Saturday, May 30, 2009

A Tea For Sunny Weather

In Paris this weekend, I stopped by one of the finest tea shops in the world, La Maison des Trois Thés, to pick up a few things and to have a chat with Gilles, my tea guru. We usually talk about wine as much as we do tea—Gilles loves the champagnes of Selosse, the reds of Philippe Pacalet and just about any other wines that are terroir-driven and full of character. Today, after we speculated a little about Drappier's Sans Soufre, he showed me several of the new green teas from this season, and, well, I could hardly resist.

I tend to be seasonal about my tea drinking, choosing lighter teas in the summertime and more substantial and complex teas in the winter. With the cold weather that has persisted throughout this spring in northern France, I've continued to brew a range of oolongs and pu-er quite late into the year (I almost never drink black teas, aside from the occasional estate-grown Darjeeling). I hadn't even given a thought to green tea yet until Gilles mentioned it today, but since the sun has finally come out this week (24°C, or about 75°F, here in Paris at the moment), it seems highly appropriate.

Thus I found myself in possession of 50 grams of brand-new 2009 Anji Bai Cha, a green tea from Zhejiang province in eastern China. Bai cha means white tea, although it refers to the name of the cultivar rather than the tea itself, as this is pungently, unmistakably green. Bai cha always makes me think of spring—it's typically picked in early April (sometimes late March), and its fresh, snappy flavors are brightly lively and refreshing. This is the Hirsch Grüner Veltliner #1 of tea, its brisk aromas of pea shoots and young green asparagus touched by a deft, subtly honeyed sweetness, its vivacity and lightness of body concealing a discreet complexity. Even just the color seems vivid and vibrant. In this area of Zhejiang the soil is rocky and mineral-rich, and while it may be as difficult to conjecture about a mineral character in tea as it is for the average layman to wrap his mind around minerality in wine, there is a certain tautness and urgency here that feels distinctly stony—Muscadet grown on schist, riesling planted on the Wachau's Urgestein terraces or assyrtiko found in Santorini's volcanic soils might be cognate. Right up my alley, of course. I'm going to enjoy drinking this all summer long.


David Fang said...

Peter, love your posts on tea. I was in Hangzhou a few years ago, tasting through Long Jing tea...very fascinating.

I learned that the tea picked in the first week of April is the most expensive - it's the tea picked before the Qing Ming Festival, and is the first harvest of the year. The farmers also had this tradition of pouring out the first cup brewed, to cleanse the farmers of the hard work required to harvest the tea.

Very fascinating stuff. I'm Shanghainese, and I'm delighted that you're so interested and knowledgable about tea! Tea is becoming a lost art in the mainland...people just don't want to take the time to enjoy and appreciate its subtleties anymore.

Peter Liem said...

Thanks, David.

I was in Hangzhou many years ago, when I was young, but have never been back since. I would love to drink real Long Jing there. Like Long Jing, Bai Cha is also often picked before Qing Ming, as you say, and those first lots are highly prized.

It's true that tea is becoming a lost art, not only in China but in the rest of the world. We need to do all we can to introduce it to more people. I think that tea and tea culture have a strong affinity with wine, and I always encourage wine drinkers to explore the possibilities of tea. The major obstacle is sourcing it—the vast majority of tea that is sold in the world is either of inferior quality or of false provenance. (If Da Hong Pao is sold at US$5 an ounce, do you honestly believe it's the real thing?) These days, it's even more crucial to find a serious, high-quality tea merchant than it is a wine merchant.