Tea companies have adopted the concept of terroir from the wine industry in the early 21st century. Terroir refers to the influence of geography, geology, and climate on the taste of agricultural products in a specific region. The wine industry uses this concept to differentiate wines made from the same grape variety but grown in different regions of the world. For example, a wine connoisseur can distinguish between the earthy and chalky pinot noir wines from Burgundy, France, and the fruitier pinot noirs from Napa Valley, USA. The difference in taste is due to each region’s unique terroir.
Similarly, if a tea master produces the same tea type using the same cultivars but from bushes grown in different regions like southeast China, Vietnam, Taiwan, and Japan, there would be noticeable differences in taste, smell, and appearance. This difference is the true expression of each region’s terroir. However, it is challenging to find such a flight of tea. Therefore, one must drink a lot of tea from a particular region to understand its unique terroir.
In the 20th century, the Western tea industry marketed teas primarily from non-tea producing countries, leading to a loss of contact with the great teas created throughout China’s several-thousand-year tea history. Despite this shift, the Chinese and Japanese tea industries continue to offer incredibly refined small-batch, single-estate teas of every type, serving as the benchmark for all other teas. Understanding Chinese and Japanese tea is essential to comprehending tea and the significance of terroir, land, and place in crafting a delightful tea.
Effect of terroir
In the 1980s, 1990s, and early twenty-first century, China opened its borders and expanded trade, providing tea companies an opportunity to shift their focus from selling commodity teas to promoting China’s great specialty teas. To accomplish this, tea companies drew parallels between the wine industry and the tea industry. The wine industry evolved over centuries from numerous grape varietals and technological innovations emerging from different regions around the world, and similarly, China’s tea production developed over time.
China’s growing regions
To discuss the tea-growing regions in China, it’s convenient to divide the country into four main regions, each with its own history, style, and types of teas produced. These regions are Jiangbei, Jiangnan, Lingnan/Southern, and Southwest.
Jiangbei, also known as the River North region, covers the areas north of the Yangtze River, including the Shandong, Anhui, Henan, Shaanxi, Gansu, and the northern part of Jiangsu Provinces. This region has a low average temperature of around 59°F (15°C), making it ideal for growing green teas that acquire more flavor as the tea leaves grow slowly. Famous teas from this region include Xin Yang Mao Jian from Henan and Liu An Gua Pian from Anhui. The region is also home to Qimen black tea from Anhui.
Jiangnan, which produces about two-thirds of China’s tea, is located in the middle to lower regions of the Yangtze River and includes the Zhejiang, Jiangxi, Hubei, Hunan, and the southern parts of Anhui and Jiangsu Provinces. The region’s climate can be very hot, so many tea estates are located higher in the mountains where the temperatures are cooler. This area produces a wide variety of tea types due to its four seasons and plentiful rain throughout the spring and summer. Famous green teas from this region include Longjing/Dragonwell from Zhejiang, Bi Luo Chun from Jiangsu, and Huang Shan Mao Feng from Anhui. In 2013, the region suffered from one of the worst droughts on record, with some estates reporting that they lost almost three-quarters of their tea plants.
Lingnan/Southern region includes Guangdong, Fujian, and Hainan Provinces and the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region. This region is the birthplace of white, oolong, and black tea, with oolong tea being particularly revered due to the thick red clay that provides a distinctive flavor and aroma. This region has a long growing season, ample rain, and cool annual temperatures, making it one of the best regions for growing tea. However, it’s not well known for its green teas, which are not of particularly high quality, except for scented green teas like jasmine tea. Famous teas from this region include Tie Guan Yin from Anxi, Da Hong Pao from WuYi Shan, Shui Jin Gui from WuYi Shan, Tie Luo Han from WuYi Shan, and Bai Ji Guan from WuYi Shan, as well as Baihao Yinzhen white tea from Fuding.
The Southwest region is considered the birthplace of tea and includes Sichuan, Yunnan, Guizhou, and part of the Tibet Autonomous Region. It’s known for producing Pu’erh and other dark teas, as well as fine black teas, with variations in taste and appearance due to the high organic content of the region’s soil. Unlike the Jiangbei and Jiangnan regions, the Southwest doesn’t produce famous green teas, but it does produce interesting green teas for domestic consumption. Famous teas from this region include Dian Hong black tea from Yunnan.
