Harvest Review: Southwestern China

China’s southwestern region includes Tibet, Yunnan, Guizhou, Sichuan, and Chongqing. The southwestern region is the oldest tea producing region in China and the birthplace of Camellia sinensis. It is also called “the plateau” tea region. The majority of teas are grown at an altitude of 1,500 feet or higher. Many wild tea trees over 1000 years old have been found in the mountains of Yunnan. The large-leaf cultivar is widely grown to produce earthy puer and malty Yunnan black.

In general, southwestern China has witnessed a decrease in tea production in 2016. In late January, the worst cold front in 30 years hit most of the tea producing regions in China, bringing severe frost, icing and heavy rainfall. The cold weather, on the other hand, helped killing pests and bacteria, reducing the pest problems to a certain extent.

The drought in the tea-producing areas of Sichuan province caused production to drop by 10% while tea production in Guizhou province, thanks to the support from the government, will still achieve an increase of tea production. For Yunnan province, the tea production has plummeted by 30% due to low temperature and drought incurred by insufficient rainwater in March. Because I am based in Kunming, Yunnan province, this harvest report will focus on Yunnan.

The first plucking is usually before April 5 (i.e. Qingming, an important solar date in Chinese traditional calendar, marking the first flush of tea in China) and lasts 15 to 20 days towards the end of April. Tea can be plucked again at later dates, however, the teas plucked early when the buds are tender are considered the best (known as Mingqian, i.e. before Qingming). The combination of these two yields constitutes the spring harvest, which accounts for the majority of the annual yield. This year’s adverse weather conditions meant the teas were plucked only once in many areas. I would also like to focus on reviewing big-tree puer from Yiwu region, both because of what it represents and because of its superb quality.

Big-tree puer vs. small-tree puer

The classification of puer terroir can be quite disorienting for buyers, with illogical nomenclature translated from Mandarin Chinese. The big demarcation is big-tree (“dashu”) puer and small-tree (“xiaoshu”) puer. Small-tree is the local name given to “plantation” puer, referring to all trees that have undergone some form of manipulation (such as pruning or selective cultivation) intending for commercial harvest.

Within this category, you have basin-area plantation (“taidi” or “bazi”) tea and high-mountain plantation (“shantou”) tea. Most high-mountain trees are still plantation/bush trees, and within the high-mountain trees category, the most desired are big-tree tea or ancient-tree (“gushu’”) tea (2-5m tall), then old-tree (“laoshu”) tea (wild trees undergo dwarfing procedure), and then high mountain plantation (the majority of organic puer are from this category; planted in tight rows). Big-tree or ancient tree teas are the only type that is not small tree tea.

To summarize a key take-away here: All big-tree puer are high-mountain trees, but not all high-mountain trees are wild or ancient trees. Further, the growing area of big-tree region is only 7% of all tea growing regions in Yunnan.

Simply put, big-tree puer has great quality, but yields small quantity; small-tree puer, on the opposite, compensates the quality for quantity. Although both kinds grow extensively in Yunnan province, the small-tree puer has been severely influenced by this year’s weather condition, for its roots are shallow beneath the ground thus lack of stress resistance.

In an environment of insufficient water and low temperature, new shoots failed to reach their normal growth pattern and become lignified before stretching out, which makes it too hardened to make tea. Their tea leaves look thin, small and taste bitter than those of previous years. Dashu tea, on the contrary, roots deep in the ground with better stress resistance ability and suffer less from environmental impact. The yield is still impacted as it won’t produce enough leaves for several rounds of harvesting. But to a certain degree, the quality of the leaves are further improved, as the gathered nutrients were distributed to fewer shoots, rendering more nutrients in each shoot.

Taster’s tea recommendation

  • Jin’e hong black tea from Mount E’mei

Jin’e hong is very sweet and smooth with a heavy body. You can feel the thickness of the tea and the different layers of taste in your mouth. This is a black tea made with top-quality greens and fine craftsmanship. Tea of this grade can represent the top black tea of Sichuan province. It is softer than black teas from southern Fujian and one of my personal favorites. (by Kentown from Chayu.com)

  • Yunnan old tree black tea from Mangshui of Changning County
    Old tree black tea
    Yunnan old-tree black tea. Photo by Gang Song.

This is an old tree black tea with new processing techniques. The withering is a little heavier than average and the twisting is lighter. The steeped tea is more golden yellowish comparing to the darker red color of traditional Dianhong (Yunnan black tea). The new processing technique resulted in more theaflavins than thearubigins in the tea, hence the color difference. It has a lasting orchid aroma, light and pleasant mouth feel and slight astringency. (by Gang Song)

  • Old Banzhang: strong, heavy-bodied, wakes you up instantly with strong taste.
  • Yiwu: known for its sweetness and smoothness, I prefer the full body of taste where there is a combination of various mouth feel. Puer from specific areas such as Chawangshu, Bohetang and Caoguodi of Yiwu features more layers of taste, Caoguodi in particular has a honey flavor even after many rounds of steeping. Gucaowei puer has the flavor of tropical fruits.

“Puer is an interesting tea. Many people choose puer out of curiosity. I personally do not recommend chasing after new concepts such as old tree or famous mountain puer tea, although famous teas do have a reason to be popular.” (The above teas are from products of Douji and Suiyuezhiwei, recommended by Yan Zhang from chayu.com)

Our taster, Yang Li, offers detailed tasting notes and brewing instruction for Yiwu big-tree puer.

  • “I always drink Pu’er, mostly sheng puer from Bulang and Yiwu. Bulang is stronger and bitterer, whereas Yiwu is softer but after years of aging and transforming, Yiwu is also very good. Brands I like include Hehechang and Fujin. Hehechang uses tea from Bulang as the basis for its blending. Fujin kept its raw material origin secret, its teas are sweeter and less astringent with a delightful sweet aftertaste.” (by Xiaofeng Hang, a veteran puer taster based in Beijing)
  • Puer from Wangonglaozhai Villiage (recommended by Yin Xiang, based in Changsha, Hunan)
  • “I want to recommend Branded tea: Yulin Guchafang. Yulindang’an Class Old Banzhang, and Famous Mountain and Village Four-in-One (with teas from Mansong, Bohetang, Wangong, and Guafengzhai).” (by Xueming Jiang, based in Wuhan, Hubei province)
  • My favorite tea of 2016 is Puer from Jingmai. People talk about how puer get better with age. I like the naturalness of its fragrance and aroma. While the aroma of Jingmai tea is distinct and pleasant, it also smells like a light aroma of flowers. After drinking the bottom of the empty cup also retains honey fragrance. Being in Yunnan, I am fortunate to have tasted my Shantou Puer (puer from specific famous mountains). Tea from Jingmai attracts me with its distinct special sweet aroma that comes from the perfect ecological environment and biodiversity of Jingmai Mountain. (by Sheng Lin from Hongyi Tea Institute)
  • Mengding Huangya is a famous yellow tea which is only harvested in early spring once every year. Comparing to green tea, yellow tea is milder and will not upset your stomach even if you drink a lot or drink it in winter. I usually will buy 5 kilos when the fresh tea is in the market and keep drinking it throughout the year. (by Ling Wang, Huanyue tea art)

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