More and more, the term terroir is popping up, and with the expected misrepresentations and explanations. One tea vendor even wants to include culture (as in types of clothing worn, languages spoken, traditions, etc.) in the mix. So I thought it was time to see what I could find out. Is it just more confusing lingo about tea, or is terroir the new defining quality that distinguishes the great teas from the good teas from the dust in those teabags at the grocery store? If it is the latter, all the more need for sorting things out a bit.
The Simple Explanation
Terroir is a French word, meaning essentially “soil.” It was originally applied to wines to show how the soil made a difference in the flavors of the wine.
The Evolution of That Simple Explanation
Language is fluid and changes constantly over time. I know this because I have a dictionary (that is practically falling apart by now from extensive use) that has some definitions much different from my new replacement dictionary. Words like “nauseous” that used to mean “inducing a feeling of nausea” but now also means the feeling of nausea, so that you now have to ask someone which they mean or try to discern it from their full sentence. “I am nauseous” is, for example, totally ambiguous. But often words get additional meanings tacked on, which is the case with terroir. People have added environment to the mix – wind, temperature range, rainfall, days of fog/mist, etc. Plus other factors have been thrown in – cultivar, age of the tea plant (tree, bush), how much active cultivation by humans takes place, period of dormancy, degree of slope the plants grow on (I guess this makes since because water will run down so that tea plant further up will be dryer), elevation, and so on. The list seems to grow every day. This is probably due to no exact definition or explanation being accepted throughout the tea industry, just as with other terms like oxidation vs. fermentation.
What’s NOT Part of That Explanation IMHO
All of these extra items are good to know and also good to see people having that interest, but several are outside of the true scope of what terroir is. I especially draw the line at people saying a tea from one country tasting different from the tea from another country is due to their culture and that that is part of terroir. The differences in flavors can be in part due to culture, such as the more seafoodish flavors I have perceived in teas from Japan. But that, I believe, is more to do with how the teas are processed, not how they are grown. And since the term terroir has to do with the growing side of things, we can’t include these cultural things in it. Even some of the growing factors can’t be included. Organic methods is a prime example. Those tea farmers who were already not using factory produced chemicals (as opposed to those that occur naturally and make up everything in the world) would definitely not be doing so because of culture but because of economics. Now, many grow that way due to pressures on them from various groups who get paid for the certification process. But also cultivation methods, harvesting methods, and tea plant/bush/tree age are not part of terroir, even though they are part of growing. Remember that terroir means “soil,” so limiting this term to location, elevation, and environment seems the most sensible solution.
As always, we welcome your comments.