Earthy and complex, Pu’er is among the world’s most celebrated tea varieties. At Wing Lei Palace, a dedicated tea sommelier brews vintage Pu’er that pairs perfectly with Cantonese cuisine—and rivals the best wines.
Pu’er requires specific storage conditions to age properly, much like wine. The older it is, the more complex.
Heroic vases, gilded drapes, jade accents and peacock motifs—Wing Lei Palace at Wynn Palace in Cotai feels more like a whimsical palace than a restaurant. Designed like a three-tiered European theater, every seat in the house offers a view of the hotel’s 8-acre Performance Lake, where a choreographed water, light and music show shoots to life at regular intervals all day and throughout the evening.
In a private room overlooking the scene, tea sommelier Jacky Zhao is perfecting another kind of performance. Zhao places a 1-inch clump of black, loose-leaf Pu’er tea inside a gaiwan tea bowl (a porcelain bowl with a lid). He then swirls water (heated to a precise 212 degrees Fahrenheit) to “awaken” the leaves, pours out the liquid, and repeats the process one more time.
On the third pour, he brews the tea for no more than 15 to 20 seconds—watching the leaves slowly uncoil with the heat. Zhao then transfers the liquid into a delicate glass carafe, from which he serves it in bijou teacups, so petite they hold just three or four sips.
A 30-year-old Pu’er that’s meant to be savored is Zhao’s favorite brew at Wing Lei Palace and the most expensive on the 50-tea menu, at $20 per person. The steaming liquid smells of earth and rich wood, with a mild, nutty flavor. The color, glowing and translucent, is a perfect shade of golden brown.
Clockwise from top right: Pu’er tea service at Wynn Palace; Bingcha in a tea shop, labeled with the year and region of production, grade and season; Pu’er tea being dried in a tea factory in Yi Wu village in Yunnan province; overlooking the city of Pu’er, once a major hub on the Tea Horse Trail.
Each of the restaurant’s prized Pu’er teas—aged from 12 to 30 years—has been harvested in Yunnan province, in southwestern China, a region revered for its ideal terroir. “You can grow the Pu’er tea leaves anywhere in the world, but Yunnan has the best geographic advantages because of the weather, soil and the humidity levels,” says Zhao.
Originally from the Sichuan province of southwestern China, Zhao has been studying tea for the past 15 years. In Sichuan, green tea is the norm, and the sommelier didn’t taste his first glass of Pu’er until he moved to Guangdong province, in southern China, in 2007. It wasn’t long before Zhao developed an appreciation for the earth-brown beverage.
“Just like art collectors, Pu’er connoisseurs will find really unique, prized vintages to keep and share with other Pu’er lovers,” says Zhao. “I was with a friend, a tea producer, and he brought out a rare Pu’er. He said it was different from all the others that he has tasted. It not only has this smooth woody aroma, which most Pu’er lovers are looking for, but it also has this kind of ginseng taste. I’ve never been able to find it again.”
Pu’er’s celebrated complexity and elegant taste date to its regal beginnings, in the Eastern Han Dynasty (circa 25-220 A.D.). According to legend, the Pu minority group invented the fermented brew by accident, while delivering tea to the emperor. At the time, the large black tea leaves were usually consumed fresh, according to Zhao. But the villagers found that after many months in transit, they had aged to become mellow and delicious. The tea quickly became a valuable commodity, often traded along China’s Ancient Tea Horse Road, which weaved through the countrysides of Tibet, Yunnan and Sichuan.
Traditionally, Pu’er tea is left to ferment naturally. The time-intensive process requires several steps: After harvesting, the leaves are pan-fried, rolled and dried. Then tea producers “cook” the tea by piling leaves into mounds and letting bacteria do their work. During this decomposition process, the leaves develop complex flavors, tannins and aromas.
This “raw” Pu’er—also called black or sheng tea—is then usually packed into dense Frisbee-like discs, bricks or bell-shaped nubs to make it easier to transport and store. Similar to wine, Pu’er requires highly specific storage conditions—little direct light, 50 to 70 percent humidity and a temperature between 68 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. There’s no such thing as peak maturity, but generally speaking, the majority of Pu’er teas have been aged from 10 to 100 years. The older the Pu’er, the more complex and well-balanced the tea will be—given careful conditions.
