This tea comes from a small producer in Bihar, south of Darjeeling. The flat tea garden, next to a river (a power plant outlet), is everything else than the almost eponymous “Darjeeling Himalayan vales” – and yet it can already rival with some of the finest Darjeelings. What is unique however, is that the leaf material is Assamese and indeed embodies their virtues without their climate. Not without reason, the Lochan family have baptized some of their teas with the “Fusion” moniker.
Rather large leaves, wiry, hand rolled and rather tightly hand-rolled at that. Instead of shredding / cutting, the producer has decided for strenuous rolling to break the leaf structures, which also is a licit way (it leads to a different flavour style, but maybe later on that). Dark colour, blackish, fairly even colour and size.
Those more familiar with modern-style First Flushes might suspect over-firing here, but the leaves’ smell does not yet bear that out. However, the leaves are very crisp, prone to breakage and extremely spry, and I wonder whether the first employ of Doke’s new hypokauston oven has led to over-drying, possibly due to insufficient humidification of the air intake. I can understand the concern about secondary fermentation in an auumnal style tea that may have motivated this option for “very dry”, but it is not desirable in a tea that would be commercially packaged, filled, repackaged, and again refilled into the sale vessels – you end with too much dust.
Very rich smell, round and earthy, reminescent of wet saw dust, a bit animalic, like a thick cover of autumn leaves. Also some undertones of macerating fruit (decomposing apples).
Wet leaf shows that the plucking standard is higher than usually applied for autuumnals. Many tips and first leaves, of uniformly small leaf size. Only rarely (small) second leaves. Leaves are mostly intact. Due to very hard rolling, the leaves did not unfold upon first steeping, only opened up a little. One is made curious whether the higher labour cost invested in plucking also will show in the liquor.
Smell is a bit rounder and muskier than dry leaf. Cedar notes. Sweet-musky Complex, but not very differentiated in the nose.
3 minutes steeping time at about 90° C (hotter than recommended), in an open glass steeping vessel, sieved into the tasting glass. Warm red-brown with aged copper tones. Astonishingly clear; some visible particles whch sediment very quickly (I used only a sieve, no filter), but not muddy or cloudy, showing a good leaf preparation and careful winnowing.
Smell is reminescent of cedar and venison. Earthy not mossy. Slight esterification. Rajiv Lochan’s personal predilection for Pu-Erhs shows a little bit in this style (though the tea has undergone no fermentation). The thorough leaf oxidation marks the style. And the combined long experience of the makers has guarded them from over-withering. Overall, many tasters would characterize the tea as “sweet”, though the impression is not sugary or honey-ish.
I had occasion to compare this Doke tea to a Margaret’s Hope 2014 Autumnal. Margaret’s Hope, as a large and very renowned producer, is often and with good reason used as a benchmark or – as I rather call it – a reference tea.
Such a comparison is extremely instructive and should IMHO be obligatory not just for consumers and novices. Because it aptly show how differences in production and economical approach also contribute to shaping the final tea. The Margaret’s Hope uses small shredded or cut leaf, not hand-rolled. This is clear and inevitable – the size of this garen alone precludes hand-rolling, at the autumnal volume that they make, and a small separate invoice would not find a buyer. Besides, it would break up upon transport.
Furthermore, MH has oxidized a bit less, and their leaf is not as dark. Their small cut produces another flavour pattern: more rounded and and at the very first sip, seemingly more “elegant” (certainly more commercial), and quite pleasant and entertaining. However, the flavours are a just bit shallower and yet more present than with Doke; this phenomenon can very often be observed when you compared cut leaves to mechanically and hand rolled leaves. The finish and aftermath of Margaret’s Hope is elegant and rounded, very pleasant – but not deep.
On the whole, the difference is very much comparable to an excellent steel tank made wine, compared to a vat fermented (!) and vat aged wine. Both can be excellent, both can be terrible, and there are many more occasions for spoiling a wine when using the small barrel methods, foregoing filtering etc. But if you have the knowledge and the apt hand, you may end up with a deeper, more complex and altogether greater wine.
This was not a contest in silly US American mode – but rather, a contrast. I still regard Margaret’s Hope as a benchmark, but this autumnal from Doke is doubtlessly the greater tea – although not suitable for everybody. It is a bit of a challenge.
The tannine balance in the Doke finish is an absolute masterpiece. I am not fond of Tannic aftermaths or finishes (not in wines and not in teas, since I very much prefer flowery and herbal styles and long tasty, developing finishes), but I accept them as a licit style. Here, we find an absolute masterpiece. Extremely elegant, with powerful but not too strong tannine, long lingering, reflecting and playing on the wooden tones of the body. A masterful employ, and better than any (!) Assam I have ever tasted. As I said, it’s not my style, but not even Mokalbari has not achieved this supreme elegance of tannine balance.
Editor’s note, this review was written by Alexander Eichener, on 10th January 2015. It is shared here courtesy of Rajiv Lochan. Images courtesy of Rajiv Lochan.