Cool mountain air, acres of green rolling tea gardens, altitudes of 200-2,000 metres make for a heady combination - like the 10 million kilos of tea from 87 fabled gardens in Darjeeling. What makes Darjeeling tea the champagne of teas is a combination of intangibles: the right amount of sunshine, rainfall, elevation and the mist that grazes the snow-capped mountains of the Himalayas.
There are four crops that are harvested in Darjeeling: The first flush (from March through April) is floral, mild and has muscatel notes. In the second flush (May through June), the muscatel is more pronounced. Muscatel, which is what beckons tea connoisseurs to Darjeeling tea, is hard to describe. A musky spicy flavour with a hint of sweetness is the closest description. The rainy-season crop is not rated very highly and is generally used for iced tea and tea bags, while the autumnal is rich, smooth and has more colour.
Among the most sought after teas are the first and second flush. Which is better? Difficult to say. As tea connoisseurs counter: is it possible to choose between red and white wine? The first flush, according to them, can be compared to white wine, while the second flush is more like red wine.
Darjeeling tea drinkers have their favourites in single-estate teas (unblended products, much like single malts), but the contenders for the top slots are clearly Castleton from the Goodricke Group and Jungpana, owned by the Kejriwal family for the last five decades.
Record price for aroma
The Castleton estate is located at Kurseong at an altitude of 1,458 metres. It has a delicate flavour and rich aroma - its muscatel flavour is comparable to sweet summer wines, with fragrant top notes of musk.
Unlike many other single-estate teas, Castleton is available off the shelf. The Castleton Caddy, the black box, is a blend of first and autumnal flush, which is available in 250 and 100 gm packs at Rs 500 and Rs 250, respectively. The blue caddy, Castleton Premium, is a blend of second flush and is available in 100 gm at Rs 525. Castleton Darjeeling tea bags are also available in 25 and 100 pouches per packet at Rs 175 and Rs 600, respectively. These are widely available at retail outlets.
However, for the more exotic varieties like the speciality teas, one would have to turn to counters at the Calcutta Cricket & Football Club, one of the oldest clubs in Kolkata, the South Point mall in Gurgaon. Many online sites like darjeelingteaexpress.com buy speciality teas from Goodricke in bulk and sell online. Darjeelingteaexpress.com is selling the Darjeeling Castleton Moonlight Summer White Tea 2013 at $42 for 100 gm. The cup, apparently, suggests sweet treats, chocolate and a touch of liquor. This is the ideal white tea for the afternoon/evening. The site also sells Castleton Muscatel Summer Black, which is priced at $34.78 for 100 gm.
In September, however, at an auction in Russia, Castleton stole the show with a record price of Rs 88,000 for a lot of 1.2 kg.
Castleton sold 1.2 kg for Rs 88,000 at an auction in russia
Not available off the shelf
Fortnum & Mason's favourite is Castleton's close rival, Jungpana second flush, which is slightly more robust than the first flush with a good balance of smoothness and astringency. It has an excellent soft muscatel character which is enhanced by a small amount of sugar, according to the buyer. Fortnum & Mason is an iconic British symbol and its afternoon tea is celebrated.
What distinguishes Castleton from Jungpana is the elevation level at which it is grown. Jungpana tea estate is in the Golden Valley which is at a higher elevation than Kurseong.
Jungpana second flush is a connoisseur's delight. Apart from Fortum, Mariage Freres and Harrod's, it is understood to be served to British royalty as well. According to the Jungpana website, it has been a favourite of the British and the Europeans from time of the British rule. In 1899, British planter Henry Montgomery Lennox planted the first saplings, and was succeeded by G W O'Brien, who guided Jungpana's initial growth. After World War II, the tea estate was sold to the Rana family of Nepal and in 1956, the ownership changed hands and the Kejriwals took over. The Kejriwal family favours quality over quantity. During the second flush, the leaves are deliberately stunted for concentration of flavour.
Unlike Castleton, however, Jungpana is not available off the shelf. Customers can buy it online or from local tea companies in Siliguri. The Darjeeling First Flush 2013 Jungpana Organic Black Tea is being sold on darjeelingteaexpress.com at Rs 2,364.03 for 100 gm and has a high-tone muscatel character. The First Flush 2013 Jungpana White Tea, which has a flowery, fruity flavour, is available on the site at $49.78 for 100 gm. Jungpana also has a habit of breaching its record at the auctions.
Has a high-tone muscatel character. Rs 2,364 for 100 gm
Silver buds and rose flavour
There are quite a few other single-estate teas like Ambootia, Lingia and Makaibari that are stars in their own right. Ambootia makes the Brumes D'Himalaya SFTGFOP1, the Himalayan Mists, especially for Mariage Freres. Like white teas, it is composed solely of silvery buds and the extremely selective plucking occurs only in the coolness of an evening under a rising moon.
A delicate withering happens during the night, then the leaves are gently rolled at dawn. The young, downy leaves produce a golden liquor tasting of hazelnut and muscatel, with a floral aroma. Ambootia's Spring Dance tea is plucked from the clonal bushes and retailed at London's famous store, Harrods, at 30 pounds for 125 gm.
Chamong group-owned Lingia is famous for its black China tea that has a rose flavour, which the company claims cannot be produced in any other Darjeeling garden. Chamong teas can be bought on the company's website. Chamong 20 PTB Earl Grey Loose Tea (loose leaf pyramid tea bag) is available for Rs 300.
Makaibari had the world's first tea factory in 1859. Makaibari's Silver Tips Imperial is plucked on a full moon night, says the company, and is ideally sipped at bed time for its soothing effect. It sells for $20 per 50 gm on the Makaibari website as do other Makaibaris. Satyajit Ray's fictional private investigator, Feluda, used to love his Makaibari. Perhaps no endorsement could be stronger.
These teas are special, often plucked only on moonlit evenings