Verifying Variety versus Varietals

8848353_sThe tea industry is not the only industry that has borrowed vocabulary words from the French wine industry. The word ‘terroir’ is a perfect example. It’s now used to describe ‘the taste of place’ for cheese, chocolate, coffee and olive oil as well as tea. That unique experience of the ‘taste of place’ was first recognized, verbalized and promoted internationally by the French wine industry. There was no need to invent a new word when the word ‘terroir’ could so aptly express the same phenomenon in tea. But when we borrowed the use of the words ‘variety’ and ‘varietal’ from the French wine industry, we didn’t realize that they had already imbued a degree of confusion and ambiguity into them before we went right ahead and added more of our own.

Botanically speaking, ‘variety’ refers to a taxonomic rank, a category below species that has a three part name used in an internationally accepted convention that appears in italics. For instance, Camellia sinensis sinensis and Camellia sinensis assamica are the two major varieties (not varietals) of the Camellia sinensis plant used to produce tea. From these two varieties, many new types of Camellia sinensis plants have been developed and bred for specific characteristics, often at tea research stations. These are called cultivars. For instance, the Yabukita cultivar was developed by Hikosaburo Sugiyama in the Shizuoka Prefecture of Japan and registered in 1953. Once developed and registered, a cultivar can be considered to be the legal property of the organization or person who developed it. This may seem confusing if you are familiar with French winemaking terms because they have a habit of using the word ‘variety’, as in ‘grape varieties’ to refer to what are really – botanically, technically and legally speaking – cultivars according to the International Code of Nomenclature for Cultivated Plants. So while this informal, more inclusive use of the word ‘variety’ has become entrenched in the French wine industry, it is not (correctly) used that way in the tea industry.

Often the word ‘varietal’ is used interchangeably, and incorrectly, with the word ‘variety.’ The improper use is illustrated here: “Camellia sinensis sinensis and Camellia sinensis assamica are two varietals of the tea plant.”  In French winemaking, and technically in tea, the word ‘varietal’ has just one use. Quoting from Wikipedia: “A varietal describes a wine made primarily from a single named grape variety, and which typically displays the name of that variety on the wine label…The term is frequently misused in place of vine variety; the term variety refers to the vine or grape while varietal refers to the wine produced by a variety.” A varietal does not refer to a plant in any way, only to the finished product. Chardonnay grapes can be used to make many wines. It is only when the Chardonnay grape variety is made into Chardonnay wine that the wine is considered to be a varietal wine.

Wikipedia continues to say: “Similarly, the term varietal can be used to describe cider made from a single variety of apple, tea made from a single variety and preparation, or to describe particular subspecies of coffee.” An example of a varietal tea then could be a cup of Longjing tea made exclusively from the leaves of a Longjing cultivar processed in the classic Longjing style. It’s not really a word that we would find the need to use often in tea, since it couldn’t be used on a label to describe the contents of a container of tea leaves. A great place to use it would be on a café menu, where classic teas from cultivars such as Longjing and Tie Guan Yin were being served. They could be grouped together as an offering of ‘varietal teas.’

Tea Health / Education
Donna Fellman

About Donna Fellman

Donna Fellman is Online Education Director of World Tea Academy. Donna’s experience managing tea houses, training staff, and tea procurement convinced her that the key to success was educating herself, her staff and her customers about tea. Since that time, she has focused her work on serving the tea industry’s needs by creating educational programs and classes, especially for the tea professional. In 2003, Donna founded the Tea Education Alliance specializing in staff and management training. She has authored numerous training manuals for well-known tea retailers and educational materials for other prominent educational programs. She studied Chado for 12 years and co-authored Tea Here Now, (Inner Ocean Publishing, 2005) exploring tea as a way of life. She also has an M.S. in Holistic Nutrition.