People always ask me, "Why are some teas considered better than others? Why do some fetch higher prices? Is it like wine? What about the concept of Terroir?
"The short answer is actually quite simple. Just two things: strength of character and rarity.
Strength of tea taste and character, refers to how clearly the taste and aroma unfurls on the palette.
Rarity makes something fetch a high price whether the substance is gold, diamonds, wine, whisky or tea. But why is the best tea often rare?
Tea that is grown at higher altitudes often endures severe temperature changes and varied sunlight due to cloud cover. The adverse conditions ensure that only strong, healthy trees survive, with each only producing small quantities of leaves that must function perfectly. The cold ensures that the leaves grow slowly, allowing some of the unique qualities of the local soil and weather conditions to manifest in the tea. Low grown teas that grow fast in warm, wet conditions simply do not produce the same quality of taste because the leaves mature too quickly.
This picture shows part of Lion's Peak in the West Lake region of Hangzhou, where the some of the most prized Dragon Well (Long Jing is produced).
Simple things like the amount of sunlight and angle of the sun on the leaves and the acidity and mineral composition of the soil affect the tea’s quality and taste. This has been well understood in wine making – the French have a term called ‘Terroir’ which I believe refers to affect that a micro climate has on a particular wine. The sizeof the micro climate can be very small indeed. The soil composition in one field can be vastly different in another field positioned only a stone’s throw away and that's why I try to visit every garden that I buy tea from. When I am there at the time it is being produced I can taste the tea and make an instant decision. If the tea is not up to the standard I want I have to go elsewhere.
This tea tree in the Wuyi Mountains in China, is around 20 years old - look at the gnarled and calloused branches. Most tea trees are less than five years old but in certain areas like Wuyi and Yunnan, the trees are allowed to age because the unique local soil and weather conditions are expressed in the tea made from their leaves.
It's all very well to have excellent leaf, produced in a superb micro-climate. However, if the leaf is not processed perfectly, the end product will be ruined. Minute differences to the way the tea is processed including how it is picked, where and for how long it is withered, rolled, oxidised, fired etc all affect the taste dramatically.