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Grafting: A History and Comparison of Tea and Wine

Often, we draw comparisons between the worlds of tea and wine. From the similarities in wine varietals and tea cultivars, to tradition in preparation and processing, we find even more parallels in utilizing root stock to create heartier, healthier and more nuanced offerings from wine to tea. Though the idea of grafting is perhaps more spoken about in wine or other horticulture applications, in tea, we can utilize grafts to produce higher performing gardens.

Perhaps the most heroic story of grafting in wine comes to us from the Phylloxera epidemic of the 1860s in France. Phylloxera are almost microscopic aphid-like insects that devour the roots and leaves of grapevines responsible killing more than 70% of the vines. During the years after this epidemic, an independent group of researchers including Frenchman, Jules Émile Planchon, and American, Charles Valentine Riley, discovered that when they utilized American rootstock it stopped the tiny insect. Without chemical control, the wine community used phylloxera-reistant American rootstock to replace the roots of less-resistant European vines. With this innovative solution, many of the popular grape varietals were saved, but some were not replanted. 

Carménère was one of the varietals particularly difficult to grow, so it was thought to be extinct for nearly 100 years. However, in Chile in 1994, Jean-Marie Boursiquot, a French Ampelographer, or person who studies and classifies grape varietals, and winemaker, Claude Valat found that a section of Merlot vines that seemed to be ripen significantly later than the others. Through analysis, the two realized they had actually discovered Carménère vines!

During the 19th century cuttings of Carménère were accidentally imported from Bourdeaux by Chilean growers. Apparently, phylloxera hadn’t reached Chile and the varietal had indeed survived! In the wine world, this story is revered as a true success and illustrates the power of horticulture.

Even today, grafting is common, because the rootstock does not change how the wine grapes develop, as the desired genes are contained in the part of the graft called the scion, which is taken from the grapevine. Through choosing the rootstock, one can choose the adaptability to certain soils and weather, as well as overall heartiness.  

The practice of grafting wine vines and tea bushes is quite similar. In tea grafting, the scion is prepared from a green tip and should contain two nodes and two leaves from the lateral bud to promote growth and likelihood to succeed in growing. 

Grafting in Tea

In some of our Garden Direct offerings from Yunnan, we feature cultivars that have been grafted onto old root systems, some as old as 80 years. Instead of clear gutting forests, we are able to revitalize gardens and harness the existing rootstock to create new gardens with unique and rare cultivars.

 The garden which houses our Jinggu Da Bai cultivar, is one of these few tea gardens we work with featuring grafting, but it has been a successful project. The tea is vivacious with specialized aromas and high amounts of caffeine. The Garden Direct teas which harness this cultivar include Snow Buds, Silver Spear, and our Silver Needles Cultivar blend.

 

In addition to Jinggu Da Bai, we also grafted the Da Huang Ya cultivar, or “Big Yellow Buds,” on these old roots. Da Huang Ya yields large, plump buds that provide a long-lasting sweetness and unique amino acid profile. We feature Da Huang Ya as a single cultivar Silver Needles and also added it to our Silver Needles Cultivar Blend. 

We worked with our partners to revitalize a garden of 30-40 year old tea plants that had passed their prime, by cutting them down nearly to the stumps and grafting Da Huang Ya cultivar plants onto the rootstock. After a few years, we are thrilled to see the results as the plants spring back with renewed vigor and channel all that energy into this amazing cultivar.  

JingGu Da Bai

Da Huang Ya

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