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21st August 2007

By Edward Eisler

Terroir And Tea

In this blog, I explore the crucial significance of terroir (placeness) in relation to teas in China.

There is no direct equivalent in English for the French word terroir. Perhaps the closest translation is 'placeness' as it refers to the effect that a particular place's soil, aspect, climate and cultural uniqueness has on the flavour of a food or drink. The term is almost always used in reference to wine but it is equally valid for tea, cheese and ham - in fact any products that derive their uniqueness of taste from the place where they are made.

Wine producers and drinkers have noticed that vineyards positioned only a few yards from one another can produce wine of strikingly different quality and flavour due to the aspect of each field to the sun and differences in soil composition.

This effect is well noted in tea. For this reason, the names of the great teas of China are synonymous with the place in which they are grown and processed - 'West Lake' Dragon Well; 'Anxi' Tieguanyin; 'Anji' Bai Cha; 'Wuyi' Da Hong Pao; Keemun tea from 'Qimen country';'Yi Wu' puerh tea etc. Some of these areas are split into sub regions - for example the West Lake consists of Lions Peak, the Mei Family Slope (Mei Jia Wu) and Tiger Spring. Each of these small areas which produce varied tastes.

Take the outstandingly unique-tasting Bohea from Tingmo Village in the Wuyi Mountains. Compare this to regular Lapsang, and the character of the tea, the flavour, aroma and singularly pale gold liquor demonstrates some of the 'placesness' which is never found in the multi-region conventional Lapsang. I believe that anyone could clearly taste this difference, even if they feel that they do not have a good pallet.

Traditionally speaking, West Lake is the place where your Dragon Well should come from. Apart from having an excellent climate, soil and aspect it also houses the most accomplished Dragon Well processing experts. This is not to say that every person you see hand-firing tea near the city of Hangzhou is an accomplished master. However, the area has been a place where knowledge and experience have come together to support the cultivation of this great tea.

I feel that we should not be too attached to the traditionally celebrated terroirs. I have found that fantastic Dragon Well is produced in a small village, which is located a short distance from the West Lake at high altitude. The region is far from any city and many of the tea mountains are organic and foster growth of wild-seeded tea trees. Abundant and varied fauna and floral contribute to a very healthy ecosystem. In terms of taste, the altitude makes the tea more rarefied, mineral and sweet and a little less rich and robust that the West Lake Dragon Well.

There are other benefits that emerge from seeking tea terroirs other than the most celebrated and well known. Nearly all of the tea produced in the West Lake area is made for the Chinese domestic market. The use of pesticides and fertilisers is nearly always not to European standard. Jiande tea is nearly all organic or at the very least compliant with the strictest European standards. This makes it the only choice for my customers.