Better than wine? Part Two.
After the mid/late summer monsoon has passed, there is a final period where tea can be made. This is the Autumn Flush, sometimes called “Third Flush,” and whose teas are described as “Autumnals.” The teas are rather formless, as though you’d removed the vertebrae from the Second Flush. The gardens do their best, making many “designer” teas and trying to sell them at premium prices. I am yet to be convinced. In general this is workaday tea, and I have the sense its producers think “There’s tea to be made so we might as well make it and sell it for whatever people will pay….” However, as always, this opinion will change the very instant a tea comes along that changes it.
And apropos “premium” teas, all of Darjeeling produces a baseline of good ordinary tea, mostly sold in bulk to blenders. These are whole-leaf teas. The residue from tea production – the chaff as it were – is called “dust” or “fannings” and these are sold to brands who offer basic bag-tea called “Darjeeling” which bears not the faintest resemblance to the true object.
I intend this piece not as a primer, but as an appreciation. Even so, I’ll clarify one aspect of nomenclature for anyone new to the world of whole-leaf Darjeeling. You will see acronyms. In the whole-leaf idiom they usually begin with “GFOP” and rise all the way to “SFTGFOP1” and rather than explain them here, I’ll simply tell you that the longer they are, the (ostensibly) better the tea ought to be. From a conscientious garden the terms are meaningful, but there is no legal control over their use, and sometimes it’s just sales eyewash. The same can be true for a term you’ll see on elite 2nd Flush teas – “Muscatel.” Truly great teas can show an improbable and beautiful fragrance of grapes, even Muscat grapes, but the term is sometimes applied to teas with little or none of this character. You can at least be sure that the producer intends us to understand that this is his finest tea (and is priced accordingly).
You will also see the term “Clonal” in use, and this is meaningful as a description both of bush-type and the resulting flavor. Again, the tea literature will explain this in all the detail we might crave, but for my purposes, 2nd-Flush Darjeeling divides into two basic rivulets of style. The Chinese bush teas (occasionally called “chinary”) are incisive, intense, spicy, and are most likely to offer the “Muscatel” flavor. They speak in brisk, precise diction, one might say, and they can be heady with scents of herbs, woods, pepper, grapes; indeed in wine terms the nearest cognate might be primary-rock grown Grüner Veltliner. In contrast, the Clonal teas are more meditative, dreamy, “feminine,” refined and fruity. In wine terms I’m thinking along lines of Chenin Blanc and Pinot Noir. Each type has its partisans but me, I love them both, although my deepest love is for the best of the Clonals.
A REVIEW OF THE GARDENS
There’s no real pecking order; they haven’t been “classified,” but among insiders there’s a general consensus of ranking, who is middling, who is good, and who is elite. If you talk with the merchants closest in, they’ll tell you “The teas from [many] gardens are good and some out of this world, but such teas are like a flash in a pan. Stroke of luck or perfect timing of rolling, roasting temperature to be precise. But you can't get a consistent quality from these gardens. “ That’s my friend Niranjan again. I note the emphasis he (and others) place on consistency, in essence saying that any decent garden can produce a glam-tea from time to time, but the top gardens are always in that league. (The saying “Even a blind chicken pecks a piece of corn once in a while” comes to mind…) The “high-end” selections from the best vendors are by their very nature “strokes of luck,” and it can be tempting to overrate a garden on the strength of one or two superb teas. Remember, each day’s tea is made separately – often each half-day’s tea – and every now and then there’s an especially fabulous tea (or teas) which are sold individually by what’s known as “invoice number.” The boutique vendors specialize in such teas, and the process of tasting and selecting among them is precisely analogous to our practices as wine merchants. Then it comes down to skill, maturity of judgment, subjective preferences and ordinary enterprise. I’ll tell you the Dramatis Personae a little later. First, the gardens, in alphabetical order within my “rankings.”
The best of the best – nearly always outstanding teas.
