The amount of Vietnamese oolong-style tea that is exported to Taiwan is growing every year, as is Vietnam’s overall tea production. Da Lat in central Vietnam is similar in elevation to Shan Lin Xi. Weather, soil, growing conditions, etc are different, but several Taiwan producers and wholesalers who have visited central Vietnam’s tea mountains remark on how similar the topography of the two are.
It is also from talking to these producers and wholesalers, as well as other retailers outside of Asia, that I believe that Taiwan’s Vietnamese oolong is either being packaged – in whole or in part (as a blend) – as Taiwan tea. The demand for Taiwan’s teas, specifically such teas as high mountain oolongs and Dong Ding oolong, exceed the amount of tea produced in those regions. I’ve mentioned several times in this blog that lower-grade Dong Ding tea, for example, is often produced in neighboring areas such as Zhushan. The elevation is lower, the soil is different and the temperature is not as cool as in the core Dong Ding production areas.
Where is the rising demand coming from? Interest in premium-grade teas has grown in the west, but we only account for a part of the increased demand. Mainland China is a huge market for premium products. I have met Chinese buyers that bring stacks of money to buy tea by the hundreds of jin. One such buyer told me in the Spring of 09 that the resale price of good Muzha Tieguanyin is much more than in the US (I can’t remember what price he quoted, but I recall that it was over 30% more than the going rate here).
According to one Vietnamese tea exporter, over 10,000 tons (not sure if they refer to short tons or metric tons) of Vietnamese tea was exported to Taiwan per year in the mid 2000s (source link). A Taiwan jin is 600 grams, so 10,000 tons of tea is equivalent to over 15 million jin of tea! To put it in perspective, my Dong Ding teacher produced several tons of tea/year during his peak production years, when he was one of the biggest producers of Dong Ding tea. 10,000 tons of tea is a lot of tea to import. I have never seen tea labeled as Vietnamese tea in any grocery store, teahouse or tea store in Taiwan, but that imported tea is going somewhere. It’s no secret to the wholesalers and distributors that the tea is blended with domestic sources.
So what’s the big deal? Vietnamese tea can be quite tasty and the price is lower. It is dishonest, though, to blend and sell a cheaper foreign tea that is represented as a premium product. There is a special pride in how much skill and quality goes into Taiwan’s premium teas, which I believe exhibit an unrivaled level of quality and expertise. Where exactly is the blended tea going? I don’t know, but it has likely made its way all over the world. Good retailers that know their product and producers will greatly limit one’s exposure to dishonest products.