Wine and Tea: Commonalities Beyond Terroir

mug in car-webI began our family road trip as any tea-lover would do: with a travel mug of a favorite tea that I made before we left.

Farther along on the trip, however, I found a dearth of tea options.

But no worries, right? After all, we were in wine country!

Where—when sampling wines at Dr. Konstantin Frank Winery in the Finger Lakes region of upstate New York—I was reminded of the terrific Georgia teas that were, sigh, back at my home.68beae48-0dad-49a8-a4b4-8050dbd69923.jpegMeanwhile, I learned that rkatsiteli, the world’s oldest grape variety, is native to Georgia, that small country nestled along the Black Sea and once part of the USSR.

And the Georgian saperavi red wine grape was the first variety planted in New York state (and according to Wine Searcher, is currently grown only here; in Victoria, Australia; and in some of the other former USSR countries).img_8351-1.jpgThe deep history and high quality of grapes and wine in Georgia have been seized upon to develop wine tour routes in the eastern part of that country. Building on that base and hoping to develop the fledgling tea industry, promoters are touting tea tours in the western part of Georgia, similar to the successful wine ones.

(See my recent post on Georgia’s tea industry, which once supplied almost all of the USSR’s tea but then collapsed.)

Both Georgia and Turkey border the Black Sea and produce wine as well as tea, but generally there is little overlap in wine grape-growing and tea-growing countries.

However, wine and tea, as sommeliers will tell you, have many similarities, and I’ve written a bit about this in a previous blog that looked at blending.

Tastings, whatever the product, are all about exploration, appreciating nuances and discovering differences, learning what factors culminate in what you’re experiencing.

grape vines
Grape vines at Dr. Konstantin Frank winery overlooking Keuka Lake

Terroir, so vital to fine wines—and whose intricacies are often debated—is just as important to tea.

Although terroir is simply French for earth or soil, its actual definition encompasses vastly more, as this standard dictionary definition attests:

The complete natural environment in which a particular wine is produced, including factors such as the soil, topography, and climate.
  • the characteristic taste and flavor imparted to a wine by the environment in which it is produced.

Musings on the Vine provides this description used by wine tasters—

specificity of place, which has come to include not only the soil in a region, but also the climate, the weather, the aspect of the vineyards and anything else that can possibly differentiate one piece of land from another

—but notes that terroir is only one of three elements, citing the book The Vintner’s Art (1992):

  • Character, which is defined by Terrior.
  • Quality, which is defined by winemaking.
  • Personality, which is defined by weather (not climate).

You can readily substitute “tea making” for “winemaking.”

Like any fine wine, excellent tea will be influenced by:

  • its terroir,
  • the quality of its processing, and
  • how weather impacted the buds and leaves.

As with wine, terroir is critical to produce fine teas. The environment encompasses the region of the world that the plant is grown, along with the amount of sunlight, humidity, temperature, rainfall, soil conditions, and altitude.

For example, tea plants at higher elevations grow more slowly and are exposed to higher UV levels, allowing the leaves to develop a more complex flavor.

Tea country in Japan (photo by Lisa McDonald)

Agricultural practices also affect terroir. Pesticides, for example, destroy helpful organisms in addition to the pests, changing the soil composition; pesticides are also absorbed by the tea plant (which is why you want to buy teas that have been tested for pesticide/heavy metal residue).

Processing of the crop, whether grapes or tea leaves, is also critical.

When you do wine tastings, you are introduced to oak versus stainless steel, with oak’s porosity and characteristics actively changing the wine. And of course multiple other factors affect the wine, including how and when the grapes are harvested, how they are crushed and fermented, how they are aged, if the wine is blended, and how the wine is bottled.

For tea, every step affects quality, including:

  • the season, and even the time of day, when the leaves are harvested (buds for white tea, for instance, are harvested only on dry, sunny days);
  • how the leaves are plucked (machine vs by hand, for example), which leaves are plucked, and plucking expertise;
  • the techniques used and the expertise of the production steps (withering, oxidation, and so on);
  • blending; and
  • how the finished tea is packed, transported, and stored.
Processing harvested tea leaves in Japan (photo by Lisa McDonald)

Besides climate, weather has repercussions for the outcome of both wine and tea. Any extreme (too much/little rain, heat, cold) can stress the plants, or even damage or completely destroy a year’s crop. Ideal weather will maximize flavors. And like any agricultural crop, prices for the final product will vary accordingly.

Of course, just as for wine, the specific variety and quality of the plants also play a major role. There are thousands of varieties of grapes; there are over two thousand subspecies of tea. As the age of the grape vine, along with how it’s pruned, impacts the wine, the age of the tea cultivar (older, slower-growing cultivars produce better flavors) and whether it was a clone or seedling make a difference to the tea.

tea in wine glass-webInterestingly, wine and tea—and chocolate—have something else in common: lots of polyphenols, which have ramifications in medical use and health.

Examples are easy to come by.

One study reported better cognition in elderly people who ingested wine, chocolate, and tea (what’s not to love here?!) while other studies examine the apparently positive effects on diabetes, free radicals, cancer, heart disease, cystic fibrosis, and more.

So whether tea or wine (in moderation of course) —ENJOY!

“The meaning of terroir,” Musings on the Vine.
“Saperavi wine,” Wine Searcher, 12/1/15.


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