Every year, the first-flush Darjeelings open the season, followed by the spring harvests in Nepal, then China and Japan. I have now started tasting the first samples of Nepalese teas. They come a few weeks after the Darjeelings, due to the harsher climate. Yet the two regions are not so far apart, barely a few days’ walk, and you could pass from one country to another without noticing it unless you pay attention to the signs.
As happens every year at the same time, the first samples of first-flush Darjeelings are starting to arrive. There are never many during the first week, then during the peak of the season, around the end of March, I can taste dozens every day. Each one represents a very small batch of about 100 kilos. I have just chosen two: the Rohini “early spring” and the Longview FTGFOP1 ex-5. They are characterised by their fresh, vegetal, floral and zesty notes.
Teas plucked in the spring are considered to be the best in many production regions. China is no exception, when it comes to green teas at least. In this country, teas from prestigious places (Long Jing, Bi Luo Chun, Huang Shan Mao Feng and many others) that are plucked before the Qingming festival at the beginning of April are in such high demand that they become unaffordable.
That’s it! I’ve just finished choosing the first flush Darjeelings. I’ve tasted up to 200 samples a day for just over a month, and have finally narrowed it down to the best. This year, some plantations have achieved a better quality than in previous years. This is notably the case with Hilton, Rohini and Teesta Valley. Other reliable gardens like Puttabong, Margaret’s Hope and Singbulli have surpassed themselves.
I have also thought of those who are not yet familiar with first flush Darjeelings, and have selected a Gielle DJ117, which is more approachable for the palate.
Overall, it is fair to say that the quality of the 2013 harvest is significantly higher than in previous years. It has been a long time since this region last experienced a spring unaffected by either excessive cold or severe drought.
For those of you who are getting your first taste of a first flush Darjeeling, I’d like to remind you that these are rare and fragile teas that need to be prepared with care. The infusion time, for example, should not exceed three minutes and 45 seconds. A fine tea is all about harmony. We look for a balance between the textures, flavours and aromas. With first flush Darjeelings, the best way to find this harmony is to keep the infusion time to between 3’30 and 3’45.
The Darjeeling Hillton DJ1 “SFTGFOP1 clonal” that I chose ten days ago has arrived at Roissy airport. It’s one of the very first Darjeelings harvested this year, and this batch of just 95 kilos is worth trying. In the cup, it develops subtle floral notes amidst vegetal aromas of cut grass, raw vegetables and stems. A bouquet of fresh almond, vanilla and yellow fruit accompanies a delightful finish in the mouth, with vegetal, camphor, fresh and vanilla notes.
In a few weeks’ time, the spring tea harvest (first flush) will begin in Darjeeling. The weather is a decisive factor in determining the timing of the harvest, and Darjeeling fans will be as happy as I am to learn that it has finally just rained there, after a long period of dryness.
Anil Jha, the planter at Sungma, has just informed me that on the night of 16 February, between 18 and 32 millimetres of rain fell in the region.
Every year, in mid-April, my attention turns to China. This is the time when production starts of the magnificent China green teas such as Long Jing, Bi Luo Chun and Bai Mao Hou. Right now I’m not far from Suzhou, on the shores of Lake Taihu.
Every day I do my best to sleep in the middle of the tea fields. And this is the kind of view I get when I wake up.
Now that the Darjeeling First Flush season is well underway, today I’d like to introduce you to my favourite tea plant in this region. Its name is AV2, short for “Ambari Vegetative 2”. Despite its slightly spindly appearance, this cultivar produces the best teas.
I’ve just bought a single lot, Puttabong DJ7 “Clonal Queen”. Its producer reserves this prestigious name for lots plucked exclusively from AV2 plants. So this is not a blend. It has remarkable delicate aromatic notes that are both vegetal and floral.
This March I’ve tasted about 50 samples of tea a day. The first flush Darjeelings launch the season, followed swiftly by the Nepalese teas. A little later it’s the turn of the new-season China green teas. Then the Japanese Ichibancha. The teas are tasted blind, of course. The ritual is always the same: having smelt the infusion, you suck in the liquor and swish it around your mouth. You analyse the texture, the flavours, the aroma groups. You take your time. You taste and you taste again. You have to concentrate… Except for when a photographer bursts into the tasting room and captures the moment.