DARJEELING REVISITED: THE BEST TEAS OF THE 2020 SUMMER SEASON
Please understand; clearly these are the best teas among those I obtained. I didn’t taste everything, and there are merchants from whom I haven’t bought. Details to follow.
It was of course the Covid season, and thus it was remarkable that teas were made at all. I imagine the season was short. Some of my suppliers didn’t have several of their “usual” offerings, while other Gardens seemed to have fewer “invoices” than usual. (An “invoice” in Darjeeling parlance is simply a given lot of tea, i.e., one that was produced one day, or even one morning or one afternoon. Imagine if a Bordeaux chateau made a different wine from each day’s picking and sold them individually. That is Darjeeling in essence.) More correctly, it is part of Darjeeling in essence. Each producer (or “Garden”) probably sells many of their teas as blends, reserving only the exceptional invoices to offer to the bijou merchants who specialize in the top teas. The Gardens may also have long term contracts to deliver teas to disparate markets, so that there are teas we Americans do not see, because they’ve been sold to clients in Japan or Russia or France or England.
All of this is to repeat that my commentary does not presume universal access to the entirety of the 2nd-flush (summer) crop, but only to those teas I have ordered from my customary sources. That said, I am comparing apples to apples, as these are the sources from whom I buy regularly – as should you – and they themselves have certain internal consistencies in the types and styles of teas they seem to prefer. Similar to wine importers! It’s a “Kermit wine” or a “Theise wine” or an “Ordoñez wine,” and canny drinkers come to know what these quirks signify.
To ease your way, I’ll repeat the lineup of merchants from my earlier posts:
I did not buy (or haven’t yet bought) from Vahdam, because theirs was a late offering when I’d already locked in my year’s supply (and they offered no Gardens from whom I didn’t already have teas), and I haven’t bought from Upton – much as I admire them – because their logistical model puts them at a disadvantage price-wise. I wish it were otherwise, and have communicated this directly with them.
My take-away is, 2020 seems to have been a smaller overall harvest – hardly a surprise – with a wider than usual disparity between have and have-nots. The top teas are absolutely superb, as great as Darjeeling can be. But they emerge from a narrower group of sources, and some expected names are absent.
As an aside, now and the next few weeks will be excellent times to buy, as many vendors are offering deep discounts, probably to raise cash with which to buy the 2021 first-flush teas in 60-90 days, but also to enter the new year with tight inventories. If any of this interests you – and as a wine lover I would argue it ought to – then you’ll never find a better time to buy, and all of the very best teas are still available as I write this.
I’ll do it in three parts: first the best (and next best) teas, then a review of each vendor’s overall offering, and finally some notes on the Gardens’ performances in this extremely challenging season. I’ll spare you the entire tortured descriptions of each tea with its acronym, but instead give you enough information to order them, if you decide to.
The very best teas I have drunk are:
GOOMTEA from Darjeeling Tea Boutique
JUNGPANA from Darjeeling Tea Boutique
JUNGPANA from Darjeeling Tea Lovers
ROHINI GOLD THREAD RESERVE from (the Garden) Gophaldara
Coming up close behind these, “super-seconds” if you will, are:
ARYA MUSCATEL from Darjeeling Tea Emporium
GIDDAPAHAR MUSCATEL SUPREMO from Nathmull’s
GIDDAPAHAR MUSCATEL PINNACLE from Nathmull’s
CASTLETON EXOTIC from Teabox
And an honorable mention to:
MARGARET’S HOPE from Thunderbolt, because this is as curious and fascinating a second flush as I have ever tasted, almost pedagogically articulate, not a classic by any stretch but a sensation all the same.
If you’re clued in to this stuff you’ll wonder why you’re not seeing Castleton more often. That iconic Garden is routinely among the top performers in all of Darjeeling, and yet its teas are tricky to evaluate, as they often grow richer over time. I bought them from almost everyone who offered them, and have had them since the late summer, and have waited for the moment when I taste a cup and think “Wow, how did I not notice how superb this is?” (That moment is not uncommon with Castleton…) But my evaluations can only reflect what I have tasted so far, not what I expect I might taste in a few more months.
Thus CASTLETON is a bit of an enigma in 2020. Every one of the teas smells magnificent – a Castleton signature. And when you taste them, you wait and wait for the mid-palate depth that will confirm the greatness presaged by the aroma. I have only found it one time. I wondered, is it me? Am I blowing it? So I had the Castleton next to the Goomtea both from Tea Boutique, and I had Castleton next to Jungpana both from Tea Lovers, and I even had Thunderbolt’s markedly forceful Castleton next to the ostensibly lesser Arya from Tea Emporium – and in each instance the other teas showed the mid-palate depth the Castletons were lacking. Two caveats: again, Castleton teas often flesh out over time, and second, even if the teas are two-dimensional they are two outstanding dimensions. Castleton 2nd-flush offers thearchetypal fragrance of great Darjeeling tea, and this year is no exception.
