Terroir of Tea-The Magic of “Place” on Tea’s Growth

The Camellia sinensis or tea plant is grown in dozens of countries around the
world and is processed into 
six main types of tea – black tea, green tea, white
tea, oolong, yellow, and pu-erh.  And even when taking into account the many
different manufacturing styles, why does an oolong tea grown in similar condi-
tions in China, and let’s say, 
Taiwan, which is just a hop, skip, and jump away,
across the narrow Taiwan Strait, taste totally different?
Both countries use similar manufacturing
methods. In fact, today many Taiwanese
residents are actually Chinese immigrants
who learned how to make tea in their native
China.  So, if you were to compare a
tieguanyin oolong from 
China, with a Tai-
wanese tieguanyin, you’d expect them to
taste pretty much the same, right?
Presumably yes, but they don’t and the
reason they don’t is because of their terroir.

Terroir (pronounced terr-WARH) is a French
term that comes from the word

terre (mean-
ing “land”), originally developed by the
French wine industry to describe the impact
that a growing location and type of plant has

on the final flavor of a given food or beverage.  It is now applied to the tea, coffee, and choco-
late industries worldwide.
As it applies to tea, I like to think of terroir as the “magic of
place,” with all the factors coming together to determine tea’s
growth and character.

While there remains major disagreement all around on what
exactly terroir is, there is a general consensus that a good over-
all description is that it’s “those natural elements generally
considered to be beyond the control of humans.”

These natural elements determine the final
product, the flavor, character, the amount of
vital vitamins, minerals, and other healthy
compounds contained in the leaf, and even
the cost of your daily cup of tea.  These fact-
ors of terroir include the following:


Climate – aspects of climate include the temp-
erature and amounts of sun, wind, and rain
affecting teas growth.  The tropical paradise
Sri Lanka is roughly the size of Indiana, yet
it’s the World’s fourth largest tea producer.
With its near perfect climate of sun, wind, and
rain, tea grows abundantly there year round.
Another very different aspect of climate
affects Uva, a

high-grown region in eastern Sri Lanka, that experiences dry Cachan
winds from July to September.  The hot, dry Cachan winds cause the tea bushes to react
as though from draught, closing up their leaves.  This also initiates an internal change
within the cells of the leaves to replace lost moisture.
The teas produced during this period are especially
flavorful and command higher prices, all due to the
unique climate or terrior of Uva.  No where else on earth
will you find the exact set of climactic circumstance.


Topography (Relief) – the topography of a place is the
altitude and degree of slope of a particular location,
determining its exposure to weather, hours of sunlight,
shade, and drainage. In the case of 
Darjeeling tea, its terroir is not only responsible for
the flavor and character, but its high cost as well.
The Himalayan Mountains, home to

India’s Darjeeling tea is
one of the highest altitude tea growing regions in the world.
There the native China tea bush flourishes at elevations
ranging from 1,800 feet in the foothills, to nearly 8,500 feet
at Tiger Hill.
In the higher elevations cool, thin air slows leaf growth and maturation, yielding half that
of leaf grown in lower, more temperate elevations.  Together with steep slopes, some as
much as 60 to 70 degrees, Darjeeling’s topography is directly
responsible for the lower yields and difficulty harvesting tea, and
the resulting high production costs reflected at the register.

Once again we look at Sri Lanka and their unique topography
which is the base from which their tea is grown, determined not
by season or even climate, but rather by elevation with three
distinct tea types:

low-grownmid-grown, and high-grown teas,
with each elevation lending itself to its own unique character and
flavor profile.

Geology – these are the physical properties of the soil and the
rocks from which it’s made.  The make-up of the soil is important, especially in regard to
the amount of water received and drainage abilities.

The Wuyi shan region in China’s northwestern Fujian Province looks like it’s straight out
of a fairy tale with tall, rocky limestone peaks, winding rivers, and lush vegetation, with
steep, winding roads and sheer cliffs.  High atop the limestone peaks the tea bushes are
heavily shaded by clouds and mist, with only a few hours of sunlight each day.
This is home to Wuyi shan “rock teas” or “cliff teas,” so called for the thin layer of soil an-
choring the tea bushes.  The thin rocky soil contains vital minerals and nutrients that give
these teas unique flavor, making them famous for providing vitality and good health to all who drink them.

 Wuyi shan
teas are precious and rare, grown in a 35 to 40 mile area whose terroir can never be duplicated anywhere else in the
There is much more that goes into what terroir is, but looking at the big picture, think of it as the part that “place”
plays in the making and growth of tea.  It is why a green tea from

Japan differs so
much from a 
Chinese green tea, after eliminating all human components, such as
differences in manufacturing, plucking styles, and types of tea grown.
As mentioned earlier, terroir is all those natural elements that go into the tea before it
undergoes any type of human intervention.  It is the rich, red volcanic soil in

the crisp, clean mountain air in 
Nepal, and the hot, dry Cachan winds of Sri Lanka.  It
is the uniqueness of place that goes into growing and producing the most flavorful
teas from all around the world.