Friday, May 27, 2011

Two Nilgiri Teas, one 2011

I've been looking forward to the 2011 crop of teas and just ordered a couple from Camellia Sinensis in Montreal -- which came very quickly, by the way, and with a little handwritten note.  Classy. 

First up is an organic 2011 Nilgiri from the Coonoor Estate, if I understand the label correctly, although the name may simply refer to the town of Coonoor which has a number of small tea gardens.  At any rate, Coonoor is at 1839 metres which is 6000 feet.  A high grown tea.

To give this tea a good run, I'm tasting it next to another Nilgiri that I bought locally which is likely a 2010.  It is from the Korakundah Estate, reportedly the highest tea plantation in the world at some 8000 feet.  It's also organically grown.

I've not had much tea from Nilgiri so here goes.

The Nilgiri are named for the blue flowering Neelakurinji which
bloom once every 12 years -- the last time in 2006.

The Nilgiri mountains -- which translates as the blue mountains -- are in the southern tip of India and are part of the Western Ghat mountain range which runs down the west side of the country.   The tea plantations cover a relatively small area of roughly 35 miles by 20 miles within the mountain range.  The region has two (!) monsoon seasons a year and the resulting plucking seasons can apparently offer quite distinct flavours.  Tea plucking does take place year round as there is no dormant season but teas plucked from December to March are reputedly considered the best.  In these months there is still often the threat of frost and as a result they are referred to as 'frost teas.'  According to The Story of Tea, Nilgiri teas do not cloud and are therefore sought by iced tea makers too.  (Generally, when a tea clouds it signals high levels of L-Theonine which is the ingredient in tea that calms us.)

In Nilgiri only 30% of the tea is grown by large estates.  The rest is grown by small producers who then sell their green leaf to "bought leaf factories."  The region has certainly experienced some highs and lows.  For many decades it focused on the Russian market supplying  reams of inexpensive, quite ordinary tea to an unfussy Russian and eastern European market.  But that dried up in the 1990s.  However, it was also a Nilgiri tea that broke world price records for black tea by selling for $600 per kilo at an auction in Las Vegas in 2006 where it took "top Honours."   The tea was a Glendale Estate's SFTGFOP.

BTW - here is a nice little video on tea making in the Nilgiri region.  Good footage to view for understanding how black tea is made too -- plucking, withering, rolling, oxidising although the baking part is not so clear.  Notice that there is footage of one plucker using a pair of garden shears with what looks like a metal dustbin attached to one blade.  The dustbin catches the sheared leaves. Hmm.  I'm not sure it would be any less work to have to hold the shears, etc out all day versus simply hand-plucking...?

Before we get to the tea, one final bit of info:  according to wikipedia the Nilgiris are called "blue" because of the once abundant blue-flowering shrubs called Neelakurinji (Strobilanthes kunthiana) which bloom only once every 12 years.  That would have been a magnificent sight, although I'm sure what's left in between the tea plantations is also lovely to see in bloom.

The Tea
3.9 gr tea in 7 ozs water at 90C for 2 minutes 10 seconds.  (Camellia Sinensis recommended 90C on their package so I'm going with it.)

The very different dry leaves of two organic Nilgiri black teas.
Korakundah on the left and Coonoor on the right.
Click to have a closer look.  G'wan.

The dry leaves of these two organic Nilgiris couldn't be more different.  One is very large leafed,  medium-twisted, slender, somewhat curly, crispy dark charcoal grey leaves with (under my loup) the occasional golden furry pekoe.  The other, the Korakundah, is small chunky bits of differing sizes with some leaf stems in a warm brown and browny grey.

Hah.  The plucker using the garden shears in that video?  That would explain perhaps the twiggy bits in the Korakundah tea. And the broken leaf.  The Coonoor would have been hand plucked to get those whole leaves.

Wet leaves - Korakundah on left, Coonoor on right.
Click for a closer look.

The difference when the leaves are wet is even more pronounced although, especially considering these are black teas, they both show a surprising amount of green.

I assume that is due to their high-altitude manufacture where it might be drier and the habit to give a long, hard wither, as they do in Darjeeling.

Oddly the aroma off the Korakundah wet leaves and the liquor calls to mind play-doh (not entirely pleasant), which will only have meaning to others who enjoyed this plasticene-like toy as a child, likely.  The wet leaves also give me a marine note and abit of a spicy floral note.

The large leaves of the 2011 Nilgiri Coonoor
I'm so intrigued by the leaves of the Coonoor I had to take another snap.  These are huge leaves and so green!  Hardly showing any oxidation at all.  I might have thought these were an oolong if I'd just met them.  You can also see that the pluck included buds and two leaves as well as larger more mature leaves.

The first aroma off the wet Coonoor leaves is a light sweet caramel, then a toasty fire -- then a biscuity aroma, abit of baked squash and is that just a hint of the almost peppery sweet cinnamon?

Korakundah on left, Coonoor on right.  Could they
be more different?

Well no surprise, the steeped liquor of these two Nilgiris looks completely different too.  The Coonoor is a light bright clear orange  and the Korakundah is a quite dark red-brown.  I will have to let the liquor site for 10 minutes or so next time I brew them to see if the liquor stays clear.

Coonoor Liquor
I have to say that I've been getting a sweet caramel note from this tea from the moment I opened the bag.  The liquor mouth-feel is light with only a bit of soft furring on the tongue.  It's giving me a very light bitter tang, a caramel note with other sweet top notes through my nose, a bit of dried apricot and there's a sweet citrus flavour in the aftertaste -- like sweet orange.  Overall this tea has nice clean feel in the mouth - it's got a light body with very light astringency despite the sweet citric note.  I add milk to my black teas and it flattens the flavours of this tea a bit while sweetening everything, as is usual with the milk addition.

The colour of the liquor, even after adding the milk is bright.  In fact, the milk is pooling into clouds and pulling away from the sides of the glass pot I'm using.  Interesting.

Korakundah Liquor
Again, completely different than the other Nilgiri.  This is a heavier-bodied, simpler tea with fewer flavour notes.  There's quite abit of bitterness which hits the tip end of my tongue.  The milk sweetens, makes it less bitter and gives the liquor, which is quite dull, a browny blue look.

What a contrast these two Nilgiris are.  I'm quite excited about the Coonoor and look forward to further tastings tomorrow morning.  It's almost like a Golden Monkey-light with those caramel notes.