Friday, August 14, 2009

The Terroir of a Teapot

Tea, like wine, is strongly affected by the type of vessel that it's made in. The two most common materials used for teaware are clay and porcelain, and I often think of the relationship between these two as being similar to that of wood and stainless steel in wine. Clay, like wood, can give a tea a little bit of reinforcement in body and structure, helping to shape the flavors in a particular and positive way. If the clay is too young (if the teapot is not seasoned well enough), it can overly mark the tea with its flavor, but this is not considered desirable, and thankfully it will fade with time. Porcelain, on the other hand, is considered to be a relatively neutral vessel, much as a tank is in winemaking.

The most famous clay teapots, for Chinese tea anyway, come from Yixing, a town in Jiangsu province, northwest of Shanghai. Due to the particular properties of the various clays in this region, Yixing teapots are thought to be the ideal complements to Chinese oolong and pu-erh teas, as well as the most prestigious. If they were oak, they would be the equivalent of French forests such as Tronçais, Allier or Nevers.

But there are other clays, too. I recently purchased a Chaozhou teapot, made in the Chaozhou region on the eastern side of Guangdong province. This area is well-known for a particular type of tea called Dan Cong, which is an oolong that is often made from very old trees, each of which is valued for a distinct and particular character. You could certainly make these teas in a Yixing pot. But the local Chaozhou pots are made from clay that comes from Phoenix Mountain, the same place that most of these teas are grown, and the idea of marrying a pot and a tea from the same terroir is, for me, a fascinating one.


This concept exists in the wine world, too. I think the first time I ever thought about it was at Schloss Gobelsburg in Austria's Kamptal, a little over ten years ago when Michi Moosbrugger had just taken over the property. At the time, he mentioned that he was working with oak barrels, which wasn't all that unusual, but rather than opting for the French and Hungarian barrels that everybody else was using, he wanted to try barrels from the local Manhartsberg forest, just to the north. The wood is just as impacted by terroir as the wine is, he reasoned, and if you're concerned about expression of place and authenticity and individuality, wouldn't it be better to use trees that come from the same soil and that breathe the same air as the vines, rather than using wood from thousands of miles away?

There are similar sentiments here in Champagne today—several producers I know are experimenting with local Champenois wood, made by a local cooper in the village of Cauroy-lès-Hermonville. Some are even going so far as to select specific trees from specific places, with the idea of making Le Mesnil wine in a barrel made from oak grown in Le Mesnil, for example, or Verzy champagne in a barrel from Verzy. Will it be "better"? Who knows. Not necessarily. But I think that the idea is terrifically intriguing.


I'm overjoyed with my Chaozhou teapot, by the way. I've had it for about a week now, and after daily sessions of tea it's getting to the point where it's settling down and becoming complementary in a very harmonious way. It should continue to improve even further as I use it more. Comparing the same tea in the pot and in a porcelain gaiwan (lidded cup), as I'm doing right now with a Yu Lan Xiang from La Maison des Trois Thés, the tea is definitely more complex in aroma and more elegantly shaped on the palate when it's made in the teapot. This is an organoleptic assessment, mind you, not a scientific one—you could point out that the volumes of the two vessels are not the same, nor are the shapes, and this could affect the way the tea behaves as well. If I wanted to get even more left-brainy I would brew the tea in a Yixing clay pot to compare, too. (Actually, you know, I just might do that.) But at some point tea, like wine, is not only about intellectual analysis. Using this pot gives me pleasure in many different ways, and that makes the experience much more meaningful for me.

3 comments:

Jason Witt said...

My compliments to you for some great insight. I now follow nearly 200 tea blogs but I haven't seen anyone with such an excitement leading to true understanding for the terroir of the vessel to match the drink. I'd assume this is a knowledge some people in China have of their tea but it's as of yet not well-known in the West. Thank you for inspiring me with it. --Jason

Steven Knoerr said...

Peter:

I found your link via Jason Witt (who posted above), and I am likewise intrigued.

Imen Shan, who owns Tea Habitat (TeaHabitat.com), is a specialist in Phoenix Mountain Dan Congs-- and hers are spectacular. I've been making mine gaiwan-style, though, and I don't own a Chaozhou teapot or boiling vessel-- a deficit I am looking to correct.

Imen and I discussed recently the fact that tea is 99.99% water, and that because of this, the water quality is paramount in creating a decent cup of tea. For the last 900 years or so, the farmers on Phoenix Mountain have been cultivating tea, steeping it in local water. It stands to reason that water that best approximates the water that nurtured the plant, and for which the teas were designed, would taste best. That's where the Chouzhou clay comes in. By imbuing the water with some of the minerals local to Phoenix Mt., the tea should taste more like it would in its home.

She went on to say that boiling the water over special charcoal in a Chouzhou kettle, the water's flavor is even further improved, because the smoke works its way through the clay of the pot, allowing its flavor to enter the water. And because this was the traditional way the tea was made, these cultivars are best suited for this preparation style.

I urge you to hop over to TeaHabitat.com and Tea-Obsession.blogspot.com (Imen's blog) to find some of her teas, which I am coming to love passionately.

As an aside to a long comment, would you tell me where you found the Chouzhou teapot? Is there an online site to buy them?

I hope you'll write about tea again!

--Steven Knoerr
The 39 Steeps blog

Peter Liem said...

Hello Jason,
Thank you for your comment. Discussing the subject of terroir, in virtually any permutation, is bound to inspire dissenting opinions, particularly in scientifically-oriented societies such as we have in most Western countries. The idea of pairing a local teapot with a tea will resonate with some people, while others will undoubtedly rush to call bullshit. I believe there is something to the idea, largely due to the concept of the clay containing similar elements as the soils that the trees grow on, as Steven points out in his comment, but in the end I also think that my beliefs in this matter are influenced by philosophy and emotion as well as intellect. And I'm okay with that.

Hello Steven,
I bought this pot from Imen, in fact. She received a number of pots at the end of July, and from what she's told me, I gather that she's going to continue stocking them. The potter is Zhang Yan Ming, who apparently is a member of one of the two most famous pottery families in the area. I'm pretty sure she still has some more—I would encourage you to pick one up, although I'll warn you that these are more fragile and a bit more high-maintenance than an average Yixing.

Water is certainly critical to tea, and while it might be my imagination, I feel like Dan Cong is even more susceptible to slight variations in water than other oolongs are. Have you (or you, Jason) found this to be the case? I've been experimenting with water quite a bit lately, and so far, I've been preferring to simply use my local tap water, run through a Brita Maxtra filter. This might make some sense, as Imen says that Dan Cong prefers a water with a high pH—I don't know the exact details of my water, but considering that I live in an area famous for its limestone soils, well.... Another way that I think about it, which isn't very scientific, is that there's a personal, human element involved to tea-making, not only the human element involving those who grew and processed the tea, but also you as the end-user. No doubt the "best" water for any given tea will traditionally be the water from the same area that it's grown in, as you have pointed out. I've never been to the Chaozhou region, although I have drunk tea elsewhere in China with local water. But in the absence of a direct pipeline from Guangdong, I'm secretly happy (and unsurprised) that here at home I prefer the Brita water over various bottled waters and whatnot, as that is the water that I personally drink. Alex Fraser of East Teas in London has this theory that the best water to make tea with is the water that you normally drink every day, and I find that to be a very sensible and realistic sentiment.