Tuesday, April 21, 2009

REVIEW: 2009 First-Flush Oolong from Soureni Estate, Darjeeling, FreshDarjeelingTea.com

2009 has been a very special year for me, because after all these years of learning about tea, I finally feel as though I'm coming home. This is because of the happy combination of proximity to and attending an influential tasting by a first-class tea vendor, Tea Gschwendner; plus the friends I have made through the Facebook group "A Cup of Tea Solves Everything"; and discovering a host of tea bloggers and writers I did not know even existed a couple years ago. And now being part of TeaReviews.com, I am also given the opportunity to savor teas I would not otherwise have been in a position to enjoy.

One new friend in particular, Sonam Paljor Lama, who operates FreshDarjeelingTea.com, has sent samples to me from my beloved Darjeeling, which has been a delight and an education. I've never tasted such fresh tea from a first-flush. Being in the States, teas typically take a little longer to get to us.

Sonam sent me a brand-new 2009 first-flush Oolong from the tiny Soureni tea estate, which is wedged between the large Singbulli and Phuguri estates. I have high hopes, because the Phuguri Darjeelings have long been my favorite. (Though, this year, the Arya first-flush Darjeeling was so spectacular... but back to this tea!) This year the growing season was cut short because of a late start, which means the first-flush Darjeelings are more rare. Sonam writes that most of the highgrown, exotic Darjeelings are still yet to come. Yay, this should be an exciting season.

What an interesting scent awaited me as I opened the package and stuck my nose into it. It wasn't really the scent that I'd later find in the cup-- rather earthy, almost; woody. After steeping, the cup's scent differed dramatically from the spent leaves, which had a sharp spicy smell. The leaves themselves were very beautiful-- small leaves and buds, perfectly shaped, usually in the classic two-leaves-and-a-bud configuration. They were predominantly an olive-green color with a reddish hue overlaying it.

5.5 minutes with water just below boiling, in Great-Grandma's Japanese porcelain teapot. I approximated Sonam's steeping time, which I found on his blog.

Beautiful peach-amber color in the transparent cup. The scent! I love the smell of a fragrant tea. This smells of cherries and honey, maybe a smell of roasted sugar, and a bit of something floral high up in the aroma. Again, why has no enterprising perfume artist created a first-flush Darjeeling-scented aroma? It would be intoxicating.

This tea is an oolong, but to me it just says, Darjeeling! The terroir seems to define the tea to me, more than does the method of its preparation. Its Darjeelingness-- that lightly fragrant and complex scent; its astringency and brightness in flavor; its long finish-- that's what I come for.

The cup seems to move through several stages as it cools slightly in the cup: Hot, it's all about the scent, which I described above. Complex, fascinating, sweet, slightly floral, amazing. As it goes to Warm, there is rather a bit of bitterness that develops. Perhaps its the long steeping time that Sonam said he used (and I would typically only steep a first-flush Darjeeling for maybe 2 to 3 minutes, rather than a full 5 to 6), but I would rather have skipped that part. On my next time around, I think I'll steep 2 minutes and perhaps employ a larger number of steepings. But then in the slightly Cool stage, the bitterness almost completely vanished, leaving this almost winelike honey flavor that is indescribable, with a dryness in the mouth and a long finish that makes me think more of savory-sweet herbs like tarragon.

Hot, the second steeping is very smooth, with the sharp elbows tucked in. The scent of the cup is sweet, more restrained and relaxed. There is still the astringency in the back of the throat, with no bitterness to speak of. Same brightly golden-brown color. The flavor is more haunting and ethereal, with layered notes of cherry and honey that rise up and meet you in an almost shy way, rather than assertively sticking their hand out and pulling you in. As the tea cools, it develops the characteristic dryness in the mouthfeel.

By the third steeping, I am not noticing the tea's increasingly elusive flavor while sipping, so much as the memory of her voice echoing sweetly after she has already left the room. In the aftertaste, the flavor characteristic to this tea makes itself felt.

When reading this to Suzanne, I tell her the tea reminds me of her. She said, "Sweet and layered? Like an onion? [laugh]" I responded, "No, like a parfait!" MY WIFE tells me it is delicious, and though she feels she doesn't have a palate that can pick out subtle nuances, she loves how fresh and clean the tea feels in her mouth.