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IN RECENT YEARS, Chinese tea has enjoyed a revival in the dining and wellness context, and even been compared to wine. Indeed, it is similar: it is perishable, and its quality and appeal are determined by provenance, terroir, and craftsmanship. Its value is influenced by scarcity, and it gains in complexity and desirability as it matures.
Of course, not all teas age equally well, but those at the highest end of the quality spectrum tend to show their true character after years of patient waiting.
As a stellar example, a 20kg chest of Wuyi Shuixian oolong showed up at Hong Kong's first rare tea auction in 2013. Valued at HK$1 million (S$177,000), it had been exported to Singapore in the 1960s before it went to a collector in Penang. Auction organiser and tea expert Vincent Chu Ying-wah compared the Shuixian to a 1982 Château Pétrus as he highlighted the tea's softness and long finish.
Wuyishan has long been home to the world's most sought-after teas: Da Hong Pao — the most expensive tea in the world — traded at RMB 5.2 million (S$1.04 million) for 500g at its peak. And it is just one of many Wuyi oolongs to command figures comparable to Burgundy grand crus. If Wuyi oolong is the equivalent of Burgundy, pu'er from Yunnan would be compared to Bordeaux. Contrasted against the refinement and delicacy associated with Wuyi oolongs, Yunnan pu'er is prized for its body and power. The finest examples are made from pu'er trees that are at least a few centuries old in hallowed regions such as Yiwu or Lao Ban Zhang.
A FINE CUPPA
Unlike mass market offerings, fine teas are harvested only once a year in the spring. They boast prestigious appellations, noble cultivars, and sometimes even the fame of the producer. But without strict laws governing the definition of tea appellations, one must be able to discern quality and authenticity based on sensorial evaluation. Good tea should not have any unpleasant astringency or bitterness, which indicate inferior raw materials, growing conditions or processing. Wet cardboard, wet earth, and musty odours also infer poor storage conditions or spoilage.
In the last decade, a few teas have emerged as hot favourites among collectors, prized for their ageing potential as well as price appreciation. Here are a few options to consider for your collection.
ROUGUI, LAOCONG SHUIXIAN
Oolongs from China's Wuyi Mountains are among the finest teas in the world. While most are sold under the generic name of Da Hong Pao — ranging from very cheap to prohibitive — many other specific varietals exist. Rougui and Laocong Shuixian are two of the leading varietals that are found in the tea cabinets of collectors around the world, accounting for the lion's share of high-end Wuyi teas.
Both these teas possess a remarkably delicate floral fragrance and flavours of dried fruits and nuts, with a long-lasting finish. Teas from the Hui Yuan Keng and Niu Lan Keng appellations are among the most highly regarded.
YIWU PU'ER, LAO BANZHANG PU'ER
Pu'er is often sold in round discs. While good pu'er can be enjoyed in its youth, years of proper storage and maturation give it wonderful complexity and texture.
Most pu'er are made from tea leaves harvested from tea plantations, but the most desirable come from wild tea trees which are at least 200 years old. Yiwu and Lao Ban Zhang pu'er are especially favoured for its sweetness, depth, and concentration of flavours, although the latter is often confused for "aggression" or astringency. True Lao Banzhang pu'er is also esteemed for its ethereal richness, smoothness, and volume. If you taste a biting astringency or dry sensation in the mouth, you can be sure the tea is not what its label claims.
Also known as Oriental Beauty, Dongfang Meiren is one of Taiwan's most prized oolongs. To make this tea, the plant must first be infested with the tea green leafhopper, which feeds on the plant's tender shoots and induces the plant's natural biological defence. This results in a secretion of organic compounds and natural sugars, which we perceive as pleasant aromas and flavours such as honey, flowers, orange blossom, and tropical fruits.
Some Dongfang Meiren made by awardwinning producers are sold even before they are made, similar to Bordeaux en primeur. Otherwise, the only way is through reputable specialist tea merchants.
Beipu is known for producing the most extraordinary Dongfang Meiren, although excellent examples can also be found in Emei.