As I was having tea in Paris the other day, I thought again about how different types of vessels affect the way that we experience something as complex as tea or wine. We were tasting a couple of teas in the gongfu style: Gilles, of La Maison des Trois Thés, is to tea what an MW is to wine, and besides being a man of impeccable and exacting tastes, he is also a veritable fount of knowledge, making it always a pleasure to stop in here and talk tea with him.
On this occasion he had selected for my companion a lao jin mei, an oolong from Fujian province that was full of delightfully complex aromas of torrefaction and honey, and since I had requested a puer, he very much wanted me to try a 1978 loose-leaf puer sheng cha, which turned out to be absolutely, stunningly gorgeous, one of the greatest puers that I have ever tasted (and they have not been few).
The oolong had been brought out first, and rather than giving us the standard (and perfectly acceptable) type of clay teapot that is normally used here, Gilles allowed us to use the rare and expensive oolong pot that you can see in the photo above, made of an old type of Yixing clay that is no longer available. As he brought out my puer, he noticed me admiring this lovely pot, and graciously went into the back to fetch a suitably similar complement for my tea as well, which is in this photo to the right. (Sorry for the mediocre quality of the iPhone photos.)
High-quality teapots undoubtedly enhance the experience of tea, if you know how to use them properly (it isn’t called gongfu, or “with skill”, for nothing). Not only are they aesthetically pleasing to look at and to touch, but the interaction of the pot and the tea brings an added dimension to the experience, not dissimilar to (but even more critical than) choosing an appropriate glass for a specific type of wine.
What I was thinking about, however, was not teapots but rather teacups. Tea, if you are not accustomed to thinking about it in terms of connoisseurship, is highly similar to wine in its complexity, nuance and expression of terroir. Tea in a bag is like wine in a box; a five-dollar tea is more or less the equivalent quality of a five-dollar wine. The appreciation of fine tea parallels that of fine wine, but one of the ways in which they differ is that tea involves the additional variable of having to prepare it, which requires more expertise from the end user. It also places an increased importance on the vessels that are utilized.
In the Chinese tradition, fine tea is appreciated in two types of cups: the smelling cup, which is tall and narrow, focusing the aromas; and the tasting cup, which is wider, bringing more harmony of flavor on the palate. The two serve these very specific functions, and if you taste the tea from the smelling cup or smell the tea from the tasting cup, the experience is significantly different. This should come as no surprise, as wine also changes its character when experienced in different glasses (and if you don’t think so, then I’m sorry but you’re just wrong, and there is no need for you to read any further).
One major difference between tea and wine, however, is that tea always behaves in this predictable manner. It always smells fuller and more complex in the smelling cup, and always tastes more harmonious and more complete in the tasting cup, no matter what type, what age or what variety of tea it is. Wine, on the other hand, is more erratic in its behavior. Tall and narrow doesn’t always focus the aroma so well—the other night at the Café de la Nouvelle Mairie we drank Emmanuel Lassaigne’s excellent Les Vignes de Montgueux out of narrow flutes, and it wasn’t nearly as aromatically forthcoming on the nose as it is when served in a tulip glass. Yet wide isn’t always the ideal either: I’ve had multiple experiences where a particular German or Austrian riesling smelled finer and more complex in a Riedel Sommelier Rheingau glass (4400/1) than in the more ample Sommelier Riesling Grand Cru glass (4400/15).
Curiously, I’ve noticed that some wines smell better in a particular glass and taste better from a different one, just as it is with tea. In Chinese gongfu tea service, it’s customary to smell the tea from the smelling cup and then pour it into the tasting cup to drink it. Try doing this with wine, though, and you’re likely to raise some eyebrows around the room. I’m not suggesting that you practice this (after all, I don’t), but if you think about it, why couldn’t it make sense? It may be a variable that you choose to ignore, or perhaps you simply wish to avoid the humiliating mockery and condescension that will undoubtedly be rained upon you by your dining companions. But I think that the idea is intriguing nevertheless.