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 taste different, one has alcohol and the other one doesn’t, tea is mainly produced in Asia where wine is scarcely made and they grow under very different conditions. All of these facts are true but as you deepen yourself into the world of tea you start realizing that the idea of them being opposites couldn’t be more far from reality; the sense of place is the unifying factor.
The characteristics of the area where the tea plants are grown are crucial to determine the attributes of the tea; different types of soils, climates and altitudes will produce teas with unique personalities, making it possible to classify them based on their quality, just like for wine. The human factor and tradition also play an important role in tea making and depending on where the plants are grown they will be processed using different techniques. This is often seen in the wine world, where tradition influences winemakers to use certain techniques in order to make a wine that is characteristic from that specific area (Sherry and Montilla-Moriles wines and the criaderas and solera system used to age them are a great example of this)
Tea comes from a plant called Camellia sinensis, originally from China and from which today we find three subspecies: 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, 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. In the world of wine, these new varieties are called clones.
The importance of place isn’t just 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, like 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 and a good example of this is the green tea Sencha, which is produced all over Japan but can only be made there. Blending allows producers to maintain a consistency of aromas and flavors, 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 offer 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, giving to 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 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 understanding it better and since then my Sommelier profession has allowed me to learn from both products. As for 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 to have a better appreciation of both products.