Giving a voice and a face to the never named high mountain tea terroirs of Taiwan

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Everyone with an interest in Taiwanese teas has heard of Alishan or Shanlinxi High Mountain teas, to name only these two contiguous tea regions. But what about Meishan, Shibi, or Sancengping? For most, this could possibly be the first time you hear about these tea producing areas. But, on the other hand, if you drink some Alishan or Shanlinxi labelled teas, there is a good chance you’ve experienced drinking teas from these same areas without knowing it! This is often the case and a reality one must face in the nebulous world of Taiwanese tea marketing. But before jumping to conclusions of fraudulent misrepresentation or mischievous distribution practices please read-on as we reveal some of the underlying practices dictated by the local tea market and, ultimately, attempt to define guidelines as to what constitutes a tea terroir that deserves its own distinctive recognition. What better way to do this than to pay a visit and explore the area for a little fact finding mission in the “no-name” mountains of Meishan, Shibi and Sancengping on a beautiful sunny Sunday in early December. As usual, many pictures accompany the words. And for a limited time, a special offer concludes the entry!

Part of the dilemma stated above lies in the geographical situation of the area we are visiting today. Sandwiched between the more widely recognized and developed areas of Shanlinxi to the North-East and Alishan to the South, the lesser known growing areas of Meishan, Shibi Mountain, and Sancengping suffer from the obvious overshadowing of the more widely recognized trademarks. It is a common practice in the local tea trade to consider these areas as subsidiaries to fulfill the demand of the more popular terroirs. In fact, some of the gardens in these new areas have been developed and are owned by growers already established in Alishan or Shanlinxi for exactly that reason. For them, these gardens are simply secondary production facilites meant to feed the mother factories. Scarcity of adequate tea growing land and the rising price of it in the more popular and more developed areas have naturally pushed these entreprising growers to consider alternative areas like the ones we are discussing today.

There is also the obvious commercial reason: buying land in the less reputed Yunlin County, also one of the lesser developed counties of Taiwan, is far cheaper than it is in the tourist crowded Alishan Township, for instance. Tea production costs are also slightly lower. Just enough to make the difference between making or not making money when selling the tea as a full-fledged Alishan or Shanlinxi. Personally, I can live with this situation. Most reputable Alishan or Shanlinxi growers will tell you where their tea originated from. If you insist on getting tea picked from the original terroirs you can get it. But, if your only inclination is to bargain on price, or your behaviour gives no reason for the grower to have any respect for you, you will end-up with the cheaper tea from the neighbouring County, that’s for sure! Where I have big reservations about this very loose definition on origin is when you bring this market dynamic to another level of players: the traders and marketers. This is where less than scrupulous behaviour abound. It is so easy to veer off the highway a few exits before the one for Alishan and climb the mountains towards Shibi instead, buy quality tea at a cheaper price from that area and sell it as an Alishan or Shanlinxi! This practice abounds, and this is by far the major reason why you never get to hear about these areas and never see them promoted or listed in product catalogs, websites, etc.!

The area explored is highlighted in the white square. Sun Moon Lake is in the top right hand corner

The area explored is highlighted in the white square. Sun Moon Lake is in the top right hand corner.

As we drive down on a short section of the highway with masses of tourist buses obviously heading towards Alishan, I couldn’t help but think about the “other” growers: the ones that are trying to make a name for themselves and their area and can’t necessarily command the price of similar tea originating from the more reputed ones. We know a few of these people. One thing that they all seem to have in common is a keen disposition at trying to make their production distinctive and develop other ways to add value to their offering, like never compromising on high quality practices in the garden and in the factory; adopting more environmentally-fiendly growing practices like it is the case with our new Shibi EU complaint High Mountain Oolong; or work with different cultivars; or even make teas other than oolongs. One thing is certain, there is a high level of passion and determination in the growers we know from these lesser-known Townships. One of these families is the one behind our Meishan Cing Xin and Meishan Jin Xuan teas. I can’t count how many times one of the brothers drove down late at night to our house with tea he was in the process of making and wished us to taste and comment on before he would return back (one hour drive) to the factory to continue the process all through the night while tweaking and refining his tea making technique. More than once do I remember having to get out of bed to go and open the door and put on the kettle for him! The results of these late night tastings are noticeable. Their teas have vastly improved since a few seasons and we are very proud to support their efforts!

