a degree by the tea plant.
The local ecosystem is also important. A mountain covered in flowers is going to impart floral elements to a tea simply through absorbing the aroma in the air over time. Pine and mushroom and wild tulsi and flowers are common local influences. These flavor influences are found most often in wild-picked tea since the tea trees will be growing adjacent to other plants.
The weather could also be considered a part of terroir- abundant sunlight, torrential rain, ocean mist, heat and cold all affect tea leaves differently. Tea growing in very sunny areas will tend to be stronger and potentially more bitter since it grows more quickly, expending energy on new leaves instead of storing it in small buds longer as it will in colder mistier weather. Elevation is directly related to weather. Higher elevation tends to be cooler, meaning sweeter tea on high mountains.
These are the simplest elements of terroir, and the ones most often discussed. Each element has a unique effect on the tea that’s growing in a particular region, and it can often be simple to reduce the greatest differences you find in different teas to terroir alone, whether it’s region and weather or elevation and soil type.
But Terroir is Problematic
Is terroir really that simple? If it were, it seems like it would be possible to scientifically quantify the flavor influences and determine the most perfect tea growing condition, replicating it whenever possible for the best tea. The reality is much messier, and much more interesting.
As a basic example, tea growing on high mountains may indeed be sweeter due to the elevation, and perhaps the rocky mountain soil and spring water contributes to a more complex flavor than tea grown on flat plains, but doesn’t the terrain affect the tea in other ways? What about the fact that tea growing on uneven soil is very difficult to pick except by hand? The mountain landscape influences the picking technique and the amount of tea that can be hauled at a time. The picking and processing that have to accomodate the mountain landscape will surely change the flavor of a tea. Is this terroir? How much of “high mountain” tea’s flavor comes from the mountain, and how much comes from human adaptation to the mountain landscape?
What about terroir’s relation to consumer perception? Emperor Qianlong declared Longjing (Dragonwell) from Shi Feng to be one of the top teas in the world. Shi Feng Dragonwell truly is a remarkably good tea when it is fresh and brewed properly, but so is Laoshan Green. Yet because of history, Dragonwell became more famous than Laoshan. Now any tea cultivated in the Shi Feng Dragonwell area is going to be regarded with a degree of reverence. Of course, any tea that you taste with a preconception of how good it will be is going to have a head start in actually tasting good to the palate. Bias is hugely influential in the way we regard anything.
It seems that the landscape influences taste based on the way we already perceive tea from that specific region. Is this bias an element of terroir? If not, how can it be separated from the actual physical effect of water and soil?
Tied to the idea of bias is the idea of opportunity cost. Once a region becomes established as famous for one reason or another, prices go up in that region. As prices increase, farmers can afford to spend more time hand picking and processing every leaf with care. They know that the tea will fetch a high price and the higher level of attention they pay will yield greater reward. A region with low prices does not encourage innovation or careful picking. Care and attention on the human side of tea making will certainly effect taste. Since the land influences this level of care and the price ceiling, does the resulting flavor come from terroir, or is that something else?
It is interesting to consider how the land effects both the tea’s chemical composition and the techniques used to pick an process, and even the preconceptions of tasting. For truly great tea, the land, the tea, and the people behind both need to come together. Understanding these fundamentals helps us all be less biased tasters, paying a greater degree of attention to every element of flavor, hopefully in turn, making the tasting experience a more joyful one.