True connoisseurs of Pu’er enjoy it where it can be served by a master tea sommelier, such as in the elegant Wing Lei Palace.
“In ancient times, travel and trade was a long process and the quality of the tea could be easily damaged during the process, so enjoying the 30-year Pu’er wasn’t easy,” says Zhao. “It is said that Pu’er tea should be fermented by wrapping the tea leaves in a piece of paper and storing it in a ventilated space. But this traditional storage method is not practical outside of the Yunnan province.”
Today, there are modern ways to store teas in meticulously regulated environments, as well as speed up the fermentation process. Factories in the 1970s invented a new way to artificially ferment Pu’er tea so it’s drinkable within five years. This “ripe” Pu’er—called green or shou tea—is considered lower quality.
“It’s very hard to tell the quality simply by looking at the tea leaves, but you can tell from the aroma and the color,” says Zhao. “When brewed correctly, the Pu’er should be a little bit transparent—a bright, luminous color that’s very attractive. If the tea looks very dense and dark, then it’s probably not very high quality.”
The best Pu’er, he says, comes from Yunnan province and has been carefully aged. Some of the rarest ripe Pu’er teas can fetch more than $151,694 per disc, such as the 100-year-old discs from Yunnan’s Xiaguan brand. Likewise, Red Mark Pu’er from the 1950s attracts connoisseurs and collectors for its rarity and refined flavors. Just like wine, Pu’er teas develop full-bodied, layered flavors over time, such as plum and wood, fruit, earth, smoke, minerals, butter and flowers.
“Nowadays in China, consumption of vintage tea becomes a symbol of social status. In addition, vintage tea is like vintage wine—it is really good,” says Jules Liu, a tea expert and sociology professor at Hong Kong University. “Once you taste it, you will never forget it. The experience goes beyond description.”
“These teas are very special, because it’s not only about the value of a drinkable tea, but also the value of history,” he adds. “It is a symbol of social status. Like a painting by Van Gogh, you cannot use economic value to explain that, because its value lies in its symbolic capital.”
At Wing Lei Palace, Zhao leads diners through the tea options with ease and encyclopedic knowledge. Every day, his team collects fresh tea from the hotel’s climate-controlled warehouse, stored in airtight containers for easy access. Depending on the guest, Zhao plucks from more than 50 types of teas—from Red Heart Iron Buddha oolong to Premium Da Hong Pao Wu Yi (a dark oolong), Biluochun green tea, floral teas, and White Peony tea—to complement Executive Chef Sammy Ho’s hand-made dim sum and classic seafood dishes.
But Zhao says the most versatile tea is mild, mellow Pu’er. Depending on the kind of dish, he will suggest a vintage based on acidity, tannins, complexity and woodiness. A younger Pu’er, which has a classic leafy aroma, might be more suitable for meat dishes, such as chef Ho’s sautéed beef tenderloin with garlic and black pepper.
Meanwhile, a 25-year Pu’er would balance the rich, fatty flavors of char siu (honey-barbecued pork). “The classic leafy tea has a unique woody and earthy aroma, and its texture and flavor becomes smoother with a touch of sweetness at the end. Aside from the smoothness and classic taste of the Pu’er tea, the catechin [a type of antioxidant] inside the tea also has a strong effect on the fatty and oily food, breaking down the fat of the dishes.”
And to go with a Cantonese dessert, such as a traditional mango pudding, Zhao returns to the 30-year Pu’er. “After aging for 30 years, the sweetness of Pu’er has reached a whole different level. Its smoothness and classic woody aroma is the best choice for dessert.”
Zhao not only considers what diners have ordered, but also their general health, since tea is thought to have restorative and healing properties. Pu’er, for instance, is usually associated with aiding digestion and promoting longevity. Indeed, it’s packed with vitamins and antioxidants—from vitamins B and C to potassium, magnesium and zinc. The tannins in Pu’er also have an amazing ability to cleanse the palate, making it a perfect match for rich dishes and multicourse feasts.
No matter what’s on the menu, the elegance and sophistication of Pu’er tea brings people together—just like a great bottle of wine.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ZHANG PENG/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES (TEA STORAGE; BINGCHA); LEISA TYLER/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES (VIEW); IN PICTURES LTD/CORBIS VIA GETTY IMAGES (DRYING TEA); SAMANTHA SIN (TEA SERVICE); ROGER DAVIES (WING LEI PALACE)