The difference between the climate in the north and south of Japan, combined with the cultivars used in the country, some of which are earlier than others, mean the spring teas vary greatly in terms of when they become available. Traditionally, the well-known Japanese Ichibanchas are picked and processed at the start of May. But with global warming and the new cultivars being used by farmers branching out from the traditional Yabukita, some harvests are taking place earlier in the year. For example, Mr Matsushita’s Shoju, produced using an early tea cultivar grown on the island of Tanegashima, in the south of the archipelago, is already available. It has floral, vegetal and iodine notes. A foretaste of open horizons, and a pure delight.
Two weeks ago I promised you that a wonderful Rohini Early Spring would be arriving, and that it would be available after the obligatory food safety analyses. Sadly, we must wait a little longer. At Palais des Thés we follow our own special procedure, called SafeTea™, which guarantees that our teas meet the optimal food safety standards. We carry out random tests on our organically certified teas (AB label). For all other teas we sell, we ensure they comply with our standards by having them analysed by an independent laboratory. Our checks go beyond the legal requirements. But this does mean we have to wait a few days longer while the tests are being carried out, to ensure the safety of our teas.
In Darjeeling, tea grows at altitudes ranging from 100 to 2,100 metres. The lower-grown teas are harvested first, of course, because of the milder temperatures they enjoy. Remember, tea plants enter dormancy when daytime temperatures remain below 12°C.
I’ve just bought a batch of Rohini Early Spring. It’s a delicious tea, and it’s special too, not so much because of the location of the plantation, but because of the quality of the cultivar, B157 (Bannockburn 157). It’s also unusual in that the plot is entirely planted with this cultivar, whereas many sections on Darjeeling plantations are made up of a patchwork of different tea varieties. The planter – who is well aware that his garden isn’t among the best-known names – is hugely creative when it comes to developing rare teas. He really takes care with the processing part, adjusting every parameter (intensity of withering, rolling, oxidation, drying) until he obtains the exact liquor he wants. This is a wonderfully delicate premium tea with a powerful grassiness and intense freshness. It will be available around 22 March, following the necessary food safety tests.
Today, I’m only going to focus on the good news! I bought three very rare batches of Darjeeling produced this spring. Nepal has continued to produce tea during lockdown, and as soon as the French postal system is functioning again I will receive some delicious samples. In China, a pre-Qing Ming Huang Shan Mao Feng, a Lu Shan Yun Wu, a Yue Xi Cui Lan and a rare Huo Shan Huang Ya are already on their way. In Japan, after a winter that was long but relatively mild, the harvests are a little late. By mid-May I will have received all the samples and will be able to make a good selection. And to top it all, each of the teas I buy will be sent to the lab before we sell it, to ensure it complies with European standards – unless it already has French “AB” organic certification. This means we can enjoy them with peace of mind, and appreciate all their benefits.
They haven’t seen one for nearly twenty years – a rainy winter. For almost two decades, planters constantly complained about the dryness in January or February, or both. In 2017 the weather really was against them: not a single drop of rain fell between October and March. At last, in 2020, the region was treated to magnificent rainfall all winter. But water isn’t everything. For the leaves to grow, they need heat too. And this year, it’s too cold for them.
While we wait for the soil to warm up, we’re tasting last year’s teas again, to remind ourselves of them, as well as the few low-altitude batches that have been freshly produced in miniscule quantities. Meanwhile, the pickers keep themselves happy by singing.
Every year, many of you eagerly await the first spring harvests from Darjeeling. But as you perhaps know, the first Darjeelings of the year aren’t the best, and it’s a good idea to hold back.
As it happens, I’ve just selected a rather exceptional Kotagiri Frost from Tamil Nadu. Although Southern India produces vast quantities of tea, the quality is rarely up to scratch. However, if you look carefully, you can find small plantations that produce remarkable teas at certain times of year. This is the case with this Kotagiri Frost, which will be available in a couple of weeks. Enjoy savouring it while the winter mists clear from the Himalayas and give the young shoots freedom to grow.
The harvests will begin soon in Darjeeling. Happily, the tea is still picked by hand. The low-altitude plots are harvested first, for a simple reason: the tea plants have benefited from higher temperatures, meaning the terminal bud has grown faster. We can see that this photo was taken at the bottom of the valley, due to the gentleness of the slope and the density of the covering that protects the bushes from excess sunlight.
The first Darjeelings of the year are generally described as the “first flush” in English, but in French, they’re known as the “spring harvest”. The latter is misleading as the harvest doesn’t fully coincide with the season. There are two reasons for this. Firstly, the low-altitude plantations that use irrigation techniques benefit from more clement weather and sometimes start producing small batches from the end of February. Secondly, the leaves on the same shoots are harvested every eight to ten days, and after three successive growths, the shoot’s thwarted growth leads it to send out a side shoot (this is known as the banjhi), which is of a lower quality and marks the end of the first harvests. This means that the so-called “spring harvests” actually come to an end around mid-April.
First flush teas are often the best, as the year’s first harvest. With winter coming to a close, cold nights keep the plants growing slowly, which results in richer flavours. Every year, it is Darjeeling that opens the season, before Nepal, China, or Japan.
In March, I sometimes taste nearly a hundred teas a day, with each of the 87 tea estates in Darjeeling manufacturing very small batches—sometimes no more than 20 or 30 kilos. In this region, during the period when the highest quality of tea is produced, one day’s harvest is never mixed with the next. The result is a constant parade of very different tastings. Buyers snap up the very best batches in a matter of hours, at premium prices, which is why it is so important to know every producer and maintain the best possible relationship with each of them.
Since the start of May, I’ve been tasting and choosing the best teas of the season from Japan. They’re called Ichibanchas because they’re the first to be harvested in the year. Japanese teas come from the regions of Shizuoka and Uji, and in the south of the archipelago. In the north of the country, the tea plant grown everywhere is Yabukita, whereas in the south, with its warmer climate, less Yabukita is grown. For example, here, near Kagoshima, the Yutaka Midori cultivar dominates, and represents nearly 60% of production.