Tag Archives: Camellia sinensis

Terroir of Tea

Tea Plantation

A Tea Plantation somewhere in Alishan
By Alexander Synaptic (Flickr id)
CC BY-SA 2.0

Terroir (ter-war) is used to define the characteristics of a place (soil, water, altitude, latitude and climate) that effect the taste of a final agricultural product.  Wine is the main agricultural product defined by terroir.  The French really drove the use of terroir in describing agricultural products with its regulations requiring use of region in labeling of French wine. For example, wines produced in the Bordeaux region of France are classified by a sub region in relation to where they are to the Garonne River – Saint-Estèphe, Paulliac, Saint-Julien, Margaux, Graves, Saint-Émilion and Pomerol.  These classifications were originally made in 1855 and have been adhered to since then because they have helped the producers to distinguish their products from each other, define quality and drive up prices.  Tea can also be defined by terroir; the only problem is that the producers of tea are not always using this to their advantage.  India is one exception – Assam, Darjeeling, Kangra, Dooars, Terai and Nilgiri teas are all named after the region in which they are grown and marketed in a fashion that helps the consumer associate the region to the flavor of the final beverage.

So what conditions does tea need to grow?  To its advantage, the tea plant is a very versatile perennial, so it can grow in a variety of soil types.

Photo of Dragon Well Plantation

Dragon Well Tea Plantation – Hangzhou
By Dave Proffer (Flickr id)
CC BY 2.0

However, for optimal production the soil should be acidic, between 4.5 to 5.5 ph., loose enough to allow the 6 foot tap root to burro down to its preferred length, and contain a good mix of nutrients (Nitrogen, Magnesium, Calcium, etc.) that the tea plant uses to grow.  Like other plants, it will strip nutrients from the soil necessitating replenishment via some manner of fertilization.  The Japanese use grasses to re-fertilize their tea plants, which influence the taste of the final tea and is credited by the tea farmers for the complex flavors of their teas.

Five hours of direct sunlight is optimal, however, less light disturbs the chloroplasts in the tea leaves, creating more aromatic oils and slowing growth.  This is why high altitude teas are considered the higher quality tea, they get between 2-3 hours of sunlight, creating more aromatic oils.  Those oils create the complex flavor of those teas.  More than five hours and plant will continue to grow, but the flavor will be dramatically different.

The tea plant likes lots of water, but doesn’t want to sit in it.  Plants need at least 50 inches of rain annually and 70-90% humidity.  By definition the water and humidity requirement put the plant in the sub-tropic to tropic zone, and while it can handle some weather variation it cannot survive prolonged dry seasons or freezing.

Latitude effects terroir through the length of the growing period.  The closer to the equator (think Kenya and Argentina), the longer the growing period.  In Kenya, tea is harvested year-round while it is only harvested twice a year (spring and fall) in most Chinese regions.  Tea in Taiwan is harvested five times a year between April and December with the July and August harvests continually ranked as the finest.

Photo of Munnar Plantation

ST831850 – Munnar tea plantation
By fraboof (Flickr id)
CC BY-SA 2.0

So how does one use terroir when purchasing tea?  Look for where the tea comes from, and if possible search for single origin teas from one tea plantation.  This will allow you to identify the flavor unique to the tea produced in that region, for instance Assam tea is consistently malty in flavor.  Dongding Oolong produced in the Nantou county of Taiwan is said to gets its unique award winning flavor from the constant fog in this mountainous region.  There are many black teas from China associated with the provenience it is grown it.  A Yunnan black tea tastes very different from a Fujian black tea.  So treat your teas like wine, know where they come from, learn their flavors and enjoy comparing them.  It makes drinking a cup of tea a truly special experience.

What do you think?  Can you taste the terrior in your tea?


Camellia Sinensis

All true tea comes from the same basic plant, camellia sinensis. It doesn’t matter if its green, white, black, oolong, or puerh, they all start from the same source. True tea is made from the leaves and leaf buds of the Camellia sinensis not its flower. C. Sinensis does ineed have flowers. They are small white flower with six to eight petals and a yellow center (Harvard University, 2013. The seed of the plant is about 1 cm in diameter, the same diameter as a wine cork, although round. C. sinensis is an evergreen plant growing from sea-level to almost 7,000 feet above sea level.

