By Christopher Gronbeck
It used to seem ridiculous to me that aficionados would refer to a flavor wheel to assess the aroma and taste of wine…who cares if wine tastes like grapefruit or tobacco? And why do you need a chart to tell you what you’re smelling? But after getting a little more serious about wine, and giving the wheel a try as part of a series of classes, I got what it was all about: by learning to recognize flavors, you train your palate and thereby allow yourself to delve deeper into the subtleties and appreciate it at a more intricate level.Of course, wine wouldn’t be fun if you always approached it intellectually, and there’s a place for the wheel (and other analytics), and place to just drink the stuff and enjoy it. I suppose it’s like most other activities, say, tennis, or billiards: if you never did any drills, there’s only so proficient you could get, but if you only did drills, your enjoyment and enthusiasm would quickly wither.
I wondered recently if anyone had ever made a tea flavor wheel, for tea and wine are similar in their complexity and depth of expression. I didn’t find any, although I ran across a few interesting flavor lists. So I decided to make my own tea flavor wheel, an experiment to see if the wheel could do for tea what it does for wine: assist the bearer in recognizing, distinguishing, and categorizing flavors, training the palate verbally to bring that portion of the brain to bear on the complex substance, helping create a vocabulary that might translate into deeper understanding, and perhaps deeper enjoyment.
So below is my initial take on a tea flavor “wheel” (I’m not yet ready to spend the time to render it unto a circle, per se, until it’s more complete, or at least until I’m convinced that this is actually a useful endeavor). There are truly challenges to naming flavors, since some of the most tantalizing tastes and fragrances of tea seem to lack adequate analogs in other substances. Fine oolong teas, in particular, have an almost ineffable flavor that seems so unique, so elusive, that my flavor wheel might need a “high mountain oolong tea” wedge, more or less rendering it tautologically useless. (But I haven’t yet given up hope…even the dictionary describes words in term of words, and yet transcends its self-reflexivity.)
Also, the flavor wheel (okay…chart) has a lot of detail that really only applies to a small number of teas (could “fireplace” apply to anything other than Lapsang Souchong?), while other flavors are characteristic of so many teas that they’d benefit from further refinement (some of the grassy, floral, and earth flavors, in particular). And, of course, tea has an important feel or texture that’s not captured by flavor descriptors.
So perhaps more time, more experimenting, and feedback from others will help refine the tea flavor wheel, and maybe someday it will be worth curling up with Adobe Illustrator for an hour or two to actually make it round. But for now, it’s just the chart you see below, and maybe you’d be willing to give it a try sometime, and propose additions or refinements. Or maybe you’d just like to sip and enjoy your cup of tea…
Tea Flavor Wheel
Copyright 2009, Teahouse Kuan Yin