Tuesday, November 5, 2013

comparing tea and wine

Before I was a tea drinker I went through an extended wine drinking phase, long since over now.  Around then I was also into tisanes / herb teas, but that's a different subject.  There are some interesting comparisons between tea and wine. 
Tasting style:

When tasting wine you smell, sip, and slurp the wine, and the same process works with tea.  The slurping aerates both allowing access by sensors associated with smell.  One difference is the use of large glasses for wine for swirling.  There are a variety or cup types used for tea-drinking but the scent seems to come off the warmer tea much better anyway, even a very small cup, and even an empty tea cup can still be filled with aroma after drinking. 
In some types of wine tasting there is an emphasis on blind tasting and identification of type, maker, vineyard location, and year as a measure of advanced palate training.  I was never remotely near that level, and it seemed a bit abstract related to enjoying wine.  For both wine and tea there is a learning and experience curve that just keeps going; generally a good thing.

with wine in the Utah desert; Australian shiraz recommended

Wine and tea rating:

My wine guru once told me that you should take the expert opinions for what they are worth and then go with what works for you, for any subject.  That seemed very open since he is a top-tier wine maker in Napa Valley, surely immersed in conventional opinions and ranking considerations.

The wine industry has developed an easy to follow number system of ranking wines on a scale of 100.  Preference is still as much a consideration when selecting a wine as score since the individual character, strengths, and weaknesses all roll together to a number. 
I’m not familiar with anything nearly as standard in tea evaluation, but then I’m really not familiar with the different types of scoring that are in use.  Even if this could be standardized it wouldn’t mean as much without a central influence to consolidate consensus like the Wine Spectator magazine, and even then rating limitations could offset any benefits.  The paradigm of allowing tasting of teas in a tea shop before buying them is also different, not nearly as practical for wines, so in that context ratings become less important.

Entry to wine / tea:

It seems to me there is a natural entry path to wine, a progression of what someone would normally prefer first, and natural end points for later preferences.  It would make sense to start with an approachable merlot, a relatively tannin-free, sweet and fruity wine, then move on to more complex red zinfandel or syrah to experience other flavor elements.  Later one might explore balanced and layered blends, mixes of wine designed to replicate French styles (Bordeaux, Rhone, and such), and end up liking subtle pinots and bold cabernets, or just keep try different source-region variations.  Wine that might not appeal to a beginner at all, like a complex tannic-structured cabernet, might be a natural later preference, but that depends on individual tastes.

In tea there seems to not really be a natural starting point.  Blended black tea in tea bags and generally inferior oolongs in Chinese restaurants are what many Americans try first.  Green tea is widely available, but more so in less interesting tea bag versions.  Green tea has some degree of natural appeal built into it, related to health claims and general positive image, but to me it doesn’t necessarily seem a natural a place to start based on the taste.  I did get into tea in part through drinking green teas in Japanese restaurants but later Chinese teas fit better. 
Flavored teas or tea blended with something else could be an entry point that bridges from other beverages first.  To me starting on tea by drinking oolong makes sense because of the softer nature of the tea type.  Also mid-grade oolongs can show interesting character and diverse flavors, and there is a lot of room for continuing to try more interesting types, so the next exploration steps follow naturally.

Pu'er wouldn't seem like a normal tea to start on, perhaps better after more exposure, but then maybe to some it could seem closer to coffee (although it really doesn’t to me).  Even though black teas could be familiar from exposure to commercial blended black teas for me better black teas also don’t seem a natural place to start, but then I didn’t drink a lot of black tea before.  The only time was joining my parents for their nightly cup of black tea before bed (from tea bags), which never seemed to hinder sleep. 
In a tea shop in Beijing a sales person mentioned that younger people generally prefer Longjing (green tea) and older people Biluochun.  Her explanation: the flavors in Biluochun are stronger.  A description like “earthier” might have fit better but her general point was clear enough.  It’s an interesting idea that tea preferences could correspond to age, perhaps related mostly to experience, but people’s sensation of taste can change over time apart from that.  I’m between young and old now but I like Longjing better.

Since tea and wine are so different there is a limit to the usefulness of comparing the two, but since people are the common element it’s interesting to me.


  1. There's definitely a lot of parallels. Both of them are derived from plants and contain tannins :)

    I work in wine for my day job and my coworkers insist that I should come up with a number scale for rating teas. That's not really my thing since tea can be so subjective. There are teas I hate that other people are over the moon for.(mostly the flavored sort but to each his own).

  2. It would be interesting to review how the wine assessment scale works and also different tea ratings people have already developed. There must be some way to factor out this sort of subjectivity, at least in theory, for example to do the evaluation within the context of the type and style rather than rating based on it, or just on personal preference. The wine rating scale must somehow try to do this but I never studied it.

    It seems like it would never completely work but it would be possible to use a system to compare examples of similar types. It also seems like good reasons for not doing it could come up.