During April in North Guangdong province at an altitude of 4,500 feet, 100-year-old Oolong trees are harvested for their young shoots, which are then oxidized to 45%, fired under medium heat, and meticulously crafted all along the way.  These single-branch cultivars from Chaoan County’s infamous Phoenix Mountain grow straight up and then fan out, creating an umbrella-like canopy.  The tea pickers use tall ladders that run right up the center trunk to access the leaves.  Recently, I received some of this magnificent Phoenix Mountain Single Tree Oolong from Jason Cheng in Seattle.  This tea is also known as Feng Huang Dan Cong.

It’s been awhile since a tea like Phoenix Mountain Single Tree Oolong has crossed my palate, upended my senses, and tantalized my tongue in ways I had never experienced.  You can closely examine the dry, twisted tea leaves, inhale their scent, and then put a little context to the tea you are about to sip.  Consider, for example, a first-flush Darjeeling.  When you pour out the leaves on a tray, shake them around, and then sniff the fresh bouquet, you will almost immediately get a sense of what you are about to experience in your mouth.  The same applies to a well-twisted and evenly colored Sri Lankan, a tightly rolled Tieguanyin, or a Japan Sencha. 

Rarely does a tea that one examines in shape, quality, and aroma end up yielding something so remarkably different in the cup that it takes four cups before you can break it down.  It is only then that you can you describe the variety of nuances your senses have detected.  Phoenix Mountain Single Tree Oolong is just that kind of tea!  It is one of those rare teas that when observed in its dry form seems to be of high quality and is wonderfully shaped; yet, it does not hint of anything extraordinary.  Sight and smell lend nothing to what awaits the salivating palate.

It has been said that when Phoenix Mountain Single Tree Oolongs are at their best they are on a par with the finest Tieguanyins.  This challenges me a bit because I have cupped numerous Tieguanyins over the past decade, but I don’t recall encountering anything close to the magnificent flavor profile of this oolong.  Its flavor introduces itself with the notes of floral Tieguanyins and then transitions into the strong peachy notes you would get if you tasted fresh Bai Hao Yinzhen.  In between those two components, there is a nougat nuttiness that is more perceptible in the later steeps.  I typically get five cups of tea from five successive steeps of the leaves.  The last is like a palate cleanser because it opens my taste buds up to whatever my next taste experience might be!

Here’s hoping you get an opportunity to try this incredible-tasting variation of our good friend, the camellia!

First published 26 April 2012.