Update: A couple of readers pointed out that I had listed some cultivars twice, so I have corrected that and want to thank them for bringing it to my attention.
Oolongs are some of the most complex and pleasurable teas around, ranging in oxidation (what some call fermentation) from very little to as much as black teas. But the other factor. They come mainly from Taiwan and China. And while they are all made of leaves from the Camellia Sinensis plant, they are from a complex variety of cultivars, with new ones being developed all the time. So, the complexity of oolongs are not only their flavors and aromas but also their source. There are literally hundreds of thousands of cultivars.
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The growers in Taiwan have developed a numbering system: TTES No. 1, TTES No. 2, etc. The TTES stands for Taiwan Tea Experiment Station. They work to develop cultivars that can be fast growing, disease resistant, and yet maintain a high flavor profile worthy of Taiwanese oolongs, known for their signature “green fragrance” (qing xiang), which results from minimal oxidation. These teas are extremely fragrant and complex while retaining bright and floral notes.
Major tea cultivars in Taiwan:
- Chin-Shin (Green-centered) — Usually only lightly oxidized and labeled as “Pouchong” (Light Oolong). Variations include Chin-Shin Da Pan, Si-Ji-Chun, Chin-Shin Oolong, Chin-Shin Gan Zai, TTES No.7, TTES No.8, and TTES No.18. Picked from tea gardens in Dong Ding Mountain at an elevation of 700 to 1,200 meters (about 2,200 to 3,700 feet), traditionally made from one bud and two or three leaves combos and with an oxidation level of 35% to 25%. Produces excellent quality Bao Zhong (Pouchong) but has relatively weaker growth and disease-resistance. Used for oolong and pouchong teas.
- TTES No. 12 (Jin Xuan, Chinhsuan, Golden Tiger Lily, Day Lily, Taiwan #12) — One of these famous Oolong tea plant varietals, suitable for processing into Black and Oolong tea. The 2nd largest-grown tea varietal in Taiwan. 15%-20% oxidized. Has higher growth rate, very charming “creamy” aroma, sometimes sugarcane-like, a natural milky buttery flavor with fruit notes, and a soft liquid quality. This varietal has light-green, oval-shaped leaves which are bigger than Qing Xin or Da You. It is resistant to a wide variety of diseases and pests, and produces a greater yield than other varietals. It has a fragrant taste profile which is suitable for both Bao Zhong and Oolong teas.
- TTES No. 13 (Tzuiyu, Cui Yu, Green Jade, Taiwan #13) — Prof. Wu, gave this cultivar the name “Jade”, in memory of his grandmother, but it was officially named TaiCha #13 in 1982. The tag in the research field said “2029”, so many farmers still call it “29 son”. The growth rate is slightly weaker than Jin Xuan, but about 20% higher than Chin-shin. Looser growth form, not easy for machine-harvesting. Very unique and intense floral/orchid aroma. Has a loose form so that machine harvesting is difficult, liquid has a unique and intensely floral/orchid aroma.
- Soft-stem — Often confused with Chin-shin; this is the original oolong cultivar introduced to Taiwan in the 1850s from Fujian, China; used to make Dong-Ding oolong. Even though it is weaker growing and less disease-resistant than Chin-Shin, it is still grown for special orders and because some tea farmers have an affinity for it.
- Luanze (Qing-Xin, Green Heart) — Used to make Dong-Ding oolong (the authentic version is made only from tea leaves grown on Dong Ding Mountain, 700-1200 meters elevation), traditionally only the tea shoots (the bud and 2-3 leaves) are used and oxidized to 25-35%; also used to make Bao Zhongs that are lightly oxidized and range in flavor from light and sweet like Japanese sencha to floral to fruity.
- Si-Ji (Four Season, “Da-To-Hwei son,” “Si-Ji Chuan,” Four-season Spring) — A naturally hybrid cultivar with a strong growth rate year round; the tea has an intense floral/fruity aroma that isn’t as “wide” feeling or as exquisite as Chin-shin.
- Formosa — A large-leaved cultivar named after the island of Formosa (now Taiwan); fragrant and floral with a persistent finish; a combination of growing environment and fine processing done by true tea craftsmen. Oriental Beauty is one example.
- San Lin Xi — A slightly higher oxidation rate creates a sumptuous tea that has a concentrated and intense finish, with notes of flowers, tropical fruit, brown sugar and cream.
- Dong Pian — An unusually sweet and creamy oolong, harvested 45 days after the last winter crop on San Lin Xi. Notes of golden sugar cane, caramel, and cotton candy.
- Heritage Aijiao — Believed to be the mother cultivar of the Formosa oolongs. With the aroma of traditional Tie Guan Yins, the roastiness of Wuyis and the viscosity and florals of Formosas.
- Gaoshan — Has five varieties (Meishan, Yushan, Wushe, Lishan, and Alishan – priciest and most highly regarded), is similar to Qing-Xin used to make Dong-Ding (medium oxidation, withering, and rolling); some of the oolongs made from this cultivar are aged and all have fairly complex flavors involving fruits, florals, and a sweetness akin to sugarcane.
Hope this has clarifies some of that complexity. And please note that this is not intended to be a complete list. Go exploring and see what Taiwanese oolongs you like best.