THE 2023 SECOND-FLUSH DARJEELINGS
The teas have all arrived, and been given enough time to suss their quality. I find it takes till the 4th or 5th cup to know what one has, not to mention certain teas that improve over 3-4 months.
Tea is both a practical and aesthetic source of nourishment for me. It’s been my morning drink for most of my grown-up life, and I grew fascinated by its nuances for the same reasons I’m fascinated with wine. The link, for me, is self-evident, but the only other self for whom it seems so is Andrew Jefford – at least the only other writer to make the point in print. I hate to think why that might be so; is tea somehow too “refined?” In any event, and to your manifest indifference, I present my comments on the 2023 2nd-flush Darjeelings….
Once again the flush was interrupted by untimely and unusual rains. It’s the third year the weather has played them false, and yet there are many fine teas, some superb ones and a few great ones. Still, it’s been a little while since we enjoyed a great “vintage” here, and most of the producers and vendors would describe the season as having been “really quite good,” while nursing a degree of disappointment that it wasn’t better.
FROM THE GARDENS
Bearing in mind that I can only speak of the gardens to which I had access, and this depends on what the vendors offered, which in turn depends on the vagaries of mercantile structure that seems to prevail in the region. I’ll begin with two examples.
Goomtee struck me as a “First-Growth” based on consistently stellar teas over several years. Last year they were only sporadically available, and this year they were hardly to be had at all. Management had changed, I was told, and while quality was expected to remain excellent, the distribution channels have certainly altered. The collection of bijou merchants I buy from appear to offer relatively small quantities of one-off teas (or “single invoices” in the parlance of the region), and perhaps a garden like Goomtee is protecting clients in France or Russia or Japan, who may not want the teas to appear too ubiquitous. So, almost no Goomtee – just one late-picked (August, after the worst of the rains) and possibly over-fired, a common expedient to mitigate dilution from excessive rain, and one that doesn’t really work. The wine equivalent might be excess chaptalization to address insufficient ripeness. (Persons under the age of 40 will have to take on faith that grapes didn’t always used to be ripe, let alone overripe. Things have changed.)
Castleton is another top garden whose teas were once readily available. This year there were two from Darjeeling Tea Boutique, both among the very best of the season, and a late-offering from Teabox picked in August, so more post-monsoonal than classic 2nd flush, though the tea is good. And that’s all.
And then you had the exact opposite – gardens you saw everywhere. This year there was no shortage of Jungpana, Arya, Singbulli, Turzum, and Giddapahar among others. I’ll consider them one by one:
Jungpana lays claim to elite status, but the teas I’ve had only fitfully support this. I’d rather call is a “super-second” and the range of teas does nothing to change my mind. The style is still elliptical and umami-driven, sumptuous and complex at its best, merely generous otherwise. This season seemed to produce an unusually large proportion of clonals in the floral style, though these could have been small lots (called Ghonnis) offered to the vendors who deal in such things.
Arya is easy to find for such a top garden. Whether its “top” status is warranted right now is….open for discussion. All the teas are very good, but none come up to Arya at its best, such as a literally incredible Ruby sold by Thunderbolt a few years back. I like Arya for its particularity – no other garden’s teas taste like Arya’s – but I wouldn’t mind seeing more concentration.
Singbulli is striding forward with purpose and conviction. This year the teas are equal to Arya’s, and the garden is another that couldn’t be mistaken for anyone else. In 2023, Singbulli is as good as Jungpana or Arya.
Turzum was everywhere, in their fine introverted style. These are lovely contemplative teas for which I have both respect and appreciation.
Giddapahar seemed at one point to be licking at the heels of the first growths, but they have reverted to their norm, very good reliable teas with occasional high points.
I bought teas from Margaret’s Hope, none of them terribly memorable, though our friends at Upton offer one at the highest price among their second-flush teas. I can’t explain it; maybe I was unlucky. There was a single excellent Selimbong from Teabox, a pleasant surprise. Camelia Sinensis also offers a second flush from this rather obscure garden. I have one very good Liza Hill and two teas from Risheehat, one of them very good and the other just-OK. I have two teas from Ringtong, one surprisingly good and the other just acceptable.
