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Better than wine? A small appreciation of Darjeeling tea.

We wine lovers have our rituals. We love our rituals. And I imagine there are none we love more than to open the first bottle of the evening. It doesn’t matter really what it is. Maybe it’s the only one we’ll drink. Kudos to moderation. It signals a demarcation between the work-day and the relaxation-evening, and even if we don’t join hands in a circle muttering incantations, it’s still a little internal joy and we pause for it. If we don’t, we ought to. I have a second ritual I love just as much, and maybe even more. Each morning I brew myself (and my wife unless she’s already up and has made her own) three individual mugs of tea, which I take into the living room and drink while I read the paper. It’s perfect; I do it quite by habit and without conscious thought, so it becomes a meditation to start the day. I need to coast quietly through my brewing and then sit and absorb the paper. I like the three-mugs rather than a whole pot, because I can do a “flight” of similar teas and set them up to draw attention to their contrasts and likenesses. The mugs hold about a cup and a third, so it’s plenty of tea, and they have inbuilt porcelain infusers I can remove when the steep is complete. Here in Boston, with our soft sweet water, I take three and a half minutes. I have been doing this at least forty years, ever since I wandered into a tea shop in Munich (where I lived at the time) and saw two teas labeled “Darjeeling Second Flush,” one called Risheehat and the other called Castleton, and with my wine sensibility I was promptly curious. Could these things be different from each other, and if so, how, and if how, why? I left the shop armed with the two teas, along with an explanation I didn’t quite understand, and two mugs so I could brew them separately and compare them.

These days I have many different teas, black ones to launch into the morning and greens and oolongs for the afternoon reverie. It’s narrowed down to the types I really like (and need) and so I always stock an Assam (for when you want to be bludgeoned with dark hairy energy) always a Ceylon and always a lineup of Yunnans. Assam I like for its malty generosity, but it has to be good. Middling Assam is gross. With Ceylon I’m drawn to the fruitier ones, and a single example is enough for the tea larder. Yunnan runs two ways, either smoky/eucalyptus (which I don’t like) or malty/apricot (which I do). But once a week is often enough to drink these teas. What I really love are Darjeelings. And among Darjeelings what I absolutely crave are the so-called Second Flush. And now I’ll make a Big Statement: the top Darjeeling teas are among the most beautiful beverages on earth. They are also distinctive, artisanal, particular, and barely a pivot away from a wine sensibility. The region sits among the steep Himalayan foothills almost due east of New Delhi. It looks like one imagines the Vosges look were they transposed into the tropics. The “secrets” of Darjeeling are less about latitude and more about altitude and exposure Elevations run between 3,000-8,000 feet, often in the same “plantation”) and the bushes thrive in the cool, drying winds blowing from the great white giants of the Himalaya to the near-north. Yields are low. Darjeeling tea is labor intensive. Properties are modest in size. Each bit of hillside makes its own distinctive tea. The leaves must be carefully hand plucked, just the two small leaves and the bud on the tip of the stalk. The morning’s plucking makes a different tea from the afternoon’s. Sounds quite a bit like wine, eh! In fact the 80-something Darjeeling producers – called “gardens” in English and “Plantagen” in German – are rather like Bordeaux estates, albeit generally smaller. But imagine if a Bordeaux property separately vinfied each half-day’s harvest and sold the best of them as individual casks. That is the “premium” Darjeeling business. It sits atop a perfectly ordinary bulk-business in which the standard teas are disposed of, though such is the reputation of Darjeeling there is always the potential of chicanery, usually by blending teas from neighboring Nepal – which are similar but cheaper – and selling the result as Darjeeling. Indeed Darjeeling commands such high prices that the domestic market in India seldom drinks them. They’re too light and refined for a pick-me-up. The best Darjeelings are sold into an international connoisseur market, in which the United States is, alas, a laggard. But let’s return to the business of “Flush.” There are three: First Flush, Second Flush, and Autumnal. They are highly different from one another. Darjeeling is cold enough that the bushes have a period of dormancy in the late Autumn and early Winter. When the first new growth appears, typically in February, those teas are sold as “First Flush.” The market is eager for them, and prices are high. The picking season is typically “between February till April or first week of May for most of the gardens,” according to the ever-generous and well-informed Niranjan Naulakha of Darjeeling Tea Boutique (one of the very best vendors in the region), who adds that altitude and microclimate are the decisive factors for picking time.The teas are pale, sometimes a little grassy, tilting toward green teas at times, brashly fragrant (sometimes beautifully so) and to my palate, very much a particular taste. I don’t really like them; they are too light for the morning and too frisky for the afternoon. But….patience. The best (according to me) is on the way… The “Second Flush” starts in late May and runs into early July depending on the weather. (It needs to be complete before the monsoon arrives.) To my taste the teas that emerge from this harvest are not only the greatest of all black teas, they are among the greatest beverages one can drink. Firmly structured but never bracing, generous and enveloping but never without form, they are infinitely variable from garden to garden, day to day, cup to cup even – truly a Platonic perfection of tea. When you read the tasting notes of merchants and vendors you could easily imagine they’re talking about wine. Indeed a gentlemen named Sanjay Kapur (owner of a Delhi tea boutique called “Aap Ki Pasand” once said, “You can’t create a flavor. It’s natural.” Rishi Saria, of the garden Rohini said “You can’t enhance quality of leaf in the factory, but you can destroy it. It is very easy.”