Plucking Tea Leaves

Plucking Tea Leaves – By Ashwin Kamath
CC-BY 2.0

Camellia Sinensis Varieties

There are two main varieties of this plant that make up the majority of tea consumed on the planet, C. sinensis var. sinensis and C. sinensis var. assamica. Var. sinensis is the tea plant originating from China. Var. assamica is the tea plant originating from India, yet there are many cultivars of tea that are used in production. Broadly, cultivars are plants that have been selected and propagated by humans because they possess certain desirable traits, like surviving rapid weather changes. Given that the Chinese first documented the drinking of tea in 2737 B.C.E. and the first tea plantations are mentioned in 1000 B.C.E., there has been ample time for humans to intervene and cultivate the tea plants with the characteristics they want.

There are several differences between the assamica and sinensis varieties. Assamica has larger leaves, can handle the lower elevations and harsher sun better than sinensis. Both varieties prefer humidity, well-drained soil, and at least 50 inches of rain a year. This means that the plant grows best in tropical and sub-tropical climates. Some C. sinensis cultivars can handle temperatures below 54 degrees Fahrenheit, but neither can handle prolonged exposure to temperatures at or below freezing. For ease of harvesting both varieties are kept in low hedge like shape by most plantations. However, if left unkempt the sinensis variety has been recorded as turning into a tree as high as 50 feet; the same height as a mature willow tree. C. sinensis var. sinensis are mainly found in China, Japan, and Taiwan. C. sinensis var. assamica are found in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Kenya and Argentina.

Camellia Sinensis Tea Tree by Mt Fudo

Tea Tree by Mt. Fudo by STA3816, CC BY-SA 2.0

Various pests cause problems for C. Sinensis, like caterpillars and moths, though not all pests are bad. For example, harvesting it after an infestation of leaf hoppers, a small green grasshopper like insect, produces a very fragrant tea. Some of the most highly-prized oolongs, especially from Taiwan, are created from tea leaves that have been recently munched on by the leaf hoppers. By biting the leaves, the leaf hopper causes the plant to produce different enzymes that ultimately create the complex flavors in these oolongs. It is also worth noting that, like other plants, C. sinensis produces caffeine, as a defense mechanism against insects such that it often is grown in near organic conditions by default.

The amount of rain, temperature and soil affect the favor of the final tea product that we consume. In general, the better tasting, more complex teas are grown at higher elevations because the growing seasons are shorter. The length of a growing season is determined by the right mix of water, sun light and temperature that the plant needs to sprout to new growth. If that is not present all the time, the plant goes dormant, allowing it to store up energy for when the conditions are right for growth again. The “energy” comes from the organic chemicals found inside the leaves. It is these organic chemicals that produce the flavor of the tea. At lower elevations, the growing seasons are longer, and in some places, like Kenya, are year round, which does not give the plant a chance to rest.

Tea 'Camellia Sinensis' Plantation in Sri Lanka

Tea Plantation, Sri Lanka – by By Purblind – Flickr
CC BY-SA 2.0

Camellia Sinensis and Climate Change

Lastly, it should be noted that many of the tea producing nations are worried about the effects of climate change on tea. The Kenyan Tea Board is working with local tea farmers to improve water storage and soil conservation measures while also researching the use of drought resistant cultivars of tea to mitigate the effects (The Tea Board of Kenya, 2012). The Tocklai tea experimental station in the Assam region of India, which has recorded the temperature and rainfall for over 100 years, has reported an increase in the temperature and a decrease in rain, affecting tea yields and quality of that tea. The drop in yields has not really been seen on the market as more small farmers have entered into growing tea, which has off-set the drop, but the Tea Research Association expects the effects to surface soon (Das, 2013). Given the importance of C.sinensis to many cultures on this planet I suspect we will see cultivars that can keep producing in extreme weather conditions. I can only hope the taste of this wonderful plant is not lost in the process of preserving it.

Works Cited

Das, B. (2013, September 9). Climate Change Dries Up India Tea Production. Retrieved from Aljeezera: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2013/09/201398144844505310.html

Harvard University. (2013, November 1). www.efloras.org. Retrieved from Floras.org: http://www.efloras.org/florataxon.aspx?flora_id=2&taxon_id=200014043

The Tea Board of Kenya. (2012, January 16). News – 2012: Responding to Climate Change. Retrieved from The Tea Board of Kenya: http://www.teaboard.or.ke/news/2012/13jan2012-c.html