Seeyok gave what I think is the absolute best-of-season tea, a limited edition from Teabox, who also offered a regular “muscatel” of solid quality. (“Muscatel,” if you’ve forgotten, is a misused designation that used to refer to a muscat-grape flavor only the best teas would show. Now it’s little better than eyewash, like “proprietor’s reserve” on a bottle of ordinary wine.)
Another obscure garden, Singell, gave one mediocre tea, one very good one, and one nearly superb one (from Teabox) in a gentle floral style. Last, I had a surprisingly good Glenburn from Nathmulls.
VENDOR BY VENDOR
The tandem of GOPALDHARA/ROHINI was up to its typical standard, though the Rohini teas have been consistently better of late. Gopaldhara does rather sophisticated “marketing,” inasmuch as they offer multiple second flush teas under “romantic” names that are only a little different from one another. Still, at those prices one dare not complain!
DARJEELING TEA BOUTIQUE retains both its identities as protector of the classic-and-strong type and also its consistency in selection. This is a top supplier, and their Castletons are utterly gorgeous, both the basic muscatel and the remarkable “moonlight,” the best of its type I have ever tasted from Castleton.
THUNDERBOLT is an enigma these days. They used to be the ones to beat, but now I’m not sure what they’re about. They offer gardens scarcely seen elsewhere (e.g., Mim, Phuguri) and if the teas were elite I’d congratulate them for going the extra mile to unearth some hidden gems. As it is, I wonder. They had a quite-good Margaret’s Hope (about at the level of the several Turzums I own) and a delicate clonal, also from Margaret’s Hope that’s as good as the average Arya Diamond – but not the best ones. This is painful to have to say, because this is a tiny family vendor whom I admire on principle and want very much to praise to the skies.
TEABOX has soared into the top rank over the last few years. They’re the only ones to offer my beloved Seeyok, and they are consistently sophisticated across the board, offering “wine-y” teas with less sheer intensity than Tea Boutique’s but with a more fluid flowing nature.
TEA EMPORIUM is old fashioned in the very best way. They are blind to garden, which is to say they select not by “name” but by flavor, and their tidy little offering (curtailed by the mid-June rains) is consistently delightful.
DARJEELING TEA LOVERS returns after a several-year absence, and while I was eager to welcome them back, buying every tea they offered, they show perhaps a bit of “ring-rust.” Ringtong was their best tea, and while everything was at least good, they didn’t scoop out the best from the other gardens. Still, I’ll buy from them again, while they relocate their mojo.
This leaves NATHMULLS and their capacious assortment. You could be tempted to dismiss them as all-things-to-all-people, but in among the offerings are so many truly excellent teas that you have to acknowledge a palate at work. The highest of the high spots include the best Giddapahar (The “Summer Mood,” which I wish I’d bought more of) among the half-dozen I obtained; the aforementioned Glenburn, and a superb clonal Singbulli called “Golden Pagoda.”
THE VERY BEST TEAS OF THE SEASON
Of course, from among the ones I bought from the folks I bought them from….
Castleton muscatel from Tea Boutique
Castleton Moonlight from Tea Boutique
Seeyok “Moonbeam” summer muscatel from Teabox – my #1
Rohini “Plum Muscatella”
Rohini Gold Threads reserve – both direct from Gopaldhara’s site.
There are many next-bests, which can be inferred from the overall report. I do understand that my granularity of detail is only interesting to my fellow tea freaks, but tea conduces to the same sensibilities as wine does – among other things (coffee, chocolate, beer, hard ciders, Sake – the list goes on), and if you explore this world you will be happily engaged plus you get your caffeine buzz in a more deliberate form and you won’t be jangly or hyper.
Thank you for reading. We shall now return to our regularly scheduled wine-obsession.