To understand the unique characteristics of each region, it’s recommended to start with one region’s classic teas and taste multiple iterations of that tea, appreciating the differences from village to village. Just like how sommeliers understand wine varieties by becoming acquainted with primary wines from each region, one can acquire a better appreciation for a region’s unique teas by sampling a flight of the same tea from the same region.
Japan’s growing regions
Japan has been producing tea for almost nine centuries, with green tea being the dominant type. Approximately 90% of tea production is consumed domestically, and twelve of Japan’s forty-seven prefectures are renowned for their tea production. These twelve prefectures, including Aichi, Fukuoka, Gifu, Kagoshima, Kumamoto, Kyoto, Mie, Miyazaki, Nagasaki, Saga, Saitama, and Shizuoka, each have their unique growing conditions that contribute to the production of distinct teas.
The Shizuoka prefecture produces the most tea in Japan, accounting for over 45% of production. However, its tea industry suffered significantly after the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in 2011, with some shipments to Europe containing radioactive cesium above safety limits. Despite this setback, the majority of tea plants in the prefecture remain unaffected and continue to produce high-quality tea.
South Asia’s growing regions
Tea has been cultivated in South Asia for millennia, but it wasn’t until about 150 years ago that the region started growing tea for commercial purposes. Today, as consumers seek out more diverse tea varieties, South Asian teas are gaining recognition for their quality and distinctiveness.
Over the past two decades, India has been actively promoting its specialty teas. With the government relaxing regulations, growers are no longer required to sell their leaves at Indian tea auction houses, and many are now experimenting with producing specialty teas instead of the high-volume commodity teas traditionally associated with India’s tea industry.
India has three primary tea-growing regions: the Darjeeling region in the northern part of West Bengal state, the state of Assam, and the Nilgiri mountains in southwest India. Assam, in the northeast corner of India, is where the English first discovered the Camellia sinensis var. assamica tea plant, which today produces most of the region’s bitter, full-bodied, astringent teas.
Darjeeling is a semi-autonomous district located just west of Assam and east of Nepal. Its tea estates are nestled in the Mahabarhat Mountains, also known as the Lesser Himalaya Range. Unlike the black teas from Assam, Darjeeling black tea is made from cultivars of the Camellia sinensis var. sinensis plant, many of which were transplanted by the English from China’s Fujian Province.
The Nilgiri district, in southern India, is the country’s largest tea-growing region. Most of the tea here is grown in the Western Ghats mountain range in Tamil Nadu and Kerala states. While much of the tea is low-grade and used in black tea blends, it is valued for its strong flavor. Recently, Nilgiri producers have started experimenting with higher-graded black teas, as well as green and white teas.
Tea production in Sri Lanka began in the mid-nineteenth century, but it did not flourish until coffee blight devastated the Sri Lankan coffee crop in the 1860s and 1870s. The ideal growing conditions of the central Sri Lankan mountains, with adequate rainfall and cooler temperatures, made it an ideal place for tea growing. Ceylon, the famous black tea of Sri Lanka, is the primary focus of Sri Lanka’s tea production.
Tea planting in Nepal began in the 1860s, at the same time as it did in Darjeeling, under the East India Company. Nepal’s climate and geography are similar to Darjeeling’s, and both regions grow similar cultivars of tea. Thus, Nepal’s black tea shares the taste and aroma of Darjeeling’s. Nepal’s tea industry collapsed during the 20th century due to government isolation, but the government has recently made a significant effort to revive it, and Nepal’s unique-tasting teas are now available worldwide.
Tea plants have been propagated in various places over the past century, including India, Nepal, Indonesia, Kenya, and North America. Green teas have been produced with these plants, but their variety, quality, and refinement pale in comparison to traditional Chinese and Japanese teas. China and Japan remain the benchmark for tea lovers, which is why this book primarily focuses on them. The teas of other regions are only discussed when their history or uniqueness justifies it. While there are undoubtedly other fascinating tea histories and teas worth noting, the art and craft of tea can best be explained through the traditional Chinese and Japanese teas.