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.