The War on Terroir

“Terroir” is not only a French loan word; it’s also a term that has come to the tea world via the world of the wine enthusiast.

Since I have often expressed both my contempt for every wine enthusiast since the thirteenth century and the fact that the last person to do something useful in France probably answered to a Roman Emperor, it’s no surprise that at some point I would have a go at “terroir”.

Firstly, what is it? There are various translations such as “a sense of place” or just “land” but the idea is that different soils and climactic conditions impart characteristics to a wine, coffee, cocoa bean or tea.

Or so I thought. According to Wikipedia, here’s the latest twist:

“The definition of terroir can be expanded to include elements that are controlled or influenced by humans. This can include the decision of which grape variety to plant, though whether or not that grape variety will produce quality wine is an innate element of terroir that may be beyond human influence. Some grape varieties thrive better in certain areas than in others. The wine-making decision of using wild or ambient yeast in fermentation instead of cultured or laboratory produced yeast can be a reflection of terroir. The use of oak is a controversial element since some will advocate that its use is beneficial in bringing out the natural terroir characteristics while others will argue that its use can mask the influences of the terroir.”

“Human Controlled elements?” So if I decide to add arsenic to a wine, coffee or tea, then that’s part of terroir?

Incidentally, the concept itself is not French but  stretches back to Ancient Greece.. Like croissants, they simply took something invented elsewhere, gave it a French name and have been taking the credit ever since. Mon Dieu!

Lat’s take a moment to suggest that terroir does not exist. It’s a myth.

Now before all those beardy tea hipsters out there start pulling on their over-sized shirts and start mounting their high horses, please note I said “suggest” .

So, lets work backwards.

Over 90% of the tea served in the Western world is bagged. And by the time it’s machine picked, mistreated, mashed, mixed, masticated, man-handled and machine-forced into bags, it tastes of not much. Then it’s packed, warehoused, shipped around the globe; none of which happens under controlled conditions. By the time it arrives in the cup of the those whose standards are low enough to accept such crap, then the contribution of terroir is roughly as relevant as the effect bestowed by the name of the plantation owner’s cat.

So, if 90% of the tea you are likely to see has no terroir-inferred benefit – and I’d make the same argument with cheap blended wines and instant coffee – then when does it have an effect?

Let’s take good quality flavoured blends. A nice Earl Grey. Will the terroir of the tea come through, or how about the terroir of the bergamot used for the oil? Lovely cornflowers and lavender make an excellent visual and taste addition to some teas, but do their soaked up rain, sun and soil goodness outshine the tea’s version?

I think we can call terroir as having little or no benefit in good, loose leaf flavoured blends.

That leaves two categories – single origins, and good quality blends. Assuming the latter to be made from the former; and also with the certain knowledge that such teas vary from year to year, then how much is terroir and how much is picking decisions, processing, wilting and the like? How much is conferred by storage and shipping? If tea can accept a scent from jasmine blossoms, then surely it can accept one from 50 teaworkers having a cigarette break or the petrochemical plant next door?

Or under the model outlined by Wikipedia, is it all terroir anyway? Accidentally locked a flatulent mongoose in a shipping container with your first flush? Ahhh, the unique terroir.

So to extend that theory, is blending now to be considered another part of terror? A “Human Controlled Element”. As in: “The teamaster achieves the astonishing terroir of this tea, which has an astonishing aftertaste of  keemun, dragonwell and bagel chips, due to the human controlled element of putting keemun, dragonwell and bagel chips in a sack and astonishingly swirling it above his head. The direction, speed and duration of the swirling are a closely guarded secret passed down over the millennia”.

There’s no denying a basic terroir. Darjeeling is different to Ceylon tea. Assam and Keemun are not the same. It’s the same with coffee: Sumatran or New Guinea coffee has a revolting, dirty taste not found in Guatemalan Maragogype. And probably wine. I’d don’t drink it, but I’m sure all those ageing nuclear reactors in France impart a special sparkle that the verdant fields that produce the grapes for our Australian ‘Sparkling Wine” can’t match.

But really, is terroir even 5% of the taste of a hand-picked single origin by the time it gets to your cup? Or does regional variance in processing and storage make a bigger difference?

There’s a wonderful high-end chocolate company called Haighs in my hometown. They only sell through their own stores. They deliver via refrigerated trucks. Once processing commences, the product is held at a specified, constant temperature until they deliver it into the customer’s hands.

The production manager lamented in a conversation I was part of the that’s where the control ends.

So what he was saying translates to this: if you buy it, gift wrap it and then sit it on the parcel shelf of your car during the three hour ride to Aunt Judy’s Birthday Bash as part of your plan to worm your way into the old spinster’s will, then the resultant sticky mess your $150 gift has turned into will put a smile on no-one’s face except your scheming cousins who have turned up with a Tiffany choker. And the old dear is unlikely to stick her silver spoon into the resultant mush and,  lick,and  pronounce ” Ahhh, the sweet taste of my favourite hill, four hours from Panama City”.

Sounds silly when put like that, doesn’t it?

So, I’m not a terroir-denier. But let’s not get too excited about it. Unless you drink your tea with nothing in it but filtered, demineralised water, without milk or sugar, terroir is irrelevant.

If you dunk a biscuit or scoff a scone, chomp on chocolate or nibble at cake with your tea, terroir is probably long gone.

So, if you want to experience true terroir, you could drink your tea in a carefully controlled environment.

But where’s the fun in that?

10 thoughts on “The War on Terroir

  1. I’m going to call bulls**t on the Wiki definition of “terroir”. The problem with the Almighty Wiki is that it is subject to change by an Internet consensus – i.e. monkeys. I will buy that the land in which something is grown does affect flavor.

    Case in point: I’m a Syrah fan. But the same varietal is also grown in Australia, but given a new name – “Shiraz”. Both taste remarkably different.

    Same can be said with tea. A Bai Hao from Taiwan tastes different than one from Fujian province China. A Muzha Ti Guan Yin differs from a regular Ti Guan Yin. Soil does play a part.

    But the manmade part of “terroir”…ugh…that’s just malarky.

  2. Wikipedia’s definition of terroir sucks. Let me preface this with “My palate isn’t all that great at deciphering subtle flavor changes”. Even in the best of conditions I don’t know that I would be much help. I do suspect that if you were trying single estate teas, at the estate then you might be able to decipher what the terroir has provided. For example, lower altitude tea would vastly differ from higher elevation grown teas.

  3. Terroir comes from Latin and in the beginning meant territory, nothing more, nothing less.

    You are right that even since people began drinking wine, they preferred wines from certain locations over other from other locations but not because of what we modern people think but mostly because they had more alcohol, more sugar or were prepared in a different way.

    However, I think you (or Wikipedia) are missing a point in your definition of terroir as when applied to wine or tea or coffee or … “it designates the human recognition of locale and so indicates both what make a wine from one place taste unlike a wine from another place, and what helps that first wine taste like itself.”
    This means it tastes like no other and is quite recognisable.

    True, for most bagged teas, it doesn’t matter like for most flavoured teas.
    But for the others, it does and more than 5% since it is what gives to these teas most of their uniqueness (for me the 5% are the accidental pollutions you described so well). Otherwise, all green teas would taste alike but you know they don’t.

  4. I love this interpretation on the useful/less-ness of terroir given the conditions of consumption.

    Well said Devotea!

  5. Perhaps if you drank more types of single origin quality tea you might know the impact of terroir.

    Learning is a lifelong affair, never too late to start!

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