The term “terroir” gets tossed about with regard to certain crops like grapes (especially those used to make wine) and tea. But what is it? Well, I can give you my layman’s thoughts on terroir and how it relates to tea. For something more official, you will need to consult someone more expert in this area.
“Terroir” (pronounced “tare-wahr”) according to one web site is “the set of special characteristics that the geography, geology and climate of a certain place, interacting with the plant’s genetics, express in agricultural products such as wine, coffee, chocolate, tomatoes, heritage wheat and tea.” (Like “sommelier,” tea folk have adopted a term from the wine industry.)
So, how hot or cold it gets, how rainy or dry it is, how sunny or cloudy it is, what the soil is like, and so on can affect the tea leaves, making them grow faster or slower, helping certain elements in them develop more, etc. Sometimes the tea farmers have to “fake” aspects of terroir. For example, in Japan, they cover some tea bushes to produce gyokuro and matcha.
The gyokuro (also known as “Jade Dew”) needs shade, sometimes when there is none. The tea is only produced in Uji located southeast of Kyoto. The first flush (period of growth) of the leaves needs shade for about 3 to 4 weeks to reduce the build-up of tannins (catechins) in the leaves. They also need it to increase amino acid theanin production, making the flavor sweeter and milder than tea leaves that are not shaded (these are used to make Sencha). So the plants are covered with a shade cloth. The very highest grade gyokuro is grown under shade cloth suspended over them and leaving the leaves plenty of room to grow. The lower grades have shade cloth draped over them so that the leaves don’t develop as well.
Tea gardeners also make use of natural shade on high slopes in the Himalayas of northern India and other mountainous regions where mists hang heavy and constant. Those slopes also mean good drainage so the roots of the tea plants don’t “drown” but end up having good moisture but also good air circulation around them.
Speaking of air, gentle breezes don’t hurt a bit. They can keep the leaves from getting overheated. Strong winds, though, can be a big problem. And another problem is a herd of elephants trampling the tea bushes and foraging off of them — a great photo op, but not good for the tea farmer. Some say the elephants roamed those lands before the tea was grown there. Whether or not that is true, I can’t help but think of the many cups of tea that will not be because of them. Sigh! But then, the elephants are just having their own version of a tea party, I guess!
One commenter on Facebook stated that the tea workers are the most important part of the terroir. And indeed they are. You can grow the best tea leaves in the world and not get any use out of them (except for fattening up the elephants) if you don’t have skilled workers to harvest and process them.
Another example of terroir making the difference is with Camellia Sinensis assamica grown in the Assam district of northern India versus the same varietal of the tea plant grown in countries like Kenya. The Assam version steeps up stronger and more bitter/astringent than the Kenyan version, generally speaking. This is usually attributed to the soil and climate.
Terroir gives tea a lot of variety, be it some fruity Darjeeling or a vegetal green tea or a raisiny Ceylon black tea. And the tea workers take what nature has created and makes it fit to steep. Cheers!
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