ARYA produces consistently magnificent teas of the Clonal type, with a characteristic nuance of blueberries. Along with a basic 2nd-Flush among the best of its echelon there are special pluckings named after jewels, of which “Ruby” is consistently gorgeous (one bag of 2019 smelled for all the world like black winter truffles) and “Diamond” is reliably ethereal. I have never had a tea from Arya that wasn’t stellar of its kind.
CASTLETON is to Arya what Latour is to Lafite. The teas are (comparatively) rugged, but my god what fragrance they can show! Mostly the China-bush type, the teas seem to get better after a few months. Niranjan confirms this to be true, adding Castleton is “ideally located. Good slope, plenty of sunshine and rain” Darjeeling Tea Lovers (another reliable vendor) writes “The teas have rose like fragrance, golden like sun-spun amber and are most prized for their unique ‘muscatel’ comparable to sweet summer wines with intense fragrant top notes of musk.”
GOOMTEA is another in the Castelton type, though they have been known to make more experimental lots from time to time. Ultra-fine, pointedly flavorful teas with many dimensions of complexity.
(With all that implies….)
JUNGPANA is an instance where I part from the received wisdom, as this garden is considered among the very best of Darjeeling. My own experiences have not quite confirmed this. I sometimes find Jungpana to be somehow “turbid” in flavor, as though there’s a filter between me and the tea, and yet from time to time I’ve had supernal tea, and found myself thinking “Now I get it…” Niranjan writes” They make robust flavored teas and are running neck and neck with Castleton.”
PHUGURI specializes in Clonal teas, most of which used to be sold to the Geschwendner chain (who have regrettably exited the premium Darjeeling business) and are therefore hard to find these days – as they (presumably) rebuild their customer base. These are teas of supreme delicacy and finesse.
Reliably Outstanding teas, sometimes rivaling the very best
GIDDAPAHAR has emerged in the past few years as an excellent garden in a range of styles. Darjeeling Tea Boutique writes “The tea from Giddapahar Estate is very delicate due to the lower temperatures and being covered by mist for much of the year. Teas had been planted and picked in orthodox way. Due to the temperature, the tea bushes from the estate were forced to grow slowly producing a fine bouquet with great aromatic quality and delicate floral smell. This garden is placed in the Kurseong belt where Castleton, Goomtee, Jungpana teas are grown.”
RISHEEHAT makes complex assertive teas in an herbal style, or as Niranjan writes “Rishihat, Puttabong, Singbulli..... are from a single group [of proprietors] and they consistently make amazing teas.”
PUTTABONG makes punchy teas with force and expressiveness. I have the impression they really excel among the First Flush teas, but the seconds are boisterous and generous. I have had some remarkable “Kakra” tea – named for an insect who attacks the leaves, removing moisture and concentrating flavor. The results are almost chocolatey. Puttabong seems to lead the pack with such teas, but I’ve had fine examples from Risheehat and Singbulli also.
SINGBULLI is a garden I know best for its top Clonal teas – they sometimes sell them as “oolongs” – which can be sweet wafts of Clonal bliss. The standard teas are also fine, if perhaps not quite stellar.
Other good gardens, and/or gardens with isolated examples of fabulous teas, and/or gardens I seem to like less than others do.
AVONGROVE is best known for a highly refined group of clonals they sell as “Euphoria.”
GOPALDHARA/ROHINI under the same ownership, the former is among the highest-elevated gardens and the latter among the lowest. The teas are reliable but each year there are a few that soar above the norm and can be among the greatest teas of the season. The top vendors often offer such teas.
MARGARET’S HOPE can produce the “cream of AV2 clonal teas” according to Niranjan, but I’ve only ever had one, which was lovely but not transforming.
But let me break away for a second to interject: Many of these small-lot ultra-tippy clonals (such as the famous Castleton “Moonlight”) are so ethereal that can seem to leave all solid sensual life behind. Maybe I’ve brewed them too brusquely, but I want my tea to do more than whisper almost inaudibly. I find that Arya “Diamond” really reconciles the ethereal with the sensual (with the affordable!) but I’m willing to be convinced by the others.
