The 2017 version of Jingmai Gulan puts on emphasis on mouthfeel and long-term aging ability.
This year, we refined our raw material selection. This year's material is not pure big trees, but we selected tea gardens according to their location and environmental features. We blended gardens growing on the main plateau of Jingmai mountain called Da Ping Zhang, with plots from the North-Western slopes. This results in more complexity, and a balance between bitterness and thick mouthfeel.
We tweaked the processing parameters we used in 2016 in order to get a thicker tea soup instead of the typical young Jingmai tea fragrance. The kill-green process was, like last year, started at high temperature and finished with a low fire. However, we took the leaves out of the wok earlier than last year, this allows the leaves to heat less, and potentially preserve more enzymes for further aging.
The tea fragrance will be less obvious in the first months following its production, but it will build up over time, as the tea ages. The mouthfeel is thick and oily, Huigan (sweetness in the throat) can be felt as early as the first or second brew and grows stronger and deeper as the session goes. Bitterness is moderate, which means strong by the Jingmai standards. This is due to particular tea gardens we selected for this pressing. The bitterness escapes through the sides of the tongue and leaves only sweetness and freshness in the mouth. Astringency is low ijn the early session and moderate after five brews, it tends to disappear quickly. This tea has a strong Cha Qi and you'll likely feel tea drunk, if you're sensitive to such a thing.
We encountered rain on several occasions during the early Spring season, which led the tea flushes to mature more quickly and give more yellow flakes than usual. Rain is also said to lighten the mouthfeel. While we were worried during the tea making season, we're quite happy of the final result, our more refined selection of the tea gardens paid off this year.
A unique site
Jingmai is a unique tea mountain; you can hear no less than six different languages spoken among by ethnic minorities living there. A blend of Animism and Buddhism has created unique religious cultures. The area also hosts a large biodiversity spread on different altitude levels. But first and foremost, what makes the truly unique aspect of this mountain is the ancient tea gardens, the largest of their kind in the whole world.
All began around 160 A.D., when a Bulang ethnic group settled in the region and discovered tea plants. Because the fertile land was limited on Jingmai mountain, they decided to plant tea in the forest. They would soon develop their own techniques and learn how to cultivate the trees, process the leaves and trade the tea. Tea was sold locally at first and became more prominent during the Qing Dynasty in the 17th century.
The ancient tea plantations of Jingmai mountain grow at an elevation comprised between 1250m and 1550m over a surface of 1870 hectares. The average age of the tea trees is 200 years old, some of them have even reached the millennia!
For their incredible history, the ancient tea gardens of Jingmai are on the tentative list of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The decision to accept them or not will be given in 2019. Since no tea-related site has received this status, there are big chances that it will be accepted.
The forest, a source of ecosystem services
The ancient tea gardens look very different from common terraced tea plantations, most of them have a forest cover. The shade of the tall trees offers many ecological services to the tea garden. The shade created attracts combined with the expansive foliage of the ancient tea trees makes a comfortable habitat for natural predators such as spiders. As they weave their nets between the tea trees, a very efficient protection against pest is created, this limits the damages caused by herbivorous insects and the propagation of insect-borne diseases.
The tall trees have deep roots and can pump nutrients from the deeper layers of the soil. The falling leaves transport those nutrients in the top soil, which provides a steady source of nutrients to the tea trees. The thick litter slowly decays into humus, creating a rich dark soil which can retain water and nutrients as well as host a rich diversity of microorganisms while limiting weed growth.
The forest also regulates temperature, which is very useful in high altitude tea gardens because frost can easily kill tea plants. The difference in temperature is easily felt when going in and out of the tea gardens at night.
Whether the shade provided limits photosynthesis is debated. First, the primary limiting factor for leaf growth is water availability; second, the Camellia Sinensis is a so-called shadow plant. It grows naturally in the borders of thick forests; therefore, its leaves have been designed through natural selection to make the best out of the limited sunlight available.
Some researchers even found better yields when tea is cultivated under shade. When water is scarce and the temperature is too high, most of the plants stop photosynthesis to avoid wasting water on evaporation. As they close their stoma (tiny gates present on the surface of the leaves), they cannot uptake carbon dioxide and kind of suffocate by a phenomenon called photorespiration. This leads to greatly impaired yield.
For all these reasons, maintaining the forest cover is critical in low-input tea gardens. Nowadays, many plantations managers plant dedicated shade trees in their gardens to benefit from those natural services.
Tea garden management
The ancient tea gardens of Jingmai are harvested from April to October. The old tea trees have a long dormancy period of almost five months, compared to only two months for conventional Yunnan tea plantations.
The ancient tea trees also have a longer cycle between each flush. They can be harvested five to seven times a year, while conventional plantations typically harvest three times a month.
Since the ancient tea trees can be over five meters tall, the tea pickers have to climb them to reach the tea leaves. This means the harvest is four to five times as slow as in a conventional tea plantation in which the tea trees have a beautiful picking table.
Harvest is not the only operation required to manage an ancient tea garden. Twice a year, the weeds must be cleared. In Jingmai, it was traditionally made with machetes, but nowadays, using strimmers allows a much faster clearing, without any real downside. On top of weeding, some of the trees have to be pruned in order to keep their size acceptable for picking and promoting growth. Pruning in the ancient tea gardens is much lighter than in conventional plantations. In some other tea mountains, such as Yiwu, the ancient tea trees have their top crown pruned into a picking table, which facilitates the harvest, but, according to some tea experts, do have an impact on quality.
How about the leaves?
In Jingmai, the fresh leaves grown in the ancient tea gardens can be relatively easily distinguished from the natural tea garden leaves by their soft texture and dark-green color. They also have a smaller size, because the tea trees most commonly found in the ancient tea gardens belong to the small-medium leaf Assamica varietal; most of the tea gardens in Yunnan grow the big leaf varietal. However, this difference in size is not obvious to the untrained eye.
Finally, the ancient tea gardens of Jingmai mountain are famous for giving aromatic leaves, with a particular orchid aroma. The tea soup has an oily feeling in the mouth and gives way to an intense freshness felt in the throat. What gives those characteristics is still a secret of Nature and makes all the magic of tea.