Tuesday, September 23, 2014

What is Terroir?

Terroir is a term that we often hear bandied about in the wine world but it also applies to our beloved leaf. As we already know, all tea is produced from the Camellia Sinensis. The processing determines what type it becomes. Terroir is another major factor. If you took the same plants and planted them in two different regions, the final teas would not taste the same even if they were processed the exact same way. Here's why:

Climate
The textbook definitely of climate is the weather conditions prevailing in an area over time. The temperatures, levels of rainfall and cloud cover are very different in Assam than they are in the islands of Japan. Weather heavily influences when the "first flush" will be. Global warming is increasingly making the start of harvest seasons unpredictable. Droughts will also affect the taste of the tea. It also dramatically reduces production levels.

Soil
The tea plant has a deep tap root. Minerals in the soil and even surrounding plants will all influence the taste of the leaves. Wuyi Mountain oolongs have a mineral-like taste because they are produced in a region with very rocky soil. Volcanic soil in Hawaii will make a very different tea than red clay soil in Yunnan

Terrain
Elevation can have a big affect on tea, especially in regions where there is a lot of mist. Darjeeling would not be the same without it! The same goes for Taiwanese high mountain oolongs. Tea grown at lower elevations is generally closer to civilization and runs a greater risk of exposure to pollution. It also tends to be lower quality.

Culture
As with any agricultural product, the culture of the people producing the tea is very important. Cultivation techniques vary greatly depending on the region. Production techniques are passed orally from generation to generation. It's not scientific and it's not something that can be done using a book. Puerh just would not be the same if it wasn't produced by minority tribes in Yunnan Province, each with their own rituals and beliefs.

Tasting terroir can be difficult at first but over time you'll get better at it. The best way to learn is to drink tons of tea. Concentrate while you sip and try to discern if you've tasted something similar in other teas from that region before. For example, all of the Hawaiian teas that I've ever tried have had a sweet, fruity quality to them. Have you spotted terroir in a tea before? Let me know about it in the comments!