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Jefford on Monday: Dragon Well Meets DRC

Over the last three years, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about tea with the wine producers I have met on my travels. Yes, it's a personal enthusiasm of mine, but that wasn’t the principal reason for raising the subject. So what was?

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Image: Great Red Robe Tea Terrace

Over the last three years, I’ve spent a lot of time talking about tea with the wine producers I have met on my travels.  Yes, it’s a personal enthusiasm of mine, but that wasn’t the principal reason for raising the subject. So what was?

Many of them, naturally enough, have been travelling to China, trying to find importers there, and looking for a foothold in its promising but complex wine market. Tea has no direct influence in creating durable relationships with Chinese importers, of course, though you may have to drink quite a lot of it en route to sealing them.  

By contrast, when it comes to explaining a little about what makes your wine special, every wine producer would be well advised to take a crash course in Chinese tea culture. I suspect there is no better way to explain fine wine to Chinese consumers than via the analogy of fine tea. The fit is perfect. Indeed the existence and subtlety of that tea culture is one reason why I’m deeply optimistic about the prospects for wine in China.

The world’s greatest wines are the product of well-adapted grape varieties grown in distinguished sites or terroirs, and made by restrained techniques which allow their innate qualities to emerge with maximum force. That’s exactly how the greatest Chinese teas come into being, too.

Take the magnificent Long Jing (Dragon Well) tea from Hangzhou in Zhejiang Province. Long Jing green tea can be made in many places, but the greatest Long Jing comes the Long Jing 43 cultivar grown on slopes and hillocks near Hangzhou’s West Lake, and prepared after careful withering by hand wok firing.  

The soapy-mineral Tieguanyin (Iron Goddess of Mercy) is another popular tea style (it’s an oolong this time, and Tieguanyin is also the name of the cultivar), but the greatest has a terroir origin – from the warm, misty mountain benches of Anxi county in Fujian Province.

No visitor to Wuyi Mountain, also in Fujian, will ever forget the stillness and lofty Taoist perspectives of the landscape. I’ve never visited anywhere which evoked Côte Rôtie, the Douro or the Mosel more accurately than Wuyi’s often tiny, sandstone-soiled terraces – where the original Da Hong Pao (Great Red Robe) oolong comes into being.

There are even tea analogies for the maturation of great vintages of wine over time. Carefully aged cakes of ‘Red Seal’ Pu-Erh tea from the 1950s or 1960s (made from the Da Yeh cultivar, grown in Yunnan Province’s Yi Wu region) sell for the equivalent of many thousands of dollars or euros today. (You can find out more about the analogies between tea and wine here.

In Burgundy, at any rate, they now understand this: the first week of November saw an official delegation from Wuyishan (Wuyi Mountain) visit Burgundy, with a series of tastings and debates organised by Jean-Pierre Renard of the Ecole du Vin de Bourgogne; indeed Burgundy itself is planning to set up a wine-tasting school in Wuyi eventually. Exploring the cultural affinities between the two will be fascinating and fruitful.  

There was a campaigning edge to the visit, too. Wuyi has already been classified as one of the 936 Unesco World Heritage sites – and that’s something which Burgundy is strenuously attempting to win for itself at present. I wish this amply merited application a fair wind.

I hope, though, that the exchange was two-way. I’ve always found the lack of any kind of official protection for China’s greatest tea styles disturbing. Protected Geographical Status for Hangzhou’s Long Jing, for Anxi’s Tienguanyin and for Wuyi’s Da Hong Pao, as well as for some of the other '10,000 teas' which China claims, would be an excellent idea.    

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com