If we take a look at a cup of tea and a glass of wine it’s difficult to find similarities among them. For instance, they obviously taste different, one has alcohol while the other one doesn’t and they grow under very different conditions in different parts of the world. But as you immerse yourself into the world of tea you start to realize that they are also no opposites. Both wine and tea share the sense of place as the unifying factor.
The characteristics of the area where the tea plants are grown is crucial to determine its attributes; different types of soils, climates and altitudes will produce teas with unique personalities. These characteristics make it possible to classify them, similar to how it is done for wine. The human factor and tradition also play an important role in tea making and depending on the country and region they will be processed using different techniques. This is also often observed in the wine world, where tradition influences winemakers to use certain techniques in order to make a wine characteristic from that specific area (barrel fermented and matured Chardonnay wines from Burgundy are a great example of this)
Tea comes from a plant called Camellia sinensis, originally from China and from which we find three subspecies today: Camellia sinensis sinensis (China), Camellia sinensis assamica (India) and Camellia sinensis cambodiensis (Camboya). The first two are the most widely consumed varieties and from these, different cultivars have been created throughout the centuries. New cultivars are made to achieve or enhance certain characteristics in the plant, like for instance, higher or lower yields, better resistance to hot or cold temperatures, higher content of antioxidants, tolerance to drought conditions, etc. For comparison, in the world of wine, these new varieties are called clones.
Place isn’t just important for wine and when it comes to classifying tea according to its origin, the similarities to grape growing becomes even more evident. Teas with origin are classified based on the region or district from where the tea comes from and is made by blending teas that come from different gardens within that region. For example, the black tea produced in India, inside the district of Darjeeling. Teas with origin can also be related to denominations that cover big areas inside a country. A good example of this is the green tea Sencha, which is exclusively produced all over Japan and nowhere else. Blending allows producers to maintain a consistency in the aroma and flavor profile of their teas, allowing consumers to know that every time they buy that type of tea it will taste relatively the same.
A more exclusive tasting experience can be offered by Single Estate teas; these are the Grand Crus in the world of tea and are made with leafs from one specific garden, known for having a unique terroir. Single Estate producers will use distinctive techniques for collecting and processing the tea in order to make and offer a one-of-a-kind product. Since all the production depends on a single plantation and the final tea can’t be blended and balanced with leafs from other gardens, temperature and weather conditions will largely influence the characteristics of the tea. This gives professional tasters the opportunity to experience a different product every year, just like with wine.
These teas are expensive and very valuable among tea experts so if you ever come across one you should give yourself a treat and enjoy at least one cup.
The culture around both tea and wine is fascinating and catching. I started drinking tea many years ago but it wasn’t until after I studied wine that I began to understand it better and since then my Sommelier profession has allowed me to learn about both products. Alike wine, the world of tea represents an infinite learning experience, where tasting is a must and understanding the land where they come from is fundamental for a better appreciation of both products.