The concept of terroir has emerged as a key parameter for flavour over the past few years, and the wine industry has done a particularly good job at highlighting its importance. But what exactly do we understand by “terroir”, and what role does it play in tea?
Terroir can be a complex as well as controversial topic, but there is consensus over the fact that the concept of terroir embodies the interaction of the soil, climate, topography and how they influence a product.
In short, terroir signifies a sense of place – the provenance that lends authenticity to a product.
If you take a vinis vinifera (a grape plant) and plant it both in Tuscany and also in the Mosel region in Germany, you’ll end up with two very different wines, even if the two plants were processed in exactly the same way. With wines, the terroir is a distinctive standard of quality, and the reason why, for instance, Italian or French wines garner more respect than wines from New Zealand.
Terroir also plays a crucial role in tea and highlights the fact that the flavour of a tea should not be based solely on the type of tea but also on its provenance. If you have ever tried a Darjeeling oolong, for example, you will find it very similar to a Darjeeling first flush. You will taste that same intensely floral flavour in both, as that’s Darjeeling’s terroir shining through. It’s why you buy a Darjeeling, it’s what makes a Darjeeling unique and highly prized.
So let’s look at some of the factors that lend tea its distinctive characteristics.
There are numerous soil varieties like rocky, loamy, chalky, etc. Though there is no scientific proof of how the soil precisely affects the taste of a tea, there is no doubt that it does have an impact as its chemical composition is absorbed to a degree by the tea plant through its roots.
For example, Kenya’s volcanic soil contributes a metallic taste to its teas. And Wuyi Shan’s Da Hong Pao oolong has a unique flavour thanks to the rocky, mineral-rich soil in which they grow.
The density of the soil is also important as it determines how easily water drains, which in turn influences the plant’s growth of the plant and the concentration of flavours in the leaves.
It goes without saying that seasonality, rainfall, wind, and the general temperature have a bearing on the flavour.
The tea plant likes a good amount of rain, but ideally it should be balanced throughout the year. Too much rain results in a watered down tea (if you have ever tasted a Darjeeling Monsoon flush and a Darjeeling second flush one next to each other you’ll understand this point very well); but too little rain can be detrimental to the plant growth and it might not even survive.
Sri Lanka’s Uva region experiences very dry winds (so called Cachan winds) from July to September. The tea plants, under stress, produce chemical agents to replace the lost moisture on its leaves, and this chemical change significantly alters the taste of the tea picked during these months.
Frost and Hail
The frost typical in India’s Nilgiri region results in a very delicate, fruity character, unique to that region and the extreme cold at that time of the year.
LATITUDE AND ALTITUDE
In tropical, humid regions like India, Sri Lanka or Africa, the tea plant will grow much faster, resulting in a higher yield. This in turn tends to result in a less intense flavour as the plant uses its energies on growing new leaves instead of storing it in its small buds as it does in colder climates.
Elevation and slope also play a prominent role, tea plantations located at a higher altitude have different exposure to the elements including the weather, level of sunshine, and soil drainage properties. That’s why tea from plants grown at high elevation generally have a more intense and more complex flavour than tea from plants grown at lower elevation.
Sunshine and shade
Sunshine encourages photosynthesis in the plant, which results in the transformation of the amino-acid L-Theanine into catechin, a polyphenol and powerful antioxidant. The level of catechins is particularly high in green teas, as they are unoxidised and oxidation leads to a chemical transformation of catechins.
Catechins are healthy, but also quite bitter and astringent so some teas, such as the Japanese Gyokuro, are deliberately grown in shaded conditions for at least 3 weeks in order to reduce photosynthesis. This increases the amount of sweet-tasting L-Theanine and reduces the production of the bitter catechins, resulting in an overall sweeter tea.
These are just some examples of how terroir can alter a tea’s flavour. Even at this high level it is not a particularly simple topic, but if we understand the fundamental principles of terroir we will value better the intricate processes and elements that determine the taste of a tea, adding to our overall tasting experience.
If you’re interested in learning more about this topic, Tony Gebely has written an excellent article on Tea Authenticity and Geographical Indications.
But tell us, what’s your experience with terroir in tea? Are there teas that you love particularly because of their terroir? Let us know in the comments box below!
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