For JUNGPANA it seems to have been a great year. This is a Garden I confess to having misread, or maybe 2020 was exceptional, but the two teas I mentioned above have an analog warmth permeating their many dimensions, and even a middle-class invoice from Nathmull’s has virtues above its price level. Among the several top teas the Jungpana is the most sumptuous and enveloping.
GOOMTEA, which shares ownership with Jungpana, is always in the highest class, and all of the several I have are expressive and articulate. But that tea from Tea Boutique is a mighty achievement indeed. Niranjan told me he selected it from among seven samples, and that his choice was intuitive. If you want to see how great Darjeeling can be, this tea is indispensible.
ARYA gives me the impression of having had production headwinds in the 2nd flush season. Their “specialty” teas (Ruby and Diamond) were either not made or weren’t up to snuff, which may be why the basic “Muscatel” (from Emporium) was so exceptional. I didn’t see a “Ruby” though the tea from Tea Boutique is Ruby in all but nomenclature (and is beautiful) (and is sold out!), while a “Diamond” from Emporium is a very good boutique Clonal but not quite up to its usual standards (and overpriced), while a micro-invoice from Thunderbolt (sold in 25g packets) is properly ethereal. In general, as best I can glean, it was a better season for the Muscatels than for the Clonals.
GIDDAPAHAR continues to inch closer to the top class. A “Chinary” from Teabox is complex and authoritative, while the two aforementioned teas from Nathmull’s are the best I’ve yet tasted from this Garden.
GOPHALDARA/ROHINI, from whom I always buy because theirs is the first offering I usually receive, had a disappointing crop with one dramatic exception. Overall, the teas were markedly light, not much denser than oolongs. That top Rohini, though, is a masterpiece.
I only have two teas from RISHEEHAT, both the so-called “wiry muscatel,” and both excellent, especially Tea Boutique’s, which really splits the difference between clonal atmospherics and muscatel detail. Thunderbolt’s is more assertive but Tea Boutique’s is nobler. Benoy’s (Thunderbolt) teas were assertive in general this year.
I have two AVONGROVE clonals sold under the title “Euphoria,” which is reputed to be among the great clonals, and while the teas are both very good they are no better than “very good.”
I either did not see or did not need teas from SINGBULLI, PHUGURI, PUTTABONG, NAMRING (though Upton has a quite-expensive one), SAMABEONG (Emporium told me they didn’t receive an offering this year from the garden), THURBO and TURZUM (both are offered by Vahdam but I was already fully stocked)
SUNGMA provided its usual robust and rather simple tea, and SEEYOK its usual ultra-fine muscatel (from Teabox).
Regarding the merchants:
DARJEELING TEA BOUTIQUE was the one to beat in 2020 (not that this is a fierce contest; the guys seem to be quite collegial with one another), with its stellar quality spread over its narrow and select offering. In common with its peers, this merchant considered skipping the season amidst the manifold difficulties, but in that (or any) light this group of teas can only be considered a triumph.
THUNDERBOLT is another who almost didn’t make it. The tiny operation ended up being reduced to the immediate family during and after the lockdown, and while small-batch operations are usually at an advantage competitively, in 2020 it worked against them. That said, Benoy’s offering is close to its usually stellar level, albeit it contains some surprises. The Castleton is almost aggressively forceful, while the Margaret’s Hope is perhaps the most original tea Thunderbolt has ever offered. Even if their teas were less outstanding I’d support these folks on principle. You should too.
DARJEELING TEA LOVERS has a strange quirk; the last time I looked they still hadn’t listed the teas on their website. I ordered them from Sandeep in person over email. It’s a gorgeous selection, if you can access it, and if his website’s still out of date feel free to contact them and just get the Jungpana, the Castleton and the “everyday” Giddapahar.
NATHMULLS appear more mainstream (perhaps deceptively) than the more boutique-y vendors, but they’re competent and their service is prompt. And this year their offering included those two eye-opening teas from Giddapahar, as well as a fine “basic” Jungpana, and a few other clonals (Balasun, Gophaldara) that were correct but forgettable. They have recently listed a Phuguri, which I’m sad to have missed when I ordered earlier – that is a fine producer. They also offered a staggeringly expensive Goomtea, which I received a sample of and which, while excellent, didn’t justify the price. Still, I like this vendor; they’re efficient and if you’re selective you’ll score some fine tea.
TEABOX has its all-things-to-all-people vibe but in fact they are reliable vendors for a consistent level of tea that’s just below the very top. Seeyok and Castleton are highlights, and as a rule they don’t favor clonals (which I do) but I’m a steady customer and their service is excellent.
Finally, TEA EMPORIUM had another unusual offering – the season tended to favor what one could actually acquire rather than what one might have selected given a wider choice. The best tea is the Arya I’ve already cited, which is also a steal at the price. The other teas are mostly flowery clonals, a quite decent Gielle and a somewhat more ambitious one from Singell. The Arya Diamond, as already noted, is “most satisfactory” but this tea needs to be supernal to justify its price.
That tea was made at all must be considered a minor miracle – perhaps a major one. That so many were great is a tribute to the energy and idealism of the producers. I continue to feel this world is worth exploring, and I wish American tea importers would look beyond China, Taiwan and Japan.