Terroir vs. Processing: Why Both Matter

As with wine, a tea’s terroir tells a story. The increasing demand for single-estate teas points to its growing favor. However, processing is equally significant and impacts the quality and flavor of tea. Lydia Kung, the owner of VeriLeaf Curated Fine Teas and a Global Tea Championship judge, discusses fluidity in the relationship between terroir and processing as it relates to different teas.

People like the idea of being able to count on a certain quality and flavor coming from a specific terroir.

Kung noted that teas from the Wuyi Mountains, which are located in China’s northern Fujian province, have continued to be popular in the last year.

Tea in the Wuyi Mountains, photo courtesy of Lydia Kung

“Wuyi’s name resonates far and wide and is a tea to which consumers aspire,” Kung said. “Here we have a preeminent example of teas as an expression of place. Affixing ‘Wuyi’ to a tea name can bump up the price significantly, underlining limited production in a small, scenic, verdant area.”

Kung also noted that some teas are inextricably tied to place; one example is Yellow Mountain (Huang Shan) in Anhui. The lightly smoky, gentle, non-astringent Keemun tea from the Keemun region in Anhui province and the bold black tea from Yunnan, China’s oldest tea producing region, are examples of characteristic regional flavors.

Things get a little more complicated when it comes to Dragonwell, Kung added. Dragonwell, a mellow green tea with a sweet fragrance, originated in China’s Zhejiang province. Since the demand for Dragonwell exceeds the supply, “In recent years we see Dragonwell from areas such as Sichuan and Hunan, although the place of origin bears little or no mention. That would no doubt be a counterproductive move,” Kung said.

Another example of this phenomenon coincides with the popularity of Pi Lo Chun (Green Spiral Spring), a downy, spirally green tea, which is native to the Jiangsu province.

“We now see offerings from places such as Hunan from producers eager to latch onto the fame of this tea, and the deep pocketed consumers who seek out this tea each spring,” Kung said.

Yet, one unwavering distinguishing factor is the price. Pi Lo Chun teas from Jiangsu are priced higher than those from other provinces.

Oolong teas embody an example of how both the origin and the processing play equally important roles in creating a high- quality tea. Kung remarked how the intricate processing methods for oolong tea have been developed in the Fujian province over several generations, which is why those from other provinces have not been successful.

Processing’s effect can also overshadow that of a tea’s terroir. “It is also useful to note that cultivars identified with specific areas of Fujian, such as Ti Kuan Yin from Anxi or Hairy Crab, may yield very different results due to how they were processed,” said Kung. “A lightly oxidized Ti Kuan Yin and a medium roasted one are not similar at all, even though the grade and the cultivar were the same.”

Gunpowder green tea also exemplifies the significance of processing over terroir. It is grown in Zhejiang and Jiangxi, as well as in other provinces. Kung stated that how well this tea is made counts more toward the end result than where it is grown.

These examples show how malleable cultivars can be, and that a particular cultivar does not automatically signify a particular quality, flavor or type of finished tea.

“A cultivar that has traditionally been made into an oolong now gets made into a black tea, with delicious results,” Kung said. She cited the Single Trunk teas from a small area in Guangdong, and a black from the Meizhan varietal from Fujian.

Green teas, that very minimalist category, can be processed into ball shapes, flat spear shapes and more. “In this perspective, ‘place’ might be a given, such as the elegant green teas from WuYuan, but the variations in manipulation of the leaves are the heart of the matter, the intent of the tea-maker,” said Kung.

Lydia Kung can be reached at: lydia@verileaf.com

To learn more about tea terroirs in China, enroll in this World Tea Academy course: CORE.03 Tea Terroir Part 1 – China, Korea, Japan, Taiwan