A sommelier’s guide to high-end tea.
While working at Eleven Madison Park in New York City, I got a chance to taste tea with an expert: Sebastian Beckwith, proprietor of the online merchant In Pursuit of Tea. Beckwith poured fragrant white teas, bright greens, a wide range of oolongs and and rich reds (the more traditional name for black teas, favored by tea people). Toward the end of the session, Beckwith pulled out a disc, about the size and shape of an Ultimate frisbee, and explained that it was a special type of pu’erh, processed in the Menghai factory in Southern China’s Yunnan Province—and that it was grown in the 1980s. At that moment, I officially became a sommelier with a tea habit.
Pu’erh, I decided later, was the Bordeaux of tea. Young, it’s too tannic to drink. But after years—sometimes decades—that roughness falls away to reveal a spectrum of earthy aromas, which is exactly what happens to a good Pauillac after forty years in the cellar. Also, the best examples can be quite expensive, though a few ounces of tea will yield many more cups than will a bottle of wine.
I now believe that for every wine, there’s a tea that hits similar notes. Here are four more:
Chenin Blanc and Phoenix Oolong
Chenin Blancs from France’s Loire Valley have herbal notes and honeyed flavors of ripe orchard fruit, both of which make me think of the Phoenix oolongs from China’s Wu Dong Mountain in Guangdong. In Pursuit of Tea’s Phoenix Honey, from the Mi Lan Xian cultivar, has aromas of tangerine, white flowers, and delicate honey. It also has notes of aged wood that call to mind Chenin’s slight astringency.
Riesling and Sencha
If you are anything like me and live for the precision, acidity and brightness of Riesling, then you need to try Japanese Sencha. “It has laser focus,” says Zach Mangan of Brooklyn’s Kettl Tea. “It’s fresh and focused, with notes of kombu, dashi and spring grass.” Try Kettl’s Tsutsuji Sencha, which has wonderful snap-pea sweetness.
Pinot Noir and Taiwanese Formosa Red Tea
Late last year, I had the pleasure of doing tea service for the president of a Southeast Asian country. I wanted to brew something sophisticated that would suggest Pinot Noir, with round fruit like those from California’s Central Coast. I found that fruit in the Native Cultivar Mi Xiang Formosa Red from San Francisco’s Red Blossom. Small aphids bite these leaves before they are picked, which causes a reaction in the leaves and makes their red-fruited and slightly earthy brew round, lush, and luxuriously sweet.
Syrah and Lapsang Souchong
In France’s Northern Rhône Valley, Syrah grapes produce wines that are intensely savory, smoky and meaty. The tea equivalent is Lapsang Souchong, a black tea from China’s Wuyi Mountain in Fujian that’s smoked over pine needles. Most Lapsangs have an obvious charred hay note, but the 2010 Spring harvest Lapsang from Cultivate in Vancouver has smoke that is balanced and gives way to pure leather, fruit, and wood notes. (Call to order: 778-877-8587.)