As drinkers of wine and coffee may already know, the terroir (or provenance) of any given crop has a major impact on flavor. Borrowed from the world of wine, terroir is a French word, which primarily describes the environmental factors of a region. The components of the soil, the altitude, temperature, and levels of precipitation in the growing region can all influence the flavor of the finished product, whether that is wine grapes, coffee beans, or tea leaves.
Terroir also encompasses regionally-specific growing methods, such as traditional harvest dates or standards of plucking and pruning. In the context of black tea, which is now grown on almost every continent, these variables cover considerable range, and produce a huge variety of unique styles. While worldwide production falls outside the scope of our expertise here at Red Blossom, China’s vast borders include several distinct regions that produce unique black tea styles, and offer a snapshot of the ways in which terroir can influence black tea flavor.
Wuyi Shan, Fujian
According to legend, the Wuyi Mountains in northern Fujian is where black tea was first developed. One of the most common tales tells of passing soldiers using covered piles of tea leaves as mattresses, thereby bruising the leaves and creating oxidation, which gives black tea its dark color.
Whatever the truth behind the origin, black teas from Wuyi Shan were among the first of the style to gain commercial success in Europe, and be produced primarily for export, under the anglicized name of ‘Bohea’. Though the region is also famous for other styles (most notably, Wuyi oolongs), many classic Chinese black tea varieties, such as Golden Monkey, are still produced here.
The flavor of these traditional ‘red’ teas, as they are called in China, is dramatically different from common western styles of black tea thanks to Fujian’s relatively temperate climate. Chilly winters let the tea plant enter a dormant period, during which carbohydrates are stored as energy reserves. In the spring, those natural sugars are sent to the leaves, creating naturally sweet flavors. By contrast, most “English-style” black teas are grown in warmer climates like India or Africa, where quicker growth leaves the plant less time to produce complex flavors.
Qimun County, Anhui
As black tea gained popularity around the globe, production in China spread north to Anhui Province. The demands of the growing market called for a more accessible black tea, so tea farmers began using more abundant summer leaves to craft larger quantities. To make oxidation more efficient, they also began tearing or cutting the leaves into smaller pieces - with the added benefit of making a tea that could be densely packed for transport. The final product, anglicized as Keemun tea, was wildly popular in Europe, and is sometimes named as the “original” English Breakfast tea.
In southern China, the province of Yunnan has also become famous for the unique black teas it produces. At these more equatorial latitudes, the dormant season is shorter, and altitude becomes an important factor, with cooler temperatures at higher altitudes serving to slow growth and intensify flavor. The most recognizable black teas from this region use only the youngest buds of the plant, plucked early in the spring for the sweetest possible flavor. When oxidized, these young leaves turn a bright golden color, immediately recognizable in contrast to the typical black color of most fully oxidized tea leaves.
The natural sweetness of these young buds comes from the natural carbohydrates in the leaves, which also lend an extremely smooth texture to the finished brew. Though early harvest teas from other regions can have similar characteristics, black teas from Yunnan are especially notable for the richness of their brew, with flavor notes like molasses, brown sugar, and honey in premium examples.
Nantou County, Taiwan
Though this island is a relative newcomer to the black tea scene, heavy investment in research and development of black teas has earned Taiwanese black teas a worldwide reputation. Encouraged by the occupying Japanese in the early 20th century as a counterpart to domestic green tea production, black tea production is centered in Nantou County, around Sun Moon Lake.
Though Taiwanese oolongs are grown at much higher elevations, the mountainous landscape of Nantou and the relatively temperate climate of Taiwan help to keep black teas growing slowly and tasting naturally sweet. While black tea leaves are still plucked in the spring, the youngest harvests are not as highly prized as in other areas. As such, flavor profiles of Formosa Red teas tend to be crisp, bright, and slightly fruity - a dramatic contrast to the rich maltiness of black teas from Yunnan, or even Fujian.
Finally, rather than using the traditional varieties of Camellia sinensis used to make black tea in other parts of China, Taiwanese black teas are often made from the Assam variety, or from a selection of hybridized cultivars developed at the Taiwan Tea Research and Extension Station. The range of cultivated varieties makes Taiwanese black teas some of the most unique in China.
Black teas from these traditional regions represent a tiny fraction of worldwide production, but this limited selection displays the range of influence that terroir can have on a tea, even when the crafting techniques are similar. If you’re looking for a specific flavor profile in your black tea, finding the right terroir can be the key to a difficult search.
Where are your favorite black teas grown? Let us know in the comments below!
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