Experienced wine writer, columnist, broadcaster, author & journalist.
Tea and wine are twins. Not identical, I agree: wine is made from fruits, while tea is made from leaf. Fruits mean sugar which, fermented, gives you mood-changing alcohol; tea leaf provides, if you like, a purer drink, a limpid infusion, one that leaves your mental processes clear and unaltered. In terms of appeal and function, though, they both match and complement each other perfectly.
DERIVED FROM PLANTS
They both begin with a single plant: Vitis vinifera for wine, and Camellia sinensis for tea. The companionship which each of these precious species has brought to humans over the past few thousand years is unquantifiable; it certainly makes them the two faithful hounds of the plant world. Of course tea and wine can be commodity drinks, made and sold without any distinction of origin. For fine wine and great tea, though, origin is all-important. The same cultivar or variety of each grown in different soils and under different skies produces clearly contrasting teas or wines. And the best of these sensual identities give such pleasure that, once tasted, we are ready to pay many multiples of ‘the commodity price’ for them. Why? For three reasons: complexity, subtlety and beauty.
THE DRINKING EXPERIENCE
The aromas and flavours of fine wine and great tea resist easy summary. One sniff or one sip delivers a mass of sensory information which we instantly respond to, though we often find hard to describe, so we find ourselves returning to the cup or glass to try to tease out an extra nuance, or pick up on an extra layer in what is evidently a complex weave of attraction. Complexity alone is not enough, since that can be achieved by artificial means — the lavish use of oak and acid adjustment in wine, for example, or by the flavouring of teas and tea blends. The hallmark of truly great wines and teas alike is the delivery of complexity in a subtle and beautiful manner, inscribed by nature and origin in the wine or tea, and simply given voice by winemaker or tea farmer.
Food flavours are often much simpler than those of wine and tea (think of lemon, celery or cucumber — or fish and chips), though skilled cooks and chefs can create complexity by cooking and blending different ingredients. Food ingredients on their own, though, rarely offer the complexity, subtlety and beauty of flavour that a great tea or a great wine can do.
This enticing spectrum of aroma and flavour is the reason it instinctively feels right to take time over tea and wine, and why the rituals of serving and appreciating each are often a matter of great significance for us. It’s one reason why we like to share them with friends, too, and take time to talk about them and even write about them.
THE DRINKING OCCASION
Of course we shouldn’t underplay their differences either, since these things are what make them complementary. The mood-changing alcohol in fine wine lends it an emotional lustre unmatched for celebration or special occasions. The absence of alcohol in fine tea, by contrast, makes it a far more amenable and practical drink. One of my greatest daily pleasures is matching tea of a particular origin with different moments of the day — Keemun in the early morning, for example, when its delicate freshness matches the early light; a fine First or Second-Flush Darjeeling at mid-morning, when the senses are at their most acute and the snipped-grass scent of the tea can begin to quicken appetite; a soothing, nourishing Iron Buddha at lunch, so amenable with food yet whose stony flavours add layers of their own; a perfumed oolong after lunch like Phoenix Honey Orchid, with all of the long afternoon to appreciate it; a Tippy Assam or savoury Yunnan tea as evening draws on, stimulating and rousing; and finally the languid smoky notes of a Lapsang Souchong or Bohea tea, or the leathery, countryside complexities of Puerh, as bedtime approaches.
Fine wine may be exquisite, but it can’t be drunk in this kind of companionable way, both day-long and day-in-day-out; you appreciate it most on an occasional basis. Fine tea can elevate any moment, no matter what it is you are doing; fine wine is for moments we have already decided are special. If you’ve truly had enough tea, then it’s probably time for wine; once you’ve had your fill of wine, it’s time for tea. Twins to the last.