We’ve always explained terroir as a “sense of place” and while this is true, more specifically terroir is the relationship between a growing region and its end product. And terroir can be broken down into 10 categories: latitude, water, weather systems, soil, choice of cultivar, garden practice, topography, altitude, plant environment and insects.
Latitude relates to if the plants are in a tropical or subtropical zone, if the sun is directly above the plants and if the temperature is regular. Water is related to many of the other categories, starting with weather systems. Sri Lanka is unique because it is tropical and from Feb-April in the west it’s dry, whilst the east is wet. Darjeeling is subtropical and does get winter with a low temperature and it’s the dormant period that gives the unique flavour in the first flush. Slow growth = rich flavour profiles. The second dormant period is hot, sweaty and rainy and gives tannic flavours and not as much aromatic complexity.
When it comes to the down and dirty of terroir, the top soil is rich and the plants decompose the nutrients going into the soil. In the mountains you get run-off and aggregate rocks, nutrients in the mid-soil, with fungus and insects creating life in the soil and a symbiotic relationship with the plant. The choice of plant – from a seed or a clone – will give a lot of variation. Clonal plants produce defined and simplified flavour profiles, whereas a region that is seed planted will look different but they’ll all be related and each is unique with a lot of variation and complex, compressed flavours.
The method of manufacture creates the symbiotic relationship between human and plant and becomes part of the tea’s character. The plant responds to the stress of the pruning cycle, reacts to the “healing” of its wounds and the forming of the bush, as well as the energy in the soil and the different ways it receives sun or rain.
The Darjeeling region is a perfect example for explaining topography and altitude as the root system mechanically grips the side of the hill in that region and does a lot of work. This affects the pipes/channel (the juice inside the plant) and there’s run-off from the rain to take into consideration as well. The plants in the plains of Assam have it easy. It’s flat, they don’t have to work as hard, and the sun is directly above, whereas in the mountains the plants struggle at the higher altitude because of the cold nights and grow slowly, which pushes the plant to have more character. Shade trees are needed in the tropics and growers always choose ones that introduce nitrogen into the soil.
Lastly, you can’t have a garden without insects and when it comes to tea, sometimes bugs are a great thing. When a plant gets bugged (pun intended) the plant defends itself by injecting hormones into the leaves to deter insects or repair damage that has been done, which creates a sweet, honey-like quality. Two such teas are our Alishan High Mtn Eco Beauty and Re'nai Roasted Honey that are harvested in the summer when the leafhoppers are at their peak. When the bugs bite the leaves the plant’s immune system responds and partial oxidation of the tea leaves begins. This is what gives the teas their sweet, honey flavour.
So now that you know what tea goes through to get from the bush to your cup, the more enlightened your tea experience will be.