Taiwan in Yunnan

Photobucket

Someone recently gave me this box, containing 5 packs of 10g each of a tea that I’ve never heard of before. The tea is called Jibian Wulongcha, which literally means “Extreme border oolong tea”. Jibian, in this case, is a brand name, and if you look at the back of the box, you’ll find that they say the tea is made from qingxin wulong, also sometimes known as ruanzhi wulong (and misspelled as luanze, from what I can tell), but the location of production is Yunnan province of China. These are, in other words, Taiwanese tea trees transplanted in Yunnan. In fact, the little red thing next to the logo tells you it’s from Tengchong gaoshan, not too far from Gaoligongshan and other high mountains of the Southwest. Someone, probably a Taiwanese investor, has obviously got the idea of making Taiwanese oolongs in Yunnan province.

Photobucket

Photobucket

The pictures’ colours are a little off – it’s difficult to get the white balance just right. However, I can tell you that it is almost impossible to distinguish this tea from any run of the mill regular Taiwanese gaoshan oolong. Certainly the leaves are slightly less rolled than the typical Taiwanese oolong these days, but right from the get go, when you open the little pack, you can smell that distinct Taiwanese oolong scent. The tea itself also tastes slightly off – something is a little different, with a bit of a spicy finish, something you don’t normally find in a Taiwanese tea. However, if I wasn’t warned that this tea is not from Taiwan, there’s basically no way I would have guessed that this is tea from Yunnan. It’s not bad, it’s just different.

Photobucket

There has been a lot of talk in recent years about how there are farms in Vietnam, for example, that were started by Taiwanese merchants selling these teas back to Taiwan as gaoshancha. They can be quite authentic tasting, at least initially, and only reveal their true colours upon closer inspection. There’s also Zealong, which is the same thing, basically, but in New Zealand, with a really clean finish and a fairly bright taste, although at a hefty price. What this tea here does is the same, except they’re making it to probably sell to the Mainland China market.

One of the things this tea shows though is that much of what you drink and taste, in terms of scent, mouthfeel, etc, are very easily manipulated and that people who know what they’re doing, with the right technology and skills, can easily replicate a tea that you think is unique to one region. While there are subtle differences that can be distinguished if you pay close attention, if this tea were sold without packaging, in loose form, in a store in Taiwan, I’d be hard pressed to say I can tell that it is not from Taiwan.

This is why it is almost futile to try to identify teas based mostly on scent and taste. So much of it can be fudged that there is actually very little that one can rely on with any type of precision. It is true that it is possible, for example, to try to use those factors to help identify whether or not a tea is from a certain area or not, but when something comes out of left field, such as Yunnan tea trying to imitate Taiwan tea, it is actually quite difficult to tell what it is, and all kinds of clues can lead you astray. When people use teas from other areas to imitate Yiwu, for example, they are also imitating the processing techniques prevalent in the Yiwu region that give the tea there its taste and scent. The same can be said of other locales, and in this day and age, there isn’t a lot that is secret in terms of tea processing techniques, unless it’s a new invention that hasn’t been widely disseminated yet.

Just because a tea is from the right area doesn’t mean it’s going to be better either. There are plenty of terrible Taiwanese oolongs out there, and many good ones too. This Tengchong area tea might still need some work, but Zealong, for example, can beat many Taiwanese oolongs out there, although not necessarily at that price. The point is, it is much more important to chase after good teas than it is to chase after good regions – the former is tangible, real, and get to the point. The latter is just a label. As we all know, never judge a book by its cover.


Comments

Taiwan in Yunnan — 9 Comments

  1. I received this Ji Bian Oolong from my colleagues in Macau who also like this tea very much. The pricing is very competitive and packaging makes it very convenient for gifting purposes. In the case of this ruan zhi oolong, I thought that the differences in origin, climate conditions and soil quality could impact the taste greatly. The aftertaste of this Yunnan Oolong did not last as long as I would have liked it to as compared to its Taiwanese counterpart. Apart from that, I have to agree that the scent, flavour and colour pose a more challenging hurdle for tea drinkers to tell oolongs apart.

  2. I love the “drink what tastes good” attitude. I had no idea Taiwanese teas were being grown in Yunnan, but it’s quite interesting to see the kind of innovation that seems to be occurring more and more. I’m much more open to these kind of experiments than I used to be.

    • Yes, there’s a lot of innovation going on, from white teas in India to, well, Taiwanese oolong in Yunnan. It’s an exciting time.

  3. I don’t think it’s possible to chase after good tea, if you don’t know what the tea region signifies. If you know very well what a good Taiwan gaoshan is like, instead of some Viet fake, it’s possible to make a good judgement about which Viet tea that’s worth buying according to its own standard. The problem is about fakes, and not the chase. If you always can rely on the label to tell you where it’s from, then the makers will focus on emphasizing what a tea does well, like those hawaiian and new zealand oolongs, instead of twisting it to echo some other, more popular region. That’s why the Tengchong tea was good.

    Anyways, again, I think this is advice only experienced tea folks can use, so as to be grounded and not go hareing off to some nu-wundaland of cha. N00bs definitely should chase the labels, and try hard to find genuine products, until they know enough to wander off the rez. Perhaps The Mandarin’s Room might be too expensive, but I suspect that starting off there, no matter how crazy expensive it is, is a better way of paying tuition than buying a bunch of stuff you’ve tried a small sample of, and liked, without broad context of experience.

    • I think your point is well taken – that this is something that more experienced folks can do better. However, I do think it is useful for newcomers to realize that just because something is labeled, say, Taiwan gaoshan oolong doesn’t mean it’s going to be good, or as good as the last one you had. There’s a lot of variation in that stuff, and since appellation control is nonexistent, we really have no way of telling what’s what. Even if you got the right label, it can still be bad tea. I see people asking “I really liked store X’s tea Y, and I see tea Y being sold at store Z. Does anyone know anything about store Z’s tea Y?” We all know that one person’s tea Y can be very different from another store’s. So in some ways, you’re still looking for good tea. Labels can sometimes help you narrow down that search, but my point is not to be blinded by the label.

      At the end of the day, tuition is unavoidable. It’s just a matter of how quickly you educate yourself and thus pay the least amount of tuition possible. I think discarding any blind faith in names and labels is somewhere to start.

  4. Hi, I have been following your post months ago. And believe you’re truly tea-enthusiastic. I work in a teashop located in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. To be honest, differentiate the good or not-proper making tea is somehow not so easy. It takes time to develop and improve our body’s sensitivity in order to detect the quality of the tea. And before that, the entire tea making process, plus a little bit of tea history and the uniqueness of each tea, one must be familiarized with in order to improve our judging skill.

    It is fun to learn as long as the interest is in.

Leave a Reply to Leong Boon Cek Cancel reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.