Years ago Helmut Dönnhoff said “You can’t make better wine than the grapes you harvest, but you can easily screw it up if you’re not careful in the cellar.’ The parallels are blatant. But not exact. And that is because we don’t see the intricacies of soil variation in play as we do – at least – with Riesling. Believe me, I hoped it would be the case, me and my geeky wiring. But the more I studied Darjeeling the more I came around to a holistic view of quality parameters, an interlocking system that begins of course in the garden but is more decisive in the “winery” or, as it is called in Darjeeling – rather fancifully – the factory. Here’s a by-no-means unusual tasting note for a fine Second Flush tea, courtesy of the vendor Darjeeling Tea Lovers: “Dry leaves are coppery black in shades with plenty golden buds. The aroma of dry leaves is very sweet just like honey and sweet baked cookies. When brewed for 4 minutes we get a perfect golden cup which is aromatic. We can get aromas of wet pine wood, honey and sweet floral hints in the background. The taste is very smooth. It has woody taste with mix of white exotic flowers and a grape like twang towards the end. The tea is just enough astringent to leave a lingering aftertaste in the palate.

DRY LEAVES: Fine sorted coppery black leaves with plenty golden buds. LIQUOR: Bright golden liquor with sweet woody and honey like sweet aroma. INFUSION: Bright coppery whole leaves with a prominent floral musky aroma.” Many months ago, frustrated at the paucity of consumer-oriented material about Darjeeling tea gardens and producers, I put some of my questions to the infinitely indulgent and generous Niranjan who didn’t need to answer a small customer like me, but who did and in laudable detail, and who has allowed me to share his wisdom here. I wrote him, “Would it be correct to say that the main factors for quality in Darjeeling are primarily "terroir" and then processing? Or would you put processing before "terroir?" By terroir I mean the following: soil type and structure (assuming these are variable among the hills of the region), angle of incline and direction of exposure, altitude, age and type of bush. Perhaps also, skill in plucking. I assume you can't make a good tea from bad leaves. Am I missing anything, or are there things on my list that really don't matter?” He answered: “Its both. Region, type and age of bush, soil, duration of sunlight, and the experience of the manufacturer all go into making a perfect tea. I have seen gardens which do grow one of the finest China tea leaves (age, altitude, and quality) but lack of experience of the maker resulted in average teas. There are gardens like Rohini which has tea growing region in low altitude or plains (also the teas are from young bush) but its the maker's experience which [has translated] into amazing teas. Tea leaves plucked from same section, same garden, same day, same time but processed separately have differing characteristics. This also shows that processing plays a part but it’s the 'fine tuning' which decide and separates the exceptional from the ordinary.” My reading – largely in the excellent book Darjeeling by Jeff Koehler – has suggested that the “manufacturing” process is mostly done on small primitive machines and while competence operating them is obviously required, it is the human element that finally prevails. The Germans have a word Fingerspitzgefühl which may look large but which you need an entire phrase in English to translate – the feeling in the finger tip. I won’t detail the minutiae of processing steps that go into tea making; Koehler’s book does so quite readably – but I can observe that human hands and noses are key – part know-how and part simply knowing, when the withering leaves feel right, when the “firing” is finished because of the scents emitted. In the second part of this encomium to my favorite tea, I’ll talk about the “Autumn Flush” the difference between China-derived bushes versus “Clonal” bushes (which is decisive in the finished tea), gardens to look for, and some recommendations for vendors.

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May 11, 2020

Thank you Terry. As a fellow fan of Darjeeling teas, I look forward to your recommendations.

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