When it comes to tea, terroir is all. Just as it is with wine, coffee, honey and cheese. Not just climate, geography and farming technique (although these are key), but the soil in which the tea grows, drainage, altitude and aspect. These environmental factors give each tea its distinctive taste and scent, its fundamental character. Cool, misty mountain slopes and flat, tropical fugs; soils heavy with rocks, and earth rich with minerals. Anyone can plant a seed. It’s where it grows, how it grows and why it thrives that defines the all- important terroir.
As a general rule, the harder a tea bush has to work to survive, and the slower its growth, the more concentrated the flavor will be. It’s commonly, but not exclusively, grown in elevated locations, thanks to a fondness for well-drained soil with plenty of rain. The stress and difficulty of growing at altitude results in the plant developing at a slower pace, with the taste and aroma becoming more intense. While the Camellia sinensis doesn’t like extremes of hot and cold, tea grown in a constant climate will lack the complexity and depth of flavor found in bushes subjected to stress.
Other factors also contribute to the overall character of the tea. Wuyi teas, grown in the Wuyi mountains of northern Fuijan, China, are known for their distinctive mineral taste. Certain teas are grown close together but taste very different. Jingmai, for example, a pu’er grown on Jingmaishan mountain in Yunnan, a place where you’ll find many of China’s most ancient tea trees. Famed for its orchid-like fragrance, the tea grown on the north side of the mountain is sweet and pure, while that from the south is more pungent and astringent. Oriental Beauty, an oolong from Taiwan, is only picked once a year, at the end of summer. The tea-green leafhopper is allowed to feed on the tea bushes, and the insect bite changes the chemistry of the leaves, filling them with subtle pear, apple and sandalwood notes.
Over in India, Darjeeling is grown in West Bengal, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where factors such as the altitude, cold winters, high annual rainfall and mists all combine to create a unique muscatel flavor, with delicate fruit and floral aromas. Assam tea, on the other hand, is grown in the hot and steamy lowlands of India, in an area which melds the fertile floodplain of the Brahmaputra with tropical monsoon conditions. This contributes to the characteristic brisk, malty taste. All these natural variations transform into unique idiosyncrasies of flavor. Terroir makes tea great.
This essay was excerpted from Fortnum & Mason’s Time for Tea by Tom Parker Bowles.