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Indian Tea Terroirs

Tea growing in India began in the northeast of the country, with the discovery of wild tea trees, and spread along the banks of the Brahmaputra River to the foothills of the Himalayas. Darjeeling and Assam are the most famous production regions. Some high-quality harvests come from the south, where the Nilgiri Hills are located. Other lesser-known growing regions, such as Dooars, Terai, Kangra, Cachar, Travancore and Sikkim, produce high-volume harvests that are mainly destined to supply the domestic market.

THE DARJEELING REGION

Suspended high in the foothills of the magnificent Indian Himalayas, Darjeeling (the land of storms) is a district of Western Bengal. The town of Darjeeling itself is perched at an altitude of 6,890 feet (2,100 m). From this amazing vantage point, three of the four highest peaks in the world can be seen: Everest, Kanchenjunga and Lho-Tse. To the west, the Singalila River separates Darjeeling from the Kingdom of Nepal. The region of Sikkim lies to the north, with Tibet beyond.

The first recorded plantations in Darjeeling date from 1856.Twenty years later there were more than a hundred. Today, the district of Darjeeling alone contains 86 tea gardens. These are the only gardens that are recognized by the Darjeeling Planters Association, having the right to sell their tea under the international appellation of Darjeeling.

Running down the mountainsides of the Himalayan foothills, this region is blessed with undeniable natural advantages. The gardens are planted on the steep slopes of the valleys, which provide excellent soil drainage, and they grow at altitudes from 1000 to 7,500 feet (300 to 2,300 m), with the majority located at over 3,300 feet (1,000 m).

The soil is rich and slightly acidi,c with a pH of about 5.5. With temperatures averaging 77°F (25°C) in summer and 46°F (8°C) in winter (the high-altitude regions are frequently affected by frost), and rainfall that varies from 63 to 158 inches (1,600 to 4,000 mm) (in the south), the tea trees grow in ideal conditions. The intense high-altitude sunlight is filtered by frequent cloudy periods, which prevents the leaves from drying out or burning. The almost constant fog during the monsoon season and the presence of a light breeze that cools the atmosphere help the new shoots to develop.

Today,this magnificent region enjoys unprecedented fame. The delicacy of the teas it produces have earned it the nickname of the "Champagne of Black Teas."

THE ASSAM REGION

The Assam State lies in northeastern India, 125 mites (200 km) east of Darjeeling, close to the borders of Burma (Myanmar) and Bangladesh. It is here that the Camellia sinsensis var. assamica was discovered, a tea with large leaves that brews into a full-bodied, dark liquid with a lot of character This highly fertile tropical region is covered at low altitude by a vast jungle through which flows the Brahmaputra River.

It contains some 900 gardens, stretching from the Himalayas in the north to the mountains of Naga and Patkoi in the south.

Approximately 118 inches (3,000 mm) of precipitation falls on the 370-mile (600 km) valley every year. Between October and March, the temperature remains stable, at a mild 68 to 77°F (20 to 25°C). During the monsoon - from April to September; when the temperature can soar to 95°F (35°C) the valley becomes a kind of natural hothouse, in which the pickers work in extremely difficult conditions. In spite of that, more than half of Indian tea is grown here, most of it processed using the CTC method. Most of the plantations are in the vast plains along the Brahmaputra River.

These are the leaves most often used to create the "British-taste" teas, that is, teas destined for sale in tea bags and to be enjoyed with the addition of a little milk Assam teas can be drunk just as they are, bat their natural spicy, astringent and malty flavor makes them an excellent base for the preparation of chai. Some "orthodox" teas are still produced in Assam, and they have surprisingly rich aromas and body.

THE NILGIRI HILLS

High on the plateaus of southeastern India, the Nilgiri Hills are part of the western Ghat range known as the "Blue Mountains." This is the third-largest teagrowing area in India. Beginning in the middle of the 19th century, it has produced teas that are well structured, slightly fruity and spicy. Because of the tropical climate, growing is continuous and harvesting takes place all year long. About 80 percent of the cultivars used are C. s. var. assamica, and the best harvests are picked in January and February. Almost all the tea is grown for the domestic market and processed by the CTC method.

There more than 30,000 gardens in this growing region. Although some gardens, like the Tiashola Estate, cover several hundred acres, most are no larger than 25 acres (10 ha). In spite of the high number of growers, the industry is currently going through a difficult phase. Many gardens are being abandoned and investment is rare.

Some parts of the Nilgiri Hills are located at high altitude, where excellent growing conditions and a particularly rich soil favor the cultivation of very high-quality teas. For now, only a few growers seem interested in this rich potential. Let us hope they will be able to revitalize the industry.

THE SIKKIM REGION

Just north of Darjeeling, between Nepal and Bhutan, is Sikkim State. One single garden, Temi, is responsible for the increasing renown of this area. Following a government project about 30 years ago that called upon the expertise of the Darjeeling growers, this garden was planted with cultivars from the Darjeeling region.

Temi is at the top of a mountain that borders the Teesta River; which marks the boundary between Sikkim and Darjeeling. The harvests from this region, which are processed according to the orthodox method, (see page 172) have the well-structured taste and explosive aromas typical of Darjeeling teas.