Wine & Tea – by James Norwood Pratt
“WHO CAN CALL TEA BITTER? IT IS SWEET AS (THE HERB) SHEPHERD’S PURSE,” remarked the Sage Confucius in the earliest known instance of critical tea appreciation. Writing some 2,500 years later it seems strange to be using almost the same word for tea that Confucius did. To his countrymen today tea is “cha” and “t’u,” though “t’u,” the ancient-most term for it that Confucius used, is preserved only in China’s Fujian province where it is pronounced “tea.” It was traders from Fujian who sold Europeans tea for the first time.
Their European customers were Dutchmen based in Indonesia and they first carried this exotic product home with them in 1608, along with its Fujian dialect name. Thus “t’u,” the archaic Chinese word used by Confucius became known to almost all Europeans by some variant like tea, te, tee, the, etc. Only the Portuguese and Russians, who managed to obtain their tea directly from the Chinese and not from the Dutch, learned to call it by variants of’cha.”
The Etruscans seem to have done for wine what the Fujianese did for tea. The “W” in wine appears in Hittite in inscriptions dating from circa 1500 BC and in the archaic Greek word “woinos”—which loses its W to become “oinos” in classical times and give us oenology, oenophile, enoteca, etc. “Vinum,” the Etruscan and Latin derivative of “woinos,” retained its ancient W in initial sound (V = W in Latin pronunciation) and passed it on to descendants like vino, vin, wein, and wine.
If the language of wine has a sister in the language of tea, it is not simply because both must describe sensations of taste. Each language unavoidably embodies in the present day the entire past of its subject. In the history of tea in China and vicinity, Buddhism plays the same role Catholic Christianity plays in the history of wine in Europe, and to me this is the most striking parallel between the two stories. Christian monks under grant from Charlemagne were planting the Rhineland’s first Riesling on St. John’s Mount or Johannisberg at the same time that Zen Buddhist monks in Tang dynasty China were pioneering the precursor of Dragon Well tea at Lingyin Temple near Hangzhou. Buddhist influence pervades all tea history in China, and later on in Japan, and that history is only today becoming accessible to Westerners. It is hard for us to realize that China had already known tea for almost 4,000 years by the time the West was introduced to it about 400 years ago. From that point forward the language of tea begins to reflect our own tea history.
“Orange Pekoe,” doubtlessly our best known tea name, dates, to the very first use of tea in Europe, in the 1610s in Holland. Pekoe, like the word “tea,” comes from Fujianese dialect and means “white down,” i.e., cilia that covers a young tea leaf at its most tender stage, but “Orange” defies explanation. I myself have every confidence that proof will one day be found that Holland’s royals of the House of Orange were the first tea drinkers the Dutch East India Company catered to, and that “orange” was appropriated as a kind of royal ^warrant for this expensive imported novelty. Origins aside, Orange Pekoe has long been tea maker’s technical jargon for the largest grade, or size, of black tea leaf and was only rescued from obscurity by the marketing genius of Sir Thomas Lipton, who wanted his customers to believe it was tea of a special type.
The language of tea is English—outside of China and Japan anyway—reflecting Britain’s long dominance of the world tea trade. Much of it derives from the anecdotal and ad hoc talk with which the trade was conducted for over 150 years between Chinese and British merchants on the Canton waterfront. “Gunpowder” is so-called because that’s what some East India Company agent in China thought this green tea looked like, though whether on account of its granular appearance or gray-green complexion I cannot be sure. Tea from the Wu I mountains became famous in England as “Bohea.” The first tea plucked each spring the Chinese considered to be their finest and designated it “yu-tsien” or “before the rains,” which sounded to English ears like the name of a wealthy East India Company director and tea merchant in London, Philip Hyson, esq. A particular green tea is still called Hyson after this otherwise forgettable tycoon. The work of tea and of wine also resides in their languages. For sound historical reasons winemakers speak much French and tea makers speak English.
