Of all the world’s tea-growing nations and regions, in terms of sheer production, Africa, China and India are considered to be among the most noteworthy. For serious tea fanciers, however, the most important tea growers are probably China, Japan and India.
India is generally considered to have three major tea-growing regions. Assam is the most productive, Darjeeling is renowned for its distinctive premium black tea, which is produced in relatively small amounts, and Nilgiri is scrambling to catch up, in terms of both production and reputation.
For non-Indians who don’t drink tea, their knowledge of India’s Darjeeling region — if they have any at all — is probably limited to what’s been passed on by The Darjeeling Limited, a movie about three brothers traveling through India. The Darjeeling Limited featured in this 2007 movie is named for a real narrow-gauge railway — the renowned Darjeeling Himalayan Railway — that traverses the mountainous terrain of this lofty region.
This mountainous part of the world has an average altitude of nearly 7,000 feet, which makes Darjeeling a great place to grow tea. It’s also thought to be the reason why the tea grown there has such a unique aroma and flavor.
Located in the northeastern corner of India, in the state of West Bengal, Darjeeling lies in the shadow of the Himalayas. The British grew tea there as early as 1841, using seeds taken from Chinese tea plants.
Darjeeling’s tea gardens, in comparison with those of the Assam region, produce a modest amount of tea. But the high-quality tea grown there can bring a premium price and so it’s estimated that as much as four times the 10,000-plus tons produced annually are marketed as Darjeeling by unscrupulous vendors.
One of the most distinctive black teas, Darjeeling has a relatively light color and distinctive aroma and flavor to which the term “muscatel” is often given. Because it’s marketed as a premium tea and connected to one specific region of origin, some have taken to referring to it as “the Champagne of teas.”