Good teas do taste as sophisticated and complex as any fine beverages, including wine. Once, after slurping, swooshing, and swallowing a tea with as much contemplation as I could muster, I wrote on a sheet of index card:

“Smoke and wood take the back seat, while fruit, floral, forest floor, and a citrus-like aroma say ‘Hello, we’re here!’ The fruity nose and taste is that of apricot. Tannin is present, yet it is not pucker-y.”

Another day with another tea, I scribbled:

“It’s well rounded, soft and smooth in the mouth with a complex taste of various tropical fruits and of something subtly sweet.”

Those were my partial tasting notes for a vintage 2003 Spring Buds Pu’er tea and a vintage 2005 Oriental Beauty Oolong (summer harvest), respectively. Perhaps if I had not mentioned that the notes are on tea, some would have guessed that they are about wine.

Several common sensory characteristics to look for in tea and wine are: color, clarity (the clearer, in most cases, the better), smell / taste, mouthfeel, body, tannins, acidity, smoothness, and finish. They say that great wines’ finish lasts; so does great teas’.

There are of course characteristics of tea that are not found in wine, and vice versa. For example, oak is a taste often found in a glass of wine, while camphor wood is a common character in some raw Pu’er tea. Other terms I occasionally use to describe highly roasted oolong tea are “burnt wood” and “smokey”, but they very rarely, if ever, found in the taste of wine (some wines can and do smell like “bacon fat” and “smoked meat”, however).

Perhaps the most beguiling and elusive lexicon employed in describing a tea’s taste is cha qi (茶气 : literally means the energy or life force of the tea). Cha qi may or may not be directly detected by our olfactory and gustatory senses, yet it is an important factor to note when tasting and evaluating a Chinese tea. Generally, a strong cha qi can give a whoosh of energy throughout a drinker’s body and cause him or her to lightly perspire after sipping down a few thimble-sized cups. Many Chinese tea enthusiasts agree that cha qi is a term that encompasses beyond the effect of the tea’s caffeine on our body.

More on the subject of cha qi next time…