Monday, September 26, 2011

Delicate Grape and a Nutty Oolong - Lupicia's Tea of the Month

I'm not normally a fan of a grape as a flavor unto itself. Chalk it up to a childhood spent getting to know the sugary soda-pop chemical flavor that poured out of the can a brilliant pinkish purple and defied natural logic. And there is also that story of me nearly choking on a large grape as a toddler that gets repeated every birthday...but I digress.

As an adult, I've grown to appreciate the grape flavor of different champagnes and wines, though it's interesting that few of these are actually described as having "grape" notes by true connoisseurs. There's always a tendency to talk about the other things they remind the drinker of; the scent of wood, another type of stone fruit, Muenster Cheese, or that smoldering flat tire they passed on the way over to the gathering.

When I received this month's sampling of Lupicia's latest feature, I opened the information leaflet and was struck by how many different teas are described as having grape-like flavor notes. Certain Darjeelings are said to have a hint of 'muscatel,' for example, and though I've always known that pure teas have disctinct flavor profiles, I wouldn't have thought of deliberately blending grape with tea without it ending up tasting like the chemical-laden sugar boats of my childhood.

Lupicia's Mountain Grape Oolong is much more delicate and balanced than I was expecting when I opened the package. A very strong, pleasant grape and wood aroma greeted me as I cut open the tea sachet and emptied the tea leaves into my clear kyusu-style teapot. Lupicia describes the grape as a Japanese Mountain variety and the oolong tea as being Taiwanese. I would say from appearances that it's a light-to-medium oxidation.

A little research led me to find out more about Yama-budo - translated as Mountain Grape. Even though the West tends to think of the Roman countries as being the top purveyors of grape-infused products, it's become a bit of a cottage industry in modern Japan. There are writing inks made with it, vintners who have started cultivating different varieties Napa Valley-style, and there are of course the obligatory fizzy beverages with mountain grape flavoring. The Kyoho cultivar in particular seems to be one of the preferred standards, producing a larger grape than the Yama-budo. Yet it's interesting to note that the grape plant has been present in Japan since the 12th century.

So what about the tea? How do the grape and oolong dance together?

Being a medium Taiwanese oolong, there is a floral and a nutty component to the leaf. Fairly smooth, and just a tad astringent. The grape flavor is much more subtle and is a frontnote to the oolong. It melts quickly into an oolong profile and doesn't get in the way of being able to detect that this is trying to be tea, and not a grape drink. While I've had other, better oolongs, this particular sample is very drinkable.

And much to the Oolong's credit, I was able to steep 24 oz. of full-flavored tea with the contents of the one sachet. On an overcast late-September evening, it almost had me nostalgic for the different Fall seasons I've spent in France and those hot summer mornings in Tennessee when I accompanied my grandmother on her newspaper route in the car and was rewarded with a can of cold Nu-Grape.

You will like this tea if:

You enjoy the milder floral nuttiness of an oolong tea and don't enjoy chemical-tasting fruit blends. It has a crispness to it that makes it a lovely fall alternative tea.


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