Gaoshan cha (high-mountain oolong tea) is primarily what has put Taiwan on the global tea map and stamped it as a premier region of fine quality and unique specialty teas.  Although there are other classic and renowned teas grown in Taiwan – the three most notable being Dong Fang Mei Ren (Oriental Beauty), Baozhong (Paochong), and Taiwan’s unique brand of Tieguanyin – the high-mountain oolong teas have identified Taiwanese tea farmers and researchers as the skillful, expert, and progressive tea connoisseurs they indeed are.  The pedigree of oolong tea comes from its original roots in the Wu Yi Mountains of China, but the Taiwanese have developed it into a new refined form of oolong that is beginning to take on a life of its own.  The high-mountain oolong tea experts have, over the years, taken advantage of the unique growing and climatic conditions of the high-mountain regions in central Taiwan to develop new varietals of the camellia sinensis plant, resulting in an oolong tea with new dimensions.  Tea plants thrive in the lush green fertile regions in the central highlands, where mineral-rich ocean mist from the surrounding seas mingles with dense mountain fog to infuse the leaves with the unique qualities of Taiwan’s oolong teas.

The high-mountain oolong tea varietals were developed from two original Chinese oolongs – Ching Xin (Tender Heart) oolong and Da Yeh (Big Leaf) oolong – along with some local strains.  From the best strains of these varietals, tea experts cross bred and developed what has come to be known as the “Three Daughters of Taiwan” – namely Jin Xuan (Golden Lily), Tsui Yu (Kingfisher Jade), and Se Ji (Four Seasons).  These three tea varietals, along with the original Ching Xin, are the four main kinds of camellia sinensis tea plants grown the high mountains of Taiwan to produce gaoshan cha.

Taiwan tea plantationTraditional Chinese oolongs tend to display a more mature, earthy character and a smoky, woody taste, whereas the biggest difference with the beautiful “Three Daughters of Taiwan” is their fresh young flavor, rich floral fragrance, and brisk fruity tang.  They are lightly oxidized, hand rolled, and delicately fired in order to bring out the amazingly complex and subtle flavors and aromas that are naturally enhanced by the high-altitude climatic growing conditions.  Ching Xin (Tender Heart) oolong, which has also been developed with a focus on these qualities, is characterized by its refreshing young flavor, green leafy aroma, and light yellow-green color.  It’s called “Tender Heart” because the leaves come only from the first pluck, when they are still tender and the heart of each leaf cluster is still in bud.

Taiwan also has a more heavily oxidized, traditionally processed oolong from the Dong Ding mountain region, which is also a very popular and sought-after tea.

li shan oolongTaiwan’s high-mountain teas are usually named after their location rather than their varietal name.  High-mountain oolong is the general name given to any teas grown 1,000 m (3,280 feet) above sea level.  They are usually harvested only twice a year – in spring and winter.  High-quality gaoshan cha can be infused five or more times and each infusion can yield different nuances in flavor and aroma.

Here are some of the most famous high-mountain oolongs:

  • Wuling Farm – grown between 2,650 – 2,700 m (8,700 – 9,000 feet) – this small farm in the Thaizhong County highlands tends to produce the finest, plumpest, and most coveted tea plants in the world
  • Fushoushan – grown over 2,600 m (8,500 feet) – Fushoushan Mountain (between Hehuan Mountain and Snow Mountain, central Taiwan)
  • Dayuling – grown at 2,565 m (8,400 feet) – Hehuan Mountain, intersecting Nantou, Taizhong, and Hualian Counties
  • Li Shan – grown between 2300 – 2600 m (7,500 – 8,500 feet) – Lishan (Pear) Mountain
  • Shanlinxi – grown at 1,850 m (6,000 feet) – one of Taiwan’s most popular high-mountain oolongs grown at Nantou Pine and Gingko forest elevation
  • Alishan – grown between 1,200 – 1,600 m (4,000 – 5,250 feet) – Alishan mountain region