We were one of the very few cars exiting the highway in Doliou, the Capital of the Township of Yunlin. Most everyone was driving down towards the more popular spots for their Sunday outing. As we started the ascent on route 149 towards Shibi, it was quite obvious that these mountains were less visited. There were less tourist trap places, less loud signage for all sorts of tourist junk and basically more scenery to enjoy… with much less cars and people! The dizzying series of switchback curves that required all our concentration to manoeuvre were no less impressive than the more crowded mountains further south! Climbing higher and higher, it seemed like the road would go right over the summit of the lofty mountain ridge and crest the other side. Finally the interminable twisting ceased, the landscape became gentler, trees began to clothe the hillside on either side of the road and tea gardens appear before us. As we drove along looking for the Shibi Mountain Scenic Area, our destination for a bit of mountain fresh air, it was apparent that tea gardens were more scattered and seemed to be settled on more rolling slopes. They were not clinging to rock faces at vertiginous inclines like in Longfengxia for example. The resulting impression was that tea gardens were more harmoniously integrated into the landscape than elsewhere. Maybe this didn’t provide the same dizzying spectacle than in more popular areas but we certainly didn’t mind the more serene layout. The scenery had that calm pastoral quality that is far more conducive to enjoying a relaxing moment.

Our plan was to visiting the surroundings but we also wished to do so by exploring the “Mt. Shihbi (sic) and Jiananyun Peak Trail” and catch the vistas from above (see pictures below). Not only did we get to witness several breathtaking views of the surrounding tea gardens but we did so while walking through a living cathedral of ancient old-growth forest of giant beech trees, endemic maple and oak trees and a forest of camphor trees. An army of bamboo trees circled the mountain in the 1200 to 1400 m range and seemed to serve as guardians of the giants above. This was not an ordinary sight to behold and quite a humbling experience to walk amidst living creatures of such majestic beauty. Our 12 km trek took us from and altitude of 1200 m up to nearly 1800 m as we walked the crest of the peak and experienced a 360º view of different valleys and peaks.

We came down from the peak trail on the North-east side of the mountain amidst a tea garden on the edge of the Sancengping area and this is where we could only conclude to the distinctive authenticity of this tea growing district. The garden overlooked a beautiful valley with very well maintained tea plantations and what appeared to be similarly well-organized factories (see the banner picture above). To the East, from left to right, the majestic range of the Shanlinxi terroir was clearly distinguishable as it overshadowed the expanse of lower graded mounts that separated us from it. On the far right, the Longfengxia ridge with its gardens and factories perched on the edge of vertiginous couloirs of tea shrubs. Many kilometres separated us from Shanlinxi, but it wasn’t the distance that counted, it was the difference in the terrain, the difference in organization of this terrain and the tea operations, and I will even stand to say that the lower density of the activity amidst surrounding dense forests must play a role in defining the distinctive character of the tea produced here. All culminated to conclude what I already noticed in the cup. This was a distinctive terroir.

In the previous weeks, we had the privilege of tasting several teas from the surroundings and right then we could already attest to a distinctive character that prompted us to investigate tho terroir and witness in person. Even the human factor was distinctive, which we experienced through the genuine character of each of the producers we encountered and through the teas they made. For us, Meishan, Shibi and Sancengping teas all deserve their rightful place and are exceptional contributors to the exceptional family of Taiwanese teas. We pledge to play our humble little role in making them deservedly better known and will continue to roam this beautiful hills for further quality finds in the coming years.

TTC is proud to introduce and propose the following exclusive Lots of high mountain teas from this generous terroir:


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