The Inside Story from Italian Wine Merchants

Chinese Terroir and a Sense of Place

Posted on | April 29, 2011 | Written by Crystal Edgar | No Comments

“Terroir” is a wine term that is widely misunderstood and at times difficult to explain to wine newcomers.  This concept can be loosely translated as “a sense of place,” concentrating on the external influences that affect a wine’s flavor, such as soil type, climate, altitude, sun exposure, precipitation levels and even cultural factors—more abstractly “terroir” suggests that a plant’s location imparts a unique quality to the beverage that can’t easily be replicated in other regions. Terroir is what gives a Chablis Chardonnay its distinctive personality that sets it apart from, say, Californian or Italian Chardonnay. Although this “technical” term is mostly used by western wine folk, the idea of a “sense of place” is widely understood among tea farmers in China.

Wine people have noticed that vineyards positioned only a few yards from one another can produce wine of strikingly different quality and flavor due to the aspect of each field/vineyard to the sun and differences in soil composition. This effect is also 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 (green tea grown near the West Lake in Hangzhou), Anxi Tieguanyin (oolong tea from Anxi in Fujian) and Yi Wu Puerh (earthy black tea from Yi Wu in Yunan) are just a few examples. 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 – one of the top parcels or “single vineyards”) and Tiger Spring. Each of these small areas differ slightly due to the “sense of place” and aspect of the tea fields.

Bohea Lapsang is a unique tea from Tingmo Village in the Wuyi Mountains if Fujian province. Compare this unique tea to the regular Lapsang (Lapsang Souchong is the Chinese answer to English breakfast tea), and the character of the tea, the flavor, aroma and body demonstrates a true sense of place that is never found in the multi-region conventional Lapsang. In wine language, sip a glass of Chambolle Musigny and a glass of Bourgogne Rouge – both are made from Pinot Noir grapes in Burgundy; however the Chambolle Musigny will offer more specificity and distinct nuances that are not found in the standard red Burgundy.

Just as we have super tasters, MWs and Master Sommeliers, there are Chinese who dedicate their life to the appreciation and awareness of fine Chinese tea, “Tea Masters” or “Teachers” as they are called in China. I feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to sit and talk with one of these masters at her Tea House in Hangzhou. Although our expertise remained in two different beverage groups, I felt that we shared so much of the same interest, passion and appreciation. These interests came from our roots and culture; just as wine has been part of western culture for centuries, tea is the pillar for the Chinese.

Going back to the basics, wine and tea are both products of man and nature. Vineyards and tea trees depend on both man and nature.  The knowledge and methods behind the way these beverages are made has been developed over centuries and represent local history and culture. The environment expresses itself in the tea leaves and grapes.  Through drinking wine or tea, you are actually in touch with nature, history, culture, past, present and future.

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