More and more of our friends have been asking about aged oolongs. Specifically aged teas from the WuYi Cliff regions. Why do we hold older teas in such high regard and what is the difference in taste between a recently harvested cliff tea and it's older version? What does one look for in an aged oolong? How many years is the best vintage? The questions go on and really the best way to answer is to have a tasting...
Of course, it helps to have a teamaster on hand but not necessary.
Michael decided to bring out some of the Hundred Year Tree he'd been aging since 2003 from storage. When sampling older vintages, it's a great idea to brew a recent harvest as well. In this case, the 2008. This gives you a way to compare the tea against itself and taste the differences between them. Another point for consistency was the fact that the 2003 has been under Michael's care since it was first harvested. This means we don't have to worry about improper storage and mystery origins that could also affect flavor. Both years are available on our website in a sampler
pack so you can do your own tasting:
We used porcelain gaiwans and cups for both teas to keep the flavors clean and uninfluenced by yixing teapots.
The dried leaves of both the 2003 and 2008 were quite large and there wasn't any visible difference in size or color. It was the fragrance of those leaves that give off the first hint of change. The 2008 had the beautiful spiced aroma interlaced with delicate florals that we come to expect in WuYi oolongs. But the aroma almost seems like a starting point when compared to the 2003. A foundation that the 2003 takes and builds upon. There's more layers of some exotic spice and dried fall fruits. I smell a touch of cedar.
Michael measured out 6 grams of each on the scale.
The differences become more pronounced when Michael adds boiling water and rinses the leaves. The heat and water intensify the fragrance of both, now Winnie smells dates and a plummy sweetness in the 2003.
We know from experience that the younger tea will have the lighter body and flavor so we start with the 2008. With the 6 year difference between the two teas, there should be a notable difference in taste but also chaqi (cha-chi). What's best described as the energy of the tea. While flavors and aromas change and develop complexity as a tea matures, what connoisseurs really look forward to in aged tea is the qi. Drinkers often describe feelings of relaxation and physical warmth. From my own experience, I have felt a wide range of symptoms. Usually starting with a dampness in my normally dry hands, my core starts to get warm and yet my neck feels cooler. My shoulders relax, my face gets quite rosy and and I can feel a pleasant tingling running up and down my spine. Practitioners of Chinese Medicine will often recommend aged oolongs and puers to those with poor blood circulation like me. Especially in winter when their natural warming properties protect me from chills.
A strong chaqi exists in young teas as well if the leaves are harvested from centuries old tea trees. That's why a young tea like the 2008 can still have a physical effect on me. The taste is also delightful. The infusions are rich and sweet. There's a nice citrus note playing in the front of of the mouth. The first 3 cups have high floral notes that I taste and smell all at once. They fade slowly with subsequent steeps and reveal the mineral core of the Hundred Year Tree.
The color remains vibrant even after the 6th infusion. I drink the Hundred Year Tree often so the effect of it's chaqi aren't as intense as it used to be. But my usually cold hands are warm and damp. I feel relaxed but alert.
After the 6th cup, Michael refills the gaiwan and puts it aside for a long steep. It's now time for the 2003.
The changeis apparent even before the first sip. The color of the infusions is a deeper reddish orange. The heady aroma from the gaiwan reaches across the table to me. The taste is a bolder declaration of what a Hundred Year Tree can become. The floral notes of it's youth have been replaced with mature fruit and muskier overtones. While the 2008 had great texture and spread evenly across the front of the palate, 2003 broadens that reach. It hits the back corners of the mouth with a plummy sourness that turned mouth wateringly sweet. I taste a little aged tobacco note in the back of the throat.
By the 4th cup, the chaqi really starts to take over. I lose focus and my tasting notes past the 4th cup are a jumble of sentence fragments. We all lose track of the number of infusions. Everyone's elbows are on the table as our bodies relaxed and the spines loosen up. Michael gets a faraway look in his eyes and I slowly but surely lose sight of my earlier mission (something about a comparison tasting and keeping accurate notes). My brain refuses to hold on to facts and I just want to drift into the cloud of bliss floating above me. I don't even know where Winnie has gone to or when she even left the table.
Michael keeps brewing but now's its more for the pleasure of making tea than a lesson in aged oolong. As the winter night fills up our windows, the porcelain littering our tea table takes on a soft glow. He brings back the 2008 that's been left to steep this entire time. He decants the 7th infusion and pours some into my cup. It's a revelation, sharp and light. I'm brought back to the present having learned something after all.