Johannes van Dam, Dutch Food & Wine Critic talks about Watte
Like Chateau Bottled Wine, Single Region Tea
First commercial production of Watte:
A dream come true
In the style of the finest Grand Cru wine,
Single Region Tea, from Dilmah
David Burton, for the Evening Post (New Zealand) writes this preview of Watte:
Tea is a staple beverage, but much that we buy is of questionable quality. One man is out to change all that.
WHILE New Zealanders have become discerning about beer, wine and cof-fee, we still tend to regard black "gumboot" tea as just another commodity like flour or sugar.
This is a dangerous attitude, since those who quaff without a thought to what is in their mouths will be satisfied with the poorest quality. We have been lulled into a false sense of security by the two multi-nationals who now control the world market, Tetley and Unifoods, who have bought out most of the small and medium-sized tea companies, yet continue to market the old brands. The labels on those famous packets may have remained unchanged for generations but, un-fortunately, the contents have not.
Where once our tea came from reputable producers in India and Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon), the growth of highly competitive supermarket chains has weighed heavily on quality. Having established their reputation on excellent but expen-sive Ceylon tea, these brands today rely on other, cheaper sources - Af-rica, Papua New Guinea, Indonesia, Vietnam, even South America.
Not only is much of this tea poor in quality, it is also stale. Tea is best drunk as fresh as possible, ideally within three months of harvest, yet the process of collecting and blending teas from all over the world is inevitably time consuming. This means big brand tea blended and packed here in New Zealand may be eight to 10 months old by the time it reaches the consumer; if from Britain or Europe, it may even be as old as a year. All this time the tea is gradually losing moisture, and with it flavour, so when you finally come to drink it, the tea tastes tired.
So its little wonder that when Dilmah came along in the 80s and re-acquainted us with the taste of fresh tea, consumers like me quickly switched allegiance despite the higher price to the extent that Dilmah is now No 2 in New Zea-land, with a 19 percent market share. The difference, said founder and chairman Merrill Fernando on a recent visit, is that Dilmah is 100 percent pure Ceylon tea, packed and branded in the country of origin and shipped while still fresh. Not only does fresh tea taste better, it also contains up to twice the amount of health-giving, cancer-preventing antioxidants than stale tea. Very soon, Fernando promises, we will see two developments which will lift the image of Dilmah even higher. The first is the vacuum-packing of loose leaf tea to maintain freshness a well-established practice in the coffee world, from which Fernando is willing to learn.
He also seeks to emulate the dramatic quality leap New Zealand wine has taken since the 1960s, and to this end DiImah is about to introduce a new range which will underline the fact that not all Ceylon tea is created equal.
Because of the lay of the land in Sri Lanka, the character of Ceylon tea varies widely according to the altitude at which it is grown. Teas grown on coastal areas below 600m produce brightly coloured, coarse, strong liquors which are generally used as a base for blends or sold to the Arab world. Teas grown "mid-country", at el-evations between 600 and 1200m, have full and rich liquors and aro-matic, mellow flavours. The best Ceylon tea, however, is grown in the hills above 1200m, where the leaves must struggle long and hard to mature in the manner of the best pinot noir grape, yielding a bright liquor and an almost
Taking the Singalese word for estate watte, Dilmah will soon be launching four new labels: yatawatte (low-grown), medawatte (mid-grown) and udawatte (high-grown). But the very best of the high-grown tea will be going into ranwatte "ran" being the Singalese word for gold. And golden, indeed, is the best description of the halo that appears around the rim of the cup of ranwatte tea Fernando offers me as a preview.
Taking a sip, I feel the antioxidants biting into my tongue and yet there is little bitterness. It reminds me, in fact, of the first cup of tea I tasted on an estate in Darjeeling many years ago one of those moments of revelation when you realise the brew is no stronger than normal, yet the liquid you are drinking has more "tea" flavour than any you have experienced before. The high-grown product is, as Fernando puts it, in the style of wine the pinot noir of tea!