NAMRING (AND “NAMRING UPPER”)
SEEYOK (occasionally excellent muscatel-type teas that approach the highest class)
SUNGMA is a riddle to me; the teas are thought to be stellar and yet I have always found them musclebound and simple.
How to buy Darjeeling teas, and who to buy them from.
It’s best to buy them fresh, when they are crammed with the essential oils that give them their euphoric aromas. Indeed, a totemic moment-of-summer for me is brewing the newly arrived 2nd-Flush teas for the first time; the fragrance that rises from the cup as the water is just poured over the leaves is knee-bucklingly gorgeous. But having said that, there are certain teas (mostly from the China bushes in the “muscatel” idiom) that age quite well, and many are the times I’ll brew a cup several months after the tea’s arrived and think “Wow, how did I never notice how good this is?” Because it got better!
THE TWO GREAT NAMES: My absolute favorite, first-among-equals as it were, is the small and select Thunderbolt Tea, whom you will find easily online and on Facebook. Benoy Thapa is a man with a gift, and his teas are consistently supernal. He buys only the very best invoices, as is consistently demonstrated in side-by-side comparisons; in 2019 I had Castleton 2nd Flush from five vendors and Thunderbolt’s was discernibly the absolute best.
Close on his heels (and sometimes just as good) is the Darjeeling Tea Boutique, which makes a small offering of mostly muscatel-type teas of manifestly marvelous quality, usually from Goomtea, Jungpana, Castleton and Sungma, with occasional feints in another direction such as a fine Arya they offered last year. Their 2019 Castleton gave Thunderbolt’s a run for its money! This company is consistent, they know exactly what they’re doing; my correspondent Niranjan, who “belongs to a 5th generation Rajasthani clan, having roots in Darjeeling since the time tea was introduced in the Darjeeling region,” is generous with his knowledge, and you can scarcely find better tea than their best muscatels.
OTHER GOOD NAMES:
Nathmull’s – this venerable merchant has lovely teas on offer, with several high spots each season.
Teabox – sometimes gives me the all-things-to-all-people vibe, yet I have found them reliably excellent in the level just below the highest peaks. Customer service is impeccable.
Darjeeling Tea Emporium has also provided a lovely and wide-ranging selection of teas, if the old-style packaging leaves a little to be desired. Still, it doesn’t prevent me from buying year-in year-out!
Darjeeling Tea Lovers is often among the latest with their offerings (and the 2nd-Flush selection was surprisingly small in 2019) which has resulted in my being fully stocked by the time I receive it. But the teas have been reliably outstanding.
Vahdam has become known among tea-geeks, but I’m a steady customer and the teas are always good.
You will have noticed that all these vendors are located in India – though Teabox and Vahdam have inventories in North America. Honestly, it’s best to buy them direct. The merchants will ship free if you order a certain Dollar amount, and they arrive literally within days by courier. I have had tea in my cup that was on the bush in Darjeeling less than three weeks previously. That’s fresh!
I wish I could say that American tea merchants were engaged with these great teas. We have access to every seemingly worthy tea from China or Taiwan, but Darjeelings are almost impossible to find. With one exception – Upton Tea Imports. And even here I must include an asterisk. They’re worthy vendors of 1st-Flush teas, which they ship by air and which are more carefully selected – as best I can surmise – than the 2nd-Flush offerings, which arrive later after the harvest and which are generally in the “Cru Bourgeois” quality level. I support them whenever I can because they’re neighbors and they were the first truly GREAT tea merchant in the U.S, going back to the late 80s. Other than perhaps Mariage Freres in Paris (and elsewhere), there’s probably no tea vendor with a greater across-the-board selection than Upton, and their customer service is exemplary. Perhaps the top Darjeelings were priced beyond what their market would bear, but I would love to see them make more timely offerings of the finest teas from the 2nd-Flush season, because they’re heroes in the world of tea.
I hope this is helpful and enticing. Somehow I need something other than wine to drink at eight in the morning…..