Terroir in tea

by Dilhan


The story behind your cup of tea is a fascinating one, for it is infused with art, history and dedication at every stage from hand picking the tender leaves through the ancient and traditional cycle of withering, rolling, fermentating, baking and sifting the tea leaves. And finally there is the art of tasting and selecting the finest. It is here that one of the most compelling aspects of this ancient herb becomes evident.

An array of tea – around 7000 different teas – are tasted each week at Dilmah. Those teas, each different, with a spectrum of colour and taste, changes the week after – in colour, strength and personality. Terroir – the sense of place – is the reason for this wonderful variety.

Tea, like wine, is influenced in taste, flavour and aroma by rainfall, temperature, soil conditions, sunshine, wind and of course the art of the tea maker. That natural alchemy determines the brightness, the subtle character of tea. Tea grown, for example, on our Rilhena Estate, with long periods of sunshine, dry and somewhat warm and moist conditions, exhibit a burgundy brown liquor, a malt, heavy note with black leaf appearance. Tea grown, harvested and produced the same day on our Somerset Estate, around 3,000 feet higher in elevation, would be dramatically different – depending on the time of year, influenced by the chill winds, dry and cool conditions that tea is likely to be extraordinarily light, with greenish, grassy tones in honey golden liquors.


The variety in tea is infinite for tea that is produced in the traditional, orthodox way offers variety that defies description. The terminology of the Tea Taster which attempts to capture this variety has evolved over centuries, with terms for colour, strength, aroma, appearance, of the leaf, liquor and infused leaf. These descriptions variously refer to appearance of the leaf -choppy, grainy, tippy, wiry amongst a multitude of others – and in liquor – brisk, coloury, mellow, astringent, soft amongst others. They reflect also the interrelation between the appearance, aroma and taste of tea for each hints at the nature of the other.

In Chá jīng (茶经), the first monograph on tea, written by Lu Yu in the Tang Dynasty in 760, there is a hint of the indulgent variety in tea; “There are a thousand different appearances of tea leaves.”, writes Lu Yu, “ Some have creases like the leathern boot of a Tartar horseman, curl like the dewlap of a mighty bullock, unfold like the mist rising out a ravine, gleam like a lake touched by a zephyr, and be wet and soft like fine earth newly swept by rain.”

Terroir is a wonderful aspect in tea for it offers an identity, or sense of place which is unique to each estate and sometimes even to a division within a single estate. This means that in journeying through the tea country of Ceylon, one would encounter teas of different personality virtually every 200 – 300 meters along the way on the journey of several hours from Galle to Nuwara Eliya at the peak.

This wonderful variety is what makes tea so indulgent for it offers a tea for every mood, every individual, every occasion. When considered in context of the growing body of scientific evidence that tea offers protective benefits against every chronic disease today, others such as Alzheimers disease, Parkinsons disease and a host of ailments, can there be any doubt that tea is the beverage of the 21st century?

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