The quality of a tea is determined by three primary factors: the cultivar or the specific type of tea plant, the processing steps used, and the terroir, a French term used to describe the different aspects of the environment from which it was grown. With Taiwan oolong teas it is just one aspect of terroir that garners lots of attention: The elevation at which the tea was grown. The highest grown teas are labeled goa shan cha or high mountain tea with a growing elevation of over 1000 masl. Taiwan has more mountains that produce high mountain oolongs than any other place in the world. Tea aficionados know these mountains by name as each one creates different flavors, distinctive aromas and richly textured cups that result from the slow growth of the tea in such thin atmosphere.
At low altitudes tea plants grow rapidly and can often be harvested at least four times a year. Taiwan high mountain oolongs are more typically harvested only two or three times year and, if the volatile weather at these altitudes doesn’t cooperate, maybe only once.
This winter I selected a high mountain tea from Li Shan, or Pear Mountain, located in Nantou County near the center of Taiwan. The weather was unusually warm and dry throughout most of Taiwan which delayed the harvest by a week or two, pushing it back from early November to late November. Despite delays the garden located near Cui Nuan Township at an elevation of roughly 1900-2000 masl managed to still produce a fine crop of winter tea
Like the majority of high mountain oolongs, Winter Li Shan was made with the qingxin cultivar which thrives at higher elevations, translating into a thick, almost creamy first infusion with notes of pine and wildflower. Subsequent infusions reveal more tropical fruit flavors such as pineapple, papaya and passion fruit while leaving the palate with a lingering floral note.