Have you ever wondered why the flavor of Chinese Yunnan black tea differs from an Indian Darjeeling black tea? Each region yields a tea with unique aromas and flavors due in large part to varietals.
But the distinctive taste of regional teas can be also be explained via a French term we borrow from our wine friends. That word is terroir.
I often point students to India’s famed Darjeeling teas to illustrate this concept. A tea plant growing at 7000 feet in those Himalayan foothills could be dug up, transplanted in the Dooars region (elevation 1000 feet) and harvested a year later. The resulting tea would no longer have the distinctive Darjeeling taste because it had been removed from its close proximity to the sun .
Mountain-grown tea plants shield themselves from the harmful effects of a thin ozone level by pumping more chlorophyll into their leaves. They produce their own sunscreen. That natural sunscreen is chlorophyll. Its elevated concentration 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 that the local environment has had upon the plant’s growth and production. These dominant effects are soil, climate, and altitude.
Soil. The tap root of a tea bush can easily reach six to twelve feet into the earth. At this depth, the roots absorb minerals and nutrients that were laid tens of thousands of years ago. Tea plants like an abundance of 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 only give way to the sun 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 a higher demand. High mountain phoenix oolongs are prized by tea drinkers around the world, who can afford them.
You can teach your palate to distinguish the effects of terroir. Gather similar grade teas 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 those four distinctive terroirs. If you notice a difference, you might have a future as a tea sommelier!
Tea Garden in the Highlands of Sri Lanka. Photo by Bruce Richardson.
Tea Maestro Bruce Richardson serves as Contributing Editor for TeaTime magazine. This article first appeared in the May 2013 edition. He and Jane Pettigrew are authors of the National Trust of England tea reference book, The New Tea Companion, available from Benjamin Press.