When it comes to tea, terroir is all. But what is terroir, you ask? Terroir is a French term used to describe the environmental factors that affect a crop's characteristics and traits. Collectively, these characteristics are said to have a character, or terroir. While initially a term coined by French winemakers, it now covers a whole subset of artisanal crops, including tea.
A tea’s terroir includes everything about the place in which a tea is grown. From environmental factors such as weather and humidity, to the particular quality of the soil and flora and fauna of the region, it is one of the key factors in determining the flavour profiles of different teas. While different processing techniques result in different varieties of tea such as black, green, white, and oolong, terroir can have a more subtle but just as significant effect.
Among the most significant of the characteristics to look for are the following:
The tea plant grows particularly well in tropical or subtropical regions where rainfall is abundant, humidity is high, and the dry season is no longer than 90 days. It can tolerate some frost but not temperatures lower than 23° F.
Teas grown at a higher elevation must adapt to their environment and its challenges (like harsher sunlight and thinner atmosphere) by growing more slowly and increasing their chlorophyll content, resulting in teas with a rich flavour. It is among the key reasons for the distinct flavours of Darjeeling Teas.
- The taproot of a tea bush can easily reach 6 to 12 feet into the earth. At this depth, the roots absorb minerals and nutrients that were laid down centuries ago. The nutrients present in the soil can greatly change how the tea can taste.
- A tea plant grown in rocky soil will have more available minerals to take up through its roots, while one grown in rich, loamy soil will have better access to water that is retained in the soil.
While exploring the various aspects of tea terroir, it is also important to note that tea is, of course, also deeply influenced by the culture and history in the places in which it is grown. Unique cultivation, processing, and preparation methods can result in teas with wildly disparate tastes, from robust and full-bodied Assam teas, to vegetal, umami-packed Japanese Matcha. So the next time you brew yourself a cup, know that where it came from has, quite literally, made a world of difference!