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A remarkable quality of Camellia sinensis or the tea plant is its ability to adapt to its environment. Considering that there are many different tea-growing regions around the world, the French term Terroir becomes rather significant in the understanding of the beverage and its many flavours.
Terroir is the belief that the soil chemistry and composition, climate, altitude, latitude, and the local ecosystem where the tea plant varietals are grown impart unique characteristics to the leaves that couldn’t otherwise be imparted by any other region of the world. While this concept has been extensively explored in the world of wine, here is going deeper into each of the factors that affect the flavour of tea.
Different regions have unique soil compositions that can affect the nutrients available to the plants and, in turn, the flavour of the tea. For instance, Assam tea, known for its briskness and malty flavour, benefits from the clay-like soil of the tropical river valley in which it is grown. In the Fujian mountains of eastern China, the rocky soil imbues the leaves with a specific mineral that adds a petrichor touch to the flavour profile of the tea. On the other hand, the volcanic soil of tea-growing regions in Kenya features a rich mix of minerals, thereby enhancing the flavour of the tea.
Tea plants require specific temperatures and humidity levels to thrive, and these conditions can vary greatly from region to region. For example, tea grown in cooler climates, such as Darjeeling in India or Uji in Japan, tends to have a more delicate and subtle flavour. In contrast, tea grown in warmer climates, such as Yunnan in China or on both sides of the Great Rift Valley in Kenya, tends to have a bolder and more robust flavour.
Tea plants cultivated at higher altitudes tend to have a slower growth rate, which can result in the production of tea leaves with a more complex and nuanced flavour. In contrast, tea grown at lower altitudes tends to have a more straightforward flavour.
The amount of sunlight a tea plant receives can vary depending on the latitude at which it is grown. At large, tea plants cultivated at higher latitudes tend to have a slower growth rate and produce tea leaves with a more intense and complex flavour profile. This is because the plants are exposed to less direct sunlight, which can lead to the production of more amino acids and other compounds that contribute to the flavour of the tea.
The presence of other plants (and animals) in the ecosystem can influence the flavour of the tea, as these organisms can contribute to the soil nutrients and affect the overall environment in which the tea plants grow. For instance, a mountain covered in flowers will impart floral elements to a tea simply through the absorption of the aroma in the air over time. Another instance is where, if grown nearby, the bamboo plant can change the aroma and taste of the tea leaves through leaf litter around the plants which alter the composition of the soil.
In addition, the way in which the tea is processed can also affect its flavour. Different processing methods result in different levels of oxidation, which can impact the flavour and aroma of the tea. For example, black tea is fully oxidized and tends to have a bold and robust flavour, oolong tea is partially oxidized to bear a complex flavour that oscillates between mildly sweet and fruity to hints of straw, while green tea is minimally oxidized and has a more delicate and subtle flavour.
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