Tea Origins- Wuyi Mountain Part II
On an earlier post, we looked at Wuyi Mountain and the main types of teas that fall under the category of Wuyi ‘Rock Tea’. Other than the cultivar, another important determinant of the characteristic and taste of the tea is where it is grown.
When discussing Wuyi Rock Teas, generally connoisseurs refer only to the area known as ‘zheng yan’ (正岩)- core producing area or directly translated as the main crag or rock- as true Wuyi Rock Tea as only teas grown in these area have the favored ‘yan yun’ (岩韵) or ‘Rock Harmony’.
What does the ‘zheng yan’ area refer to and what is the eastern mumbo-jumbo like ‘yan yun’ all about?
These hard to translate phrases constitute the most important aspects of Wuyi Rock Tea and why they are so beloved by connoisseurs.
Core Producing Area
i) Zheng yan or Core Producing Area
ii) Ban Yan or Non-Core Producing Area
iii) Zhou – The Neighboring Area
In Lu Yu’s seminal writing- Cha Jing or the Classic of Tea he wrote about soil and growing tea:
Translation: ‘The Best (tea) are grown in smashed rocks (granite); followed by gravel; then yellow soil’.
Both the Zheng Yan and part of Ban Yan are what Lu Yu would consider ‘the best’ for harvesting tea.
Zheng Yan- Core Producing Area
The Zheng Yan area is a 72 square kilometer area within Wuyi Mountain. It is further broken down into Ming Yan or ‘Famous Crag’ and ‘others’ with the former referring to the area known as the ‘3 Pits and 2 Gullies’ (三坑两涧) – or Hui Yuan Pit(慧苑坑), Niu Lan Pit(牛栏坑), Da Keng Kou Pit(大坑口) and Liu Xiang Gully(流香涧) and Wu Yuan Gully (悟源涧). The ‘others’ refer to some of the crags within this area but are of lesser repute such as the area known as Ghost Cave.
The Zheng Yan area is of higher altitude compared to its surroundings and has soil that is richer in minerals, giving it is fuller mineral taste. In addition, the surrounding forests are thicker and coupled with the volcanic granite soil gives this area the unique ‘yan yun’.
Ban Yan- Non-Core Producing Area
These areas refer to the lower lying hills such as Qing Shi Yan, Bi Shi Yan where the soil has higher acidity and viscosity. These factors coupled with the lower altitude result in a less ideal tea growing environment compared with the Zheng Yan area and hence the ‘yan yun’ is far less pronounced (if at all present) in teas grown in Ban Yan area compared with the Zheng Yan area.
Zhou- the Neighboring area
Teas grown on the ‘other bank’ of the Nine Bends River would be considered Zhou Cha (洲茶) or the neighboring area. These would then be a notch below the Ban Yan teas in repute and quality.
What’s the deal about Zheng Yan and Yan Yun anyway?
In simplicity, Zheng Yan teas fetch the best prices because only these teas would possess the elusive ‘Yan Yun’. To understand what Yan Yun is, we must first understand what is Yun or harmony.
What is ‘Yun’?
On this site (and mainly Chinese sites) the word ‘Yun’ appears frequently and it is one of the hardest words to translate. Sometimes ‘aura’ is used, others ‘rhyme’ but what I feel is the most accurate is ‘harmony.’
The word yun (韵) is made up of the words ‘yin’ (音) which means sound and ‘jun’ (匀) which means uniform. Hence ‘yun’ has the connotation of uniformity or balance of sounds- which pretty much sound like what harmony would mean.
‘Yun’ of tea would denote a harmony of various elements of the tea- from its unique characteristics of the area it is grown (somewhat similar to the wine term of terroir), the production methods, the brewing to optimize a combination of aroma, taste, finish, aftertaste and texture that is distinctive of that tea.
The most well-known types of ‘yun’ are:
i) ‘Yin Yun’ (音韵)- The Goddess Harmony- refers to Tieguanyin or Iron Goddess
ii) ‘Shan Yun’ (山韵)- The Mountain Harmony- refers to Dancong
iii) ‘Hou Yun’ (喉韵)- Throat Harmony- especially for Taiwanese oolongs
iv) ‘Chen Yun’ (陈韵)- Aged Harmony- refers to Pu-er
And of course the subject matter of this post
v) ‘Yan Yun’ (岩韵)- Rock Harmony- refers to Wuyi ‘Rock Teas’
What is ‘Yan Yun’?
Yan Yun is often referred to as Yangu Huaxiang (岩骨花香) or the Rock Core and Floral Fragrance. At its most basic, Yan Yun has 2 main components- a solid, full-bodied, viscous texture and a floral- usually orchid- fragrance.
Different commentators describe ‘Yan yun’ differently but one of the most useful descriptions (at least for me) is the phrase “收敛性但不至于涩” which is tricky to translate in English since both “收敛” (shou lian) and “涩” are translated as ‘astringent’. Hence a direct (or machine translation) might be ‘astringency without being astringent’ which is more guffaw worthy than anything else.
A more accurate explanation would be that there is a tingling, slightly drying, jolt like sensation that provides a ‘kick’ but it doesn’t degenerate into a tongue numbing, uncomfortable sensation ala what you get when you drink a yellow labeled tea bag without milk or sugar. In other words, there is enough ‘sensation’ to thrill but not enough to cause discomfort.
Therein lays the beauty of harmony- it is about achieving the optimal balance of opposing tensions. Never viewed in isolation but having achieved a combination. What I experienced ‘yan yun’ to be is a combination of these factors:
i) A tingling sensation (as described above)
ii) A viscous full bodied texture
iii) A finish that brings to mind burned rocks
iv) A lingering viscosity on the palate
v) A lingering fragrance on the teeth
vi) A smooth finish and refreshing aftertaste
vii) A lingering orchid fragrance on a cup after the tea is consumed
Perhaps it is one of those things that are better experienced than explained.
I invite you to discover ‘yan yun’ together.