Judging Terroir

Abstract: In this article, I will talk about how I see terroir. I will begin to show you the complexities of terroir and begin to reveal that terroirs can not simply be marked as good or bad as they are usually somewhere in between.


A friend sent me this picture and asked me if this was a good field. He’s not a tea drinker so I spared him the details by simply saying yes.

Simply put, yes it is. 

Complexly put, yes but not perfect. 

The location, Tang Kou, is in the core region of Huang Shan. This is a higher altitude area with very little pollution. The macro location is very good and better than most other places in Huang Shan, but what about the microregion?

Looking at this picture you can’t help but notice the beautiful scenery. Mountains covered in forest surround this small but patch of tea trees. There is nature uphill of the field which is beneficial as the nutrients will be brought downhill by rainwater via the soil. When it rains the water brings nutrients down the mount through the soil. Interestingly enough, gravity will not only push down water carrying nutrients, but also soil. Thicker soil, clay, is found toward the bottom and it is heavier. Thinner sand made up of smaller particles, sand, is found closer to the top. The water travels more through sand than it does through clay giving better drainage. Speaking of rain water though, that area may get a little muddy.

When it rains water travels downhill through the soil. While this can bring nutrients, they will collect at the bottom. The soil in this valley will have higher water concentrations than if it were on a slope. When a tree struggle for water it produces amino acids to stay alive, these amino acids turn into the flavor. A tree that struggles less can have a less developed flavor. For this field, though it isn’t a huge problem as it too is on a slope and therefore the water will drain from most of it.

Besides the mountains being a source of nutrients, they also block the sun. In Chinese teas as well as Japanese, there has been a long understanding that partial sunlight is best, for many of the same reasons as less water. You see this same benefit in the true cliff of Wuyi. The mountains on either side of this field will partially block the sun.

The simple truth is terrior is complex. Multiple factors come together, some positive some negative. Often the factors can go against each other. Teas that are high mountain might have less shade. The teas that get partial sunlight may be in a gulley with less than ideal soil drainage. What’s important is that we don’t get stuck on a single aspect of terroir.

A few years ago everyone was dropping the term “high mountain”. High Mountain use to be the singular factor that in people’s minds made things good. With all this talk of high mountain, there seemed to be very little discussion of why. Why was high mountain good? High mountain teas have the benefit of cooler nights which prevents overgrowth of the leaves and good drainage. But those are only two factors. This coupled with the fact that the line between normal field and “high mountain” never seemed clear.
It’s almost as if the term high mountain almost meant nothing and was simply a way to sell a tea……

The high mountain is a benefit. She Xian, a popular area in Huang Shan with lots of tea fields, has high mountain fields and low terrain fields, the better tea comes from high mountain fields almost always. But just because it’s high mountain doesn’t mean it's good. I have stood on fields 700 meters up and seen rows upon rows of tea fields. I tasted that tea and it was truly nothing special. That’s because simply being a high mountain is not a defining aspect for terroir. Saying high mountain gives you an idea of what the terroir is probably like; cold evenings and good drainage. But it is not enough to go off of alone.

Another example of oversimplification I see is biodiverse. Common tea knowledge tells us that biodiversity is good for the soil, but how diverse does it need to be for the plants to benefit? I often see photos of rows and rows of fields with the occasional tree, flower, or weeds. Far from truly biodiverse and yet the seller is praising it as so. The mere presence of a few random plants is a far reach from biodiversity.

This field has trees but is it really biodiverse?

After four years in Huang Shan, I will stand in a tea field and spend time trying to figure out if it’s good. Recently I went to Hou Gu and stood in the fields. As I stood there analyzing the fields many aspects of the field came into my head. They were big, but not very too big. There was biodiversity around the outside of the field, but would that affect the soil in the middle? The tea those fields produce is good, really good, so it must be good terroir. Could it be better?

When you look at terroir, don’t just look at it as good or bad. Look at the details of it. The slope, the location, the biodiversity, the size. You can’t know till you taste the tea, but you may conclude that the field isn’t as good as the seller is saying it is.