Think of varietals with wine: there are Sauvignon Blanc; Chardonnay; Merlot, and many, many others. In the tea world, cultivars are varietals for Camellia sinensis—the tea plant . In my Tea Discovery Classes I ask participants to think of tomato plants: there are many different types of tomatoes—Roma, Beefsteak, and many kinds of baby tomatoes—each of these comes from a different cultivar of the tomato plant. Tea is similar in that there is the tea plant species: Camellia sinensis that makes up what we call “true tea” but there are hundreds of cultivars.
It’s important to make the distinction here though that it isn’t the cultivar that dictates whether a tea is white, green, oolong, black or pu’erh: these types of tea are created by the process after the tea leaves are plucked.
Cultivars are chosen or created and planted for many reasons: it could be because of tradition in the type of tea being created; it could be because of elevation, or because the tea maker is trying to create a new and different style. The tea maker chooses the cultivar that best suits the type of tea he/she plans to process.
This picture is Tie Guan Yin–an old and traditional cultivar and style of oolong tea.