Terroir: Tasting Tea’s Sense of Place

Terroir: Tasting Tea's Sense of Place

Have you ever wondered why the flavor of Chinese Yunnan black tea differs from that of an Indian Darjeeling black tea? Both were harvested from the varietal Camellia sinensis, yet each region yields a tea with unique aromas and flavors. The distinctive taste of tea can be largely explained via a French term we borrow from our wine friends. That term is terroir.

I often point students to India’s famed Darjeeling teas to illustrate this concept. A tea plant growing at 7,000 feet in those Himalayan foothills could be dug up, transplanted to the Doors region (elevation 1,000 feet), and harvested a year later. The resulting tea would no longer have the distinctive Darjeeling taste because the plant’s proximity to the sun had changed. Mountain-grown tea plants shield themselves from the harmful effects of a thin ozone level by pumping more chlorophyll into their leaves, effectively producing their own sunscreen. This elevated concentration of chlorophyll is one reason why high-altitude teas are so distinctive.

Terroir is simply a plant’s “sense of place.” It is the sum of the effects the local environment has had upon the plant’s growth and production. These dominant effects are soil, climate, and altitude. 

Soil. The taproot of a tea bush can easily reach 6 to 12 feet into the earth. At this depth, the roots absorb minerals and nutrients that were laid down centuries ago. Tea plants like abundant rainfall and soil that drains well. That’s why some of the best tea comes from steep mountain settings such as the Wuyi Mountains of China’s Fujian Province or the highlands of Sri Lanka. The rainfall here comes in abundance, but it quickly runs off down the vertical terrain.

Climate. The tea plant grows particularly well in tropical or subtropical regions where rainfall is abundant, humidity is high, and the dry season is no longer than 90 days. It can tolerate some frost but not temperatures lower than 23° F. One delicious residual effect of terroir occurs in the high slopes of the Blue Mountains of Southern India where a light late-January frost sometimes lands on a small shady patch of tea bushes. These fields are marked, and the plucked leaves are processed separately from the rest of the harvest. The resulting flavor of these rare Nilgiri Frost teas is unlike anything else produced from those gardens. It’s a taste that cannot be duplicated.

Altitude. Some of the finest oolongs come from the high mountains of Taiwan, where lingering morning clouds give way to the sun only a few hours of the day. This shading effect slows the growth of the tea plant. Slow growth, whether in tea leaves or wine grapes, concentrates the flavors and aromas. These spring-harvest tea leaves will be made into rolled oolongs known for their floral aromas and lingering honey finish. Slow growth also leads to a smaller harvest but higher demand. Tea drinkers around the world who can afford them prize high mountain phoenix oolongs. 

You can teach your palate to distinguish the effects of terroir. Gather teas of similar grade from one family—black, oolong, or green—from four growing areas such as China Yunnan, India Darjeeling, India Assam, and the Sri Lanka Highlands. Taste each, and see if your nose can distinguish the aromas of these four distinctive terroirs. If you notice a difference, you might have a future as a tea sommelier!

Bruce Richardson is a contributing editor for TeaTime. He and his wife, Shelley, are co-owners of Benjamin Press and Elmwood Inn Fine Teas. Learn more at elmwoodinn.com.

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