A Taste of Dayuling, Taiwan’s Highest Tea Gardens
Of all the teas produced in Taiwan, perhaps the most famous are the high mountain green oolongs. These are often differentiated by terroir, with Alishan, Lishan, and Dong Ding available almost everywhere Taiwanese teas are sold. While these may be the most common, there is another locale with a big claim to fame – Dayuling.
Dayuling boasts the highest elevation tea gardens in Taiwan (and a complex history, which I don’t know enough about to discuss here). For tea in general (and high mountain oolongs in particular), elevation is a major selling point – the higher, the better (and more expensive)!
Elevation is a key factor in tea terroir. Typically, high elevations mean cold temperatures, rocky soil, and other factors that force tea plants to grow slowly. Slow growth leads to a higher concentration of minerals and other compounds within the tea leaves in comparison to leaves grown at lower elevations. Practically speaking, a higher concentration of stuff in the leaf produces a thicker liquor, and the leaves can be re-steeped more times than their lower-elevation counterparts.
The effect of elevation on tea is well-known (and hyped). But “terroir” means much more than just elevation – it’s the gestalt environment in which something is grown – soil conditions, farming processes, climate, etc.
This is what I will explore in the following comparison tasting. Using four Dayuling teas, two each from the same garden and season, I hope to taste my way through Dayuling – beyond the elevation hype.
I’ve designed this page (like all of my comparison tastings) so that you can view my tasting notes (represented graphically) and make your own conclusions about which tea is which. There’s nothing better than doing a tasting yourself, but I’d like to think this is the next best thing!
Meet the Teas
These four Dayuling oolongs are sourced by Spiritwood Teas. They are produced by the same grower, yet differ in season and garden location. All four were picked and processed in 2019 and are made from the Qingxin cultivar. They are:
Dayuling Field Fall
Dayuling Forest Fall
Dayuling Field Winter
Dayuling Forest Winter
The “Field” teas are grown in typical Taiwanese tea plantation style, in tended rows located near mile markers 91K and 92K on Highway 8. The “Forest” teas are grown more uniquely, planted inside of a pine grove near mile marker 114K.
The winter teas from both gardens have noticeably longer stems. Garden Fall appears to have the smallest balls of tea, and Forest Winter the largest. Will these fine differences play any role in the taste?
Lastly, I give each tea a good sniff. Unlike in the visual inspection, the differences here seem a bit more obvious. The strength of the aromas given off by the fall teas are stronger than that of the winters. Specifically, the Garden Fall is more fresh sweet hay to the simpler pure sweetness of the winter pick, while the Forest Fall has a full sweetness with a hint of florals. The Forest Winter has a distinctive bright grapefruit/pineapple note.
I’m not confident that I’ll be able to figure out which tea is which just based on this initial inspection of the dry leaf. I’ll have to trust my tongue and hope my assumptions about seasonality in tea don’t steer me wrong!
I’ve designed this page so that you can follow along with the tasting using pictures and graphics to represent aspects of each tea. Some graphics have extra information in a drop down box underneath. You’ll have to trust my judgement when it comes to relaying this information correctly. But even with that caveat, I hope there’s enough information that you can form your own opinion.
The parameters for this tasting were:
– 2.5g of each tea in an identical 100ml porcelain tasting set. The tasting sets were marked on the bottom with the name of the tea, and the tea was placed into the corresponding set. These sets were blindly mixed and filled with water, and then marked with a letter on top. The tea liquor was poured out into a cup marked with the same letter.
– each tea steeped for six minutes with 98C reverse osmosis water with pink rock salt added.
The test is to match the four teas by garden and season. Can you determine which is which via the tasting note hints below? (Can I?!) My guesses and the actual answers are in a couple of drop down boxes near the bottom of this page.
Spoiler alert! Don’t click the buttons below until you have finalized your guesses about which tea is which.
D: Field Winter. The astringency and strength of the sour flavor are similar to C. The thicker body of this tea leads me to guess it’s a winter pick.
While I didn’t correctly match ANY of the teas, I did at least manage to pair them up by garden and season (just to the wrong garden/season). Regardless, let’s take a look at some of the similarities and differences between these four teas.
Based on this tasting, there’s a definite milky note common to all the teas that could be typical of the Dayuling terroir broadly speaking, and a corresponding rich, creamy texture that is likely the hallmark of the high altitude.
Getting more specific, there are a few characteristics that seem to differentiate the gardens: a stronger sour note in the aftertaste, and the presence of a slight astringency. (Both of these occurring in the forest teas.) It could make sense to think that this is due to the difference in garden terroir, though I can’t completely rule out slight differences in processing as the cause.
The distinctions between seasons is less obvious, and contrary to my typical assumptions (i.e. that winter oolongs have a richer texture, and fall teas have stronger aromas). Perhaps a closer look at the tea leaves is in order.
Sometimes a single leaf tells the whole story; sometimes it’s better to look at the leaves as a whole. Here there’s a few pertinent observations from both approaches.
First, the leaves as a whole. There are two visual differences between the seasons immediately evident to me: 1) the fall teas are more crinkled than the winter teas, and 2) the winter teas contain more stem material. While I’m unsure of the impact of the extra stem material, the extra wrinkly fall leaves are typical, and something I’ve observed in similar oolongs before. Fall leaves tend to be more stiff to the touch than either winter or spring leaves, and the wrinkles are a sign of this lack of elasticity.
Moving onto a representative single pick from each tea, I can make a few different observations: First, the Garden Fall tea is slightly more oxidized than the other three. The evidence for this is the bit of reddening around the edges of the leaves. My guess is that this is responsible for the thicker body and creamier texture of this tea compared to the others. Second, the Garden Winter tea has cracking around the leaf edges, a telltale sign of a winter tea. Interestingly the Forest Winter tea shows this to a much lesser extent, perhaps pointing to a difference in processing (winter leaves tend to be brittle and crack during the rolling phase of production). A final observation (for which I don’t have a good explanation) – the stems of the forest teas are generally much thicker than of the garden.