Master Xu’s Set of Five Rou Gui 2016
Spread over just 70 square kilometres of land, the 36 peaks, and 99 cliffs of the Zhengyan 正岩 (true cliff) area of Wuyi are one of the most interesting examples of terroir in the tea world. Although many teas can be designated 'Wuyi yancha' (the government officially defines the area for Wuyi tea production as over 2500 square kilometres), only the teas grown here and in the outer Banyan 半岩 (half cliff) region are considered to have the true yanyun 岩韵 (rock rhyme) taste that is a signature for all great Wuyi oolongs. The unique characteristics of Wuyi oolongs are primarily down to the high mineral content (particularly of potassium and manganese) of the volcanic soil, as well as the high humidity and numerous peaks which cause many of the tea growing areas to be shrouded in mist and shade, leading to slow, concentrated growth.
The singular geography of the Zhengyan area means that even within this small space, the quality of tea can change dramatically depending on the exact cliff or valley and its growing conditions. Many families in Wuyi, including Master Xu's, have small pockets of land in various areas within the park rather than one large patch of land. Therefore, last year we asked Master Xu to send us five teas from five famous areas within the park where he grows tea to compare them to each other. To keep the cultivar constant he chose Rou Gui 肉桂 (cassia/cinnamon) which is now, along with Shui Xian, the most common Wuyi cultivar and famed for its fruity, aromatic properties.
The teas Master Xu has chosen are from the following areas: Dao Shui Keng, Niu Lan Keng, Jiu Long Ke, Ma Tou Yan & Tian Xin Yan. Although they are all Zhengyan Rou Gui, each one is distinctive and a reflection of its unique growing conditions, as well as the roasting that Master Xu has chosen to apply to bring out their best qualities. For lovers of yancha, or for those interested in how small changes in terroir can change tea, we hope that this boxset proves an interesting educational experience.
To read more about the history and geography of each cliff, please click below.
Dao Shui Keng 倒水坑
One of the San Keng Liang Jian ‘Three Pits, Two Gullies’, a 7.5km stretch that is considered to be the best and most historically significant area for yancha: an even more exclusive inner concentric circle within the circles that make up the Zhengyan and Banyan boundaries. The San Keng are made up of Dao Shui Keng (Pouring Water Pen), Niu Lan Keng (Cow Pen Pit) and Hui Yan Keng (Wise Garden Pit), the latter of which is the most famous area for the Tie Luo Han cultivar. The Liang Jian are Wu Yuan Jian (Enlightenment Source Gully) and Liu Xiang Jian (Flowing Fragrance Gully). Rou Gui from San Keng Liang Jiang can command 5-10 times the price of teas from less famous cliffs in the park, and the mixture of humidity, mist and low sunlight in the area, as well as the gravel rich soil, all contribute to its high quality. There is a school of thought, promoted by tea scholars such as Zhang Tianfu, that Dao Shui Keng historically was counted as a part of Liu Xiang Jian and that the third pit is actually the nearby Da Keng Kou.
Niu Lan Keng 牛栏坑
Another of the San Keng Liang Jian, ‘Cow Pit Pen’ is probably the most famous cliff in Wuyi for Rou Gui. In recent years Niu Lan Keng Rou Gui has built up a huge reputation in China and is colloquially termed ‘Niu Rou’ meaning ‘beef’, a pun on the characters that make up its name, and as demand has increased the tea is sometimes even further sub-divided into beef categories depending on where on the peak it is from; such as ‘Niu Wei’ (oxtail), ‘Niu Shou’ (cow head) and ‘Niu Du’ (beef tripe). Outside of the auction for mother tree Da Hong Pao, Niu Lan Keng Rou Gui has consistently commanded the highest contemporary yancha prices with some of last year’s very best tea sold for as much as £2000 for 100g. However, with just 50 acres split between 10 families, production of Rou Gui from Niu Lan Keng is extremely limited, and it is said that as much as 80% of Niu Rou on the market is counterfeit. Compared to Rou Gui from other regions Niu Rou is often said to be more subtle but has the truest essence of rock character.
Jiu Long Ke 九龙窠
The legendary ‘Nine Dragon Nest’, Jiu Long Ke is most well known for being the cliff that houses the Da Hong Pao mother trees and Da Hong Pao scenic area, one of the many sites that bring in over a million tourists to Wuyi every year. Standing at 326m, just south of the San Keng Liang Jian, it is sometimes grouped together with it along with Zhu Ke (Bamboo Nest) as the major historic area for yancha. Supposedly named after the nine dragon shape of the gorge, Jiu Long Ke is especially famous for Qi Dan because of the proximity to the Da Hong Pao trees, but its Rou Gui has built up enough of a reputation have its own nickname: ‘Long Rou’, meaning ‘dragon meat’.
Ma Tou Yan 马头岩
Literally meaning ‘Horse Head Rock’ this is the second most famous cliff for Rou Gui outside Niu Lan Keng. Rou Gui from this area is often called ‘Ma Rou’ meaning ‘horse meat’. Just south of Jiu Long Ke, Ma Tou Yan Rou Gui gained its reputation in the 1970s when the government subsidised the planting of Rou Gui bushes due to the higher yields, unfortunately meaning that many older bushes were cut down. Named after the shape of the rock, Ma Tou Yan is made up of three main peaks and all are said to have a micro-terroir of their own based on the type of rock, thickness of the soil and the amount of vegetation. Rou Gui from Ma Tou Yan is said by connoisseurs to have a very intense aroma but a more mellow taste; some yancha makers have said that Ma Tou Yan Rou Gui roasting can be particularly painstaking to ensure that the taste is preserved well.
Tian Xin Yan 天心岩
Just east of Jiu Long Ke, Tian Xin Yan (Heaven Heart Rock) is one of the major tea producing cliffs in Wuyi outside the San Keng Liang Jian. Tian Xin Yan is intertwined with the history of Wuyi oolong and Da Hong Pao as it was supposedly monks from the temple on Tian Xin that made the tea that revived the ill civil servant in the famous Da Hong Pao origin story. Competitions are held at Tian Xin Yan every year for farmers to ‘battle’ their teas against each other, with the winner of the Rou Gui category taking the most prize money.