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The Champagne of Tea

The name “Champagne of Tea”, which Darjeeling teas are often referred to as, musters up thoughts of quality, uniqueness, individuality and highlife, but there’s more of a connection between Darjeeling and Champagne than just the name.

Champagne, as many of us are aware, is a sparkling white wine which is produced only in the region of Champagne in Northern France. Reims, the capital of the Champagne region, is about 150km NE of Paris and is where the famous Benedictine monk Dom Perignon developed the method for making champagne at the Abbey of Hautvilliers in the late 1600’s. Today the wine can only be produced in the region of Champagne, and is protected by European geographical indications and traditional specialities.

The EU has three schemes to protect geographical indications and traditional specialities of the European Community, protected designation of origin (PDO), protected geographical indication (PGI) and finally traditional specialities guaranteed (TSG).

Today, Darjeeling tea is also protected by these very same schemes after an application for PGI to be granted to Darjeeling tea by the EU. The 87 gardens specified by the Tea Board of India, have the protection of the PGI just like champagne has! And to ensure the teas produced, reflect the tradition and taste of Darjeeling teas, a strict and comprehensive certification scheme has been put in place by the Tea Board of India.

Darjeeling teas are wrapped in mystery, history, and a little bit of the exotic. The name itself comes from the Tibetan word ‘dorje’, which means ‘thunderbolt’ and ‘ling’ meaning ‘land’; and so “Land of the Thunderbolt”. The township of Darjeeling was formed after a visit by Captain Lloyd in 1828 to an abandoned Gurka outpost during the Gurka – British conflicts. At an altitude of 7,000 feet, Captain Lloyd found this place to be clean and healthy. So in 1839, when Dr Campbell of the Indian Medical Service was appointed Superintendent of the Darjeeling district and had instruction to build and administer a military hospital there, it was no surprise. Amongst Campbell’s passions was horticulture, and soon he had started a nursery at his house, Beechwood. Included in this nursery was the Camellia sinensis tea plant, and this formed the early stages of Darjeeling tea cultivation. There are stories of locals and British officers stealing Campbell’s tea plants and starting their own tea gardens, but who knows. Like I said – a place of mystery!

By 1874 there were 113 Darjeeling tea gardens under cultivation, and the development of the Darjeeling tea industry was well underway. It was soon established that the native Camellia sinensis assamica plant would only grow in the lower growing gardens, whereas a hybrid of the Chinese and Indian plant fared better slightly higher, and in the highest gardens only pure Chinese plants were to succeed. These Chinese plants had been acquired by CJ Gordon of the Tea Committee while in China. He returned from China with many plants, which were distributed between Darjeeling, Assam, Kumaon and Southern India.

The 87 gardens of Darjeeling today produce seasonal teas, with the 1st flush spring tea being hailed around the world as a connoisseurs; (and suitably expensive) tea. Winter high in the Himalayas can be a cold place, and the Darjeeling plants go in to hibernation. In April and May the 1st flush tea is picked and processed, offering a light, gentle almost fruity brew which is highly sort after – as soon as it’s available. The 2nd flush teas which are preferred by the local domestic market have acquired a fuller flavour with muscatel background and slight natural sweetness to taste. The next pick is the monsoonal flush, which offers a far fuller flavour and is generally used in blending; this flush will not necessarily be picked by all gardens. The autumnal flush is picked in October and November and offers a fuller bodied fruity tea with a copper coloured brew – a nice breakfast Darjeeling.

Choosing a Darjeeling is like choosing a wine; once you find the flush and the garden that suits you, it’s difficult to venture elsewhere. Enjoy your adventure.

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