Blind Tasting Set #5

Unlike some other blind tasting sets, here, we've already revealed the two categories the taster is comparing between: Minnan (i.e. South Fujianese) and Taiwanese oolongs. Though this can encompass some range of flavors, the taster isn't helped by the shape of the leaves, which are all rolled, nor their color, as we've chosen all lightly oxidised and roasted teas, making this a very nice comparison of regional styles.

Even if one is familiar with oolongs from both areas, tasting the distinctions can be tricky, and these four are very similar in character. Let's take a look at what we're tasting:

Tea #1: Machine-Harvested Ali Shan

  • Origin: Alishan Township, Chiayi County, Taiwan
  • Elevation: 1100–1200 m
  • Cultivar: Qing Xin
  • Harvest Time: Spring 2020

This oolong has been harvested by machine, rather than hand-picking, but is still fairly high-quality, with large, densely rolled leaves and smaller fragments having been sorted out. Quite green in appearance, with even a touch of bitter greens and nuttiness. Both the dry leaves and the infusion exhibit a soft spiciness a bit like cinnamon or rich olive oil that is quite typical of Taiwanese oolongs, though can also be found in Minnan.

Tea #2: Jin Mudan

  • Meaning: 'Golden peony'
  • Origin: Sankengcun, Pinghe County, Zhangzhou City, Fujian Province, China
  • Elevation: 800–1000 m
  • Cultivar: Jin Mudan
  • Harvest Time: 7 April 2021

Though it can be a little tricky to brew ideally, this tea is terribly aromatic, with a distinctive floral scent and a wonderfully buttery mouthfeel and taste. It manages to hit some high notes of tropical fruit, while having a certain weight in the mouth.

Tea #3: Bai Ya Qi Lan

  • Meaning: 'White bud remarkable orchid'
  • Origin: Sankengcun, Pinghe County, Zhangzhou City, Fujian Province, China
  • Elevation: 800–1000 m
  • Cultivar: Baiya Qilan
  • Harvest Time: 11 April 2021

If brewed like the others, the Bai Ya Qi Lan can turn out to be the most intense, with a fair amount of astringency. Most notable here is a soft, oily mouthfeel, but one with a cleaner flavor than the buttery Jin Mudan, with which it shares some of the tropical fruit notes.

Tea #4: Si Ji Chun

  • Meaning: 'Four Seasons [of] Springtime'
  • Origin: Mingjian Township, Nantou County, Taiwan
  • Elevation: 300–400 m
  • Cultivar: Si Ji Chun
  • Harvest Time: November 2020

Si Ji Chun can also go in the direction of tropical fruit, though has something more of banana leaf than banana; like Jin Mudan it can also be buttery, but remains lighter on the palate and balances its oiliness with astringency.

 

Summary:

While these four teas are far from an exhaustive survey of the rich varieties that can be found in their respective regions, they nevertheless begin to illustrate some of the characteristics that typify these oolongs, though finding the difference here is even more challenging than in our Blind Set #3. The similarity of the four perfectly demonstrates the degree of cross-pollination of cultivars and processing methods between these two regions separated only by a narrow channel and the weight of history.

There are some patterns to detect, though, which may stand out more or less depending exactly on the steeping parameters: all share a distinct oily mouthfeel—sometimes more like plant oil, sometimes more buttery—and a mix of spicy, fruity, and floral notes. The Taiwanese oolongs, however, are distinctly thinner in mouthfeel than their Fujianese counterparts, though Qing Xiang Tieguanyin from Fujian can be even thinner. Flavor-wise, the Taiwanese oolongs have likewise gone a thinner, more vegetal route, while in comparison those from Minnan are rounder in their florality and fruitiness.

It's not a huge divide, however, so the best way to start to separate them is by sampling different pairs next to each other. In doing so, #1 and #4 may suddenly stand out as being remarkably similar; the similar notes in #2 and #3 may likewise become apparent. Once having guessed the two sets, the problem becomes assigning them to their respective regions. If this tasting has demonstrated anything, it is that the right choice of teas from each will be more similar than they are different, so sweeping generalizations seem like an increasingly poor idea. Nevertheless, Taiwan is renowned for the high, thin, and refined flavors of its high-mountain oolongs, and #1 and #4 are more in that direction. In the greener Tieguanyins, a certain sourness can also be produced, but these don't generally share the oily mouthfeel, while most other Fujian oolongs (at least so far) seem to be biased toward slightly more roasting, and the rounder flavors of #2 and #3 may suggest that treatment.

But how did you do? Did you find separating the four into two groups easy enough, or tricky? The Taiwanese oolong fanatic (and there may be Fujianese oolong fanatics out there as well) may have found themselves right at home, recognizing familiar faces. On the other hand, we ourselves would probably have difficulty tasting this selection blind, so no need to feel bad if you were totally lost—the point of the tasting is more for discovery than anything else. We hope you enjoyed the tasting process in any case, and that you've gained some sense for the subtle distinctions, as well as the similarities, between these two categories.