The notion of “terroir” has crept into the discourse on tea from the domain of wine and if we are not careful we’ll find ourselves, along with Alice, knee-deep in Wonderland. “Terroir” is an abstract concept that has suffered from attempts to make it more concrete. Wine literature is replete with tiresome, sterile debates about “terroir.” Is it just soil? (No – it isn’t.) Do people matter? (Yes, they very much do.) Where does one draw the line with respect to mesoclimate? (Who knows?) The beat drones on.  The literature on tea, for its part, has tended to take some very simplistic notions of “terroir” from the popular wine press and overlay this, without much real discussion or analysis, onto tea. The results have not been encouraging.

Part of the problem is that the translation of terroir into English is devilishly difficult. Mostly it’s translated as, well, “terroir.” But terroir sounds somewhat like one French word that is occasionally translated as soil: la terre. (“terre” is more commonly translated as “land” or “earth”.) This has led many to the conclusion (abetted since early in the 20th century, by those who benefit from restrictive French AOC wine laws) that terroir, too, means “soil” and that gout de terroir means “the taste of the soil.” It does not.  Terroir derives from the Latin territorium or territory and perhaps is best translated as “rural agricultural region” or perhaps “locality.”

I am unaware of any single Chinese or Japanese term that captures for tea gardens the sense carried by the word “terroir;” the Chinese “wotu” (fertile ground) seems to come closest. The importance of the concept is well understood, however, and the effects much discussed in Chinese, Taiwanese and Japanese tea circles.

Cultural anthropologists seem to have come up with the best working definition of “terroir;” “a sense of place.” This usage, however, strips “terroir” of potential explanatory power and it makes the concept primarily an organizing term. But we should never demand of a word more than it can deliver and the heavy lifting of explanation is, for the time being, beyond the power of “terroir.”

For my part, I’ll leave all of the arguments surrounding the roles of drainage and aspect and elevation to others and, following the anthropologists’ lead, take “terroir” simply to mean “a sense of place.”

Tea and the “Sense of Place”

“Terroir”, “sense of place.” These are fine terms but do they help us understand tea any better. Before there can be any attempt to explain the role that terroir might play in understanding tea, we must first ascertain whether there are consistent differences in teas from different regions that show up in the cup. Do teas from different areas taste differently? Does a “sense of place” reveal itself in the taste of tea?

The straight forward answer is yes, absolutely! On a broad level there are recognizable taste differences among, Taiwanese, Indian, Chinese and Japanese teas. On a narrower level there is a noticeable difference between Alishan and Lishan, Shizuoka and Uji, and Darjeeling and just about everything. And more finely still, there are differences within any given production region. For example, why does Namring Upper taste slightly different than other gardens in the Namring estate? What is more, no one needs to be an “expert” to recognize that these differences exist, although it is true that learning to connect these differences to a place does take some time and effort.

When tasted, tea (along with wine) can show this “sense of place” more than any other agricultural product; more than grains, or cash crops or tree fruits. This doesn’t mean that we always will identify a precise terroir when we taste, and that isn’t the point in any event, but almost all of us can recognize that there are differences among what we taste. As to identifying the specific place this, more often than not, is a parlor game used principally in the pursuit of one-upmanship; the finer distinctions stymie us all.  This does not mean that some producers don’t tilt at the windmill of a style that tries to erase “sense of place” altogether; they do. They strive for a consistent brand style, not one that reflects terroir.

And all of this brings us to the nub of the whole exercise, which is simply the taste of tea.

Tea, Terroir and Taste

Humans are thought able to recognize only five distinct tastes: sweet, sour, bitter, salt, and umami. Everything else that we commonly think of as taste is really smell. The human sense of smell is far more developed than the sense of taste; there are far more neurons carrying sensations of smell than there are carrying sensations of taste. Although all five senses are carried to the brain by one of twelve cranial nerves, only the olfactory nerve and the optical nerve attach directly to the cerebrum, the most highly evolved part of the brain. All others, including the nerves carrying sensations of taste, attach to the brain stem, the least evolved part of the brain.

We approach “tasting” tea (as opposed to just drinking it – though nothing wrong with that) first by looking at it, then smelling it and finally tasting it. Once in our mouths, some of the volatile components in the tea are carried to receptors at the base of the nasal passages and from there, by way of the olfactory nerve, to the brain. This process, known as retro-olfaction, is why we often to think that one thing tastes just like something else smells; gaoshan tea like cinnamon, for example.

The terms used to describe what we actually taste are remarkably familiar: long in the mouth, brisk, astringent, balanced, complex and so forth. These terms, along with a multitude of descriptors, such as vegetal, fruity, floral, and smoky among hundreds, if not thousands, of others, form the basis of our tea tasting vocabulary. Generally, the more nuanced the descriptors, the more the tea is showing its “sense of place.” Over time, we learn to associate certain tastes and their descriptors with tea from given areas and thus we come to learn and recognize terroir in our cup.

A Caveat

There is, however, a major caveat. All teas must be brewed before they can be savored, and brewing is a skill unto itself. How we brew influences taste very substantially. Whether we are casually plopping a bag of PG Tips into the Brown Betty so we can enjoy a “cuppa” or listening with rapt attention while Laoshi explains, yet again, the subtle differences in the taste of this tea versus that one; the teas we taste come to us with the final step incomplete. That final step is up to us: we actively participate in creating what we hope to enjoy. And as a result, each one of us plays a significant role in the extent to which any given tea truly reveals terroir. Good brewing can bring out terroir and poor brewing can hide it.

So what is it about terroir that accounts for these differences in taste? Well, we’ve now come full circle to the debates on elevation, aspect, drainage and culture. The answer is likely: “all of these to some extent.” And the answer likely will vary depending upon whether we are talking about the “style” of a given tea or its “quality.” We need to be conscious of the likelihood that we will never have definitive concrete answers; that there is more to this “sense of place” than mere science.

What do you think?

Portions of this blog appeared as “Some Personal Reflections on Tea and Wine”in Cousineau, P.
and Scott Chamberlin Hoyt (eds.) The Soul and Spirit of Tea New York, 2013, Talking Leaves Press


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