“Robe,” “bouquet,” and “brix,” for example, have long since entered the international wine vocabulary, just as “tannin” and “fermentation” (terms also common to wine) have long resisted ouster from the tea vocabulary. These terms reflect centuries-worth of misunderstanding of chemistry. Fermentation, which always produces alcohol, does not occur in tea making, and tannin,. like that found in oak bark, is not what gives tea its astringency, yet tea makers, along with their customers, go right on referring to green as “unfermented,” black as “fermented” and oolong as “semi-fermented” tea when the right word to use would be “oxidized.”
Tea language will not be legislated, even if clearly in error and “polyphenol” is meant when “tannin” is used. Other times it is self-explanatory: A “tippy” black tea is one that shows a good deal of tawny-colored tips or unopened leaf buds which indicates fine plucking. Sometimes poetic flashes occur, like “the agony of the leaves” to mean the unfurling of rolled leaf in boiling water, and with India teas, comic relief has become institutionalized in the names given to leaf grades.
As previously mentioned, the largest grade of black leaf is known in the trade as Orange Pekoe or OP. The Indian tea maker is seldom content to leave it at that and routinely adds other initials to lend his teas added distinction. FOP is Flowery Orange Pekoe, GFOP Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe, TGFOP Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe, SFTGFOP Special Fancy Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe, to mention the most common only. (And to any of these the number “1” may be added to denote or suggest yet higher quality!) So-called “broken grades,” I should add, begin with BOP or Broken Orange Pekoe and end with Fannings and Dust.Of wine enthusiasts and (heir cellar books I once wrote, “All they actually have in those scrapbooks are dates and names of drinking companions, collages of raggedy old labels they steamed off bottles, stains and adjectives:
delicate, racy, mild, noble, elegant, fruity, slender, harmonious, angular, unfinished, powerful, developed, dry, bitter, green, pure, earthy, ripe, masculine, soft, obtrusive, liquorous, stony, flattering, full, nutty, nervy, flat, strong, piquant, spicy, steely, characterless, fiery, flinty, blunt, and all sorts of words like that.” How well these descriptives have served wine tasters, either objectively or subjectively, is debatable.
Taste, however, exists in a realm no word has ever entered. Lovers of wine and tea may use the adjectives at their disposal to describe what they taste, but know better than to trust them. Taste, and its sensory base, will always be subjective to some degree. Most words come down to more or less happy misunderstandings, especially when attempting organoleptic descriptions of the subtlest sensations our palates are capable of registering.
Tasting tea attentively is even more demanding than wine tasting. While wine never fails to have flavor of some sort, it can be misleading to speak of a tea as having a taste at all—sometimes it is simply an effect on the palate. In the mouth, tea is the only beverage which can be even subtler than wine. The adjectives I described as popular with wine tasters can also be applied to teas, not surprisingly, given the poverty of our vocabulary for beauty nella bocca.
Wine or tea, we know at once what “weedy” or “fruity” means, and even if seldom applied to wine, “brassy,” “malty,” and “tarry” are readily understood. But for all the overlap, there are terms in tea tasters’ jargon without wine counterparts and the rarest of these may be “winey.” Very few teas improve with age. A black tea which does improve, however, sometimes acquires this indefinable quality tea folks can only call “winey.” They charge more for it too.
There are numerous examples of the shared languages of wine and tea: their innate ability to preserve the origins and history of these drinks, their shortcomings in terms of quantifiable and perceptual expression, as well as aspects of their technical vocabulary that do an inadequate job of conveying niceties of production and product. Perhaps it is enough just to say that as both wine and tea have a language, so are both also parts of a larger language, that of humanity. I do not think that, considered from the standpoint of human culture and happiness, any of man’s agricultural innovations have surpassed wine and tea in significance (when not addressing the need for sustenance), not the least of which is their ability to foster human culture and happiness, and fortify friendships.