Terroir's significance in tea
Terroir, most frequently used in the wine world, describes specific environmental factors of where a wine is grown. Terroir is defined as the environmental conditions, especially soil and climate, in which grapes are grown and that give a wine its unique flavor and aroma.
A tea's terroir is defined by qualities of sunlight, rain, fog, soil, altitude and biodiversity. All play a critical role in impacting the growth of the tea plants as well as the quality of the tea we drink.
Generally speaking, high mountains with fog produce high quality tea. Why? Because the air temperature is lower at high altitudes, the arrival of spring comes later for tea planted on high mountains. This gives the tea plants a longer winter to accumulate (absorbs the essence from nature and grow) before they’re picked and made into dry tea. However, it does not mean that the higher the altitude, the better it is for the tea plants. Too much cold can actually hurt the growth of a plant. For example, Dian Tou and Pan Xi are two counties in Fuding, Fujian, producing white tea. Pan Xi is the white tea region with a higher altitude. Every year, there’ll be a couple of days delay in white tea’s picking and making in Panxi, compared to Dian Tou.
Fog acts as a “filter” to sunlight.
The presence of fog changes the way sunlight travels, softening it before it eventually arrives at the tea leaves. Though sunlight helps tea generate aromatic compounds, too much sunlight will usually result in a more bitter or astringent tea (when using the same crafting techniques).
In China, there are various terms expressing similar concepts of terroir.
For example, “Shan Chang” 山场, meaning the field of mountain in literal, is used to describe the overall growing conditions of tea plants in Wuyishan. When people talk about “Shan Chang” in the tea world, people are talking about the microclimate of a piece of tea plantation, which describes the specific climate of a tea plantation created by the soil and the biodiversity around them. Wuyishan, the world’s UNESCO heritage site, is the birthplace of bohea tea and the earliest black tea in the world, lapsang souchong. There’s a very strict terroir “Shan Chang '' segregation locally to grade different quality of bohea tea and black tea. For example, true cliff/rock and half cliff/rock defines the top best two grades of bohea tea. Here, true and half identify “how rocky the growing environment of the bohea tea is.” The rain and wind bring the residuals over cliff down to the soil, serving as significant nutritions for the tea plants, which makes bohea tea rock/cliff tea.
Bio-diversity is extremely important in tea’s life.
Book of Tea defines tea as, “a nice piece of plant in the south.” Tea prefers yin: a moist, wet, shady environment. The presence of biodiversity provides a safety net for the tea plants, giving them the appropriate amount of sunlight and offering them an organic, diverse armotic environment. Tea picks up the “atmosphere” of its growing environment, which is later revealed in the tea soup.
Tea was first found in China over 4000 years ago. During the 19 century, tea-drinking culture spread to other parts of the world. Tea plants were also taken and planted elsewhere. Industrialization changed the way people interact with the world, as well as the tea plantation. Scale and profit became the main pursuit for most tea business owners, but increasing the quantity of tea usually decreases the quality of it.
I remember visiting a tea plantation in Kerala, India, where mountains of rainforests were cut and planted with tea. Though it offers a specific kind of visual pleasure to the visitors, it is not sustainable. Every ecosystem has a natural balance. When trees are removed and replaced with tea, it induces a loss of water and soil, disrupting this balance, deteriorating the overall environment. Fewer trees means less carbon gets pulled from the air.
Terroir, along with the crafting and varietals, directly impacts the life and quality of a tea. Geologists and scientists can use all different kinds of equipment to measure each dimension of terroir: percentage of minerals in the soil, acidity or alkalinity, volume of rain each month, days of sunlight annually, etc. But no matter how hard they try, they can only get a glimpse of a terroir. Terroir in tea is a holistic concept, beyond measurement. It is the result of centuries of trial and error. It is the wisdom being passed down. It is a mutual respect between nature and human beings.
My cliff tea teacher dedicated half of his life to making tea here. He told me, "the quality of tea becomes lower and lower every year." Without embellishment, he emphasizes the importance of "the micro-climate, indigenous forest, varietals, craftings, and natural and scientific tea plantation management." He is truly dedicated to his craft and very proud of his teas. So when his poker face goes up when he says, "the quality of tea becomes lower and lower every year" I can only sigh. If the global environment becomes inferior year by year, how could the “micro-climate” be free from any influences?
Before the dry tea leaves were delivered to your doorsteps, they have been a part of a tree or a bush, belonging to nature. For every tea drinker, the moment that the tea leaves are brewed open in the steam of water signifies the beginning of his or her journey. For the tea leaves, their annual journey of interpreting nature ends in the cup. As a plant, sunlight, rain, fog, soil, wind… everything around them in nature either nurtures or hurts it.