Where do I even begin? Feng Huang Shan (Phoenix Mountain) Dancong oolongs are probably the big obsession in my tea life right now. I’ve been gripped by a fascination with these teas since I tried my first sample of Mi Lan Xiang (Honey Orchid Fragrance) several months ago. That first experience immediately plunged me deep into a research mission, needing to know as much as possible about this kind of tea, and desiring to try the finest representatives of it I can find. I’ve since acquired a yixing teapot to dedicate exclusively to Phoenix Mountain oolongs.
Feng Huang oolongs have been called the doppelgänger of teas, speaking to their almost bewildering capacity to naturally mimic the flavors and fragrances of completely different plants, foods and spices. There are something like 30+ distinguishable “fragrance” (Xiang) varieties of Feng Huang Dancong, each coming from a different small grove of old and rare tea trees. In the case of a few of these fragrance varieties, the seasonal harvest is confined to merely a handful of trees, and it is said that there is only a single tree in existence for the rarest of these varieties. Aside from these extremely rare examples, there are about a dozen more commonly known and accessible varieties, the most popular being Mi Lan Xiang.
Many of the Phoenix Mountain tea trees, at the highest elevations (1000+ meters), are centuries old; and I think this is a significant factor that contributes to the fascinating complexity of these teas. Like the old grove Yunnan tea trees that are harvested to produce fine sheng pu’er, I feel there is very deeply layered and complex terroir being expressed by these Phoenix Mountain tea leaves. The deeper I’ve gotten into tea drinking, the more I’ve become convinced that Camellia sinensis has a capacity to express terroir that is unmatched by any other plant. And it is staggering to imagine, in the case of old tea trees such as this, the consolidation of centuries of environmental effects, over the life of these trees, finding expression in the tea produced from them. Some of my peak experiences with tea have found this terroir expressed with a sensory experience that the entire landscape and environment of a given tea’s life is unfolding like a vision in my mind, at times becoming so vivid that I feel physically present in that place. One more thing adding to the fascination of Phoenix Mountain oolong is that the local communities of Chao Zhou and Shantou are reputed to be the birthplace of gongfu tea drinking. Given the nature and quality of tea that these communities had immediate access to, the possibility that gongfu cha first developed there seems reasonable enough to me.
So as for the tea in question, I’m writing my tasting note after having just had an hour-plus long session brewing this Huang Zhi Xiang over 20+ gongfu infusions in my Ruci pot. I’ve had about half a dozen sessions with this tea to date, mostly in my yixing pot, but I didn’t want to say anything about it until I could set aside some time to sit down and drink it with undivided attention in another vessel, as my yixing pot for this kind of oolong is still very young and gobbling up a lot of flavor. The glazed Ruci pot was a perfect alternative for this purpose.
The dry leaves smell like orange flavored candy. Immediately on touching hot water the leaves begin to release a woody aroma that I associate with green young tree branches that are pliable when you try to break them and somewhat wet when cut into. When the leaves are completely wet, there is also a vague aroma reminiscent of sandalwood bark and hints of seaweed.
In initial steepings, the front-end of the flavor has a woody base with dominating notes of orange zest, more specifically – zest of blood orange. There is a bright finish on the front-end of this flavor, which could at first be mistaken for bitterness by someone less familiar with the various qualities of texture that tea can have. It is not bitterness though. This finish is a textural quality similar in character to the fine effervescence of hard cider, which sparkles on the front central area of the tongue. I would also associate this flavor/texture composition to some degree with zhang, a quality more commonly found in sheng pu’er, which I would liken to the profile of fermented juniper that comes through in the pine-like quality of gin. Interestingly, the initial sparkle of this tea is wrapped in a silky softness that comes forward after a few seconds and enfolds the mouth.
My readings have indicated that an intense “finish” in the foretaste is prized by the Dancong drinkers of Chao Zhou, who prefer to drink these oolongs with a huge ratio of leaf to water, often filling a gaiwan up to the brim with leaf. This Chao Zhou style of brewing looks for an intense foretaste followed by a deeper appreciation of the complex and enduring aftertaste. For my part, I’m using enough leaf to fill my small 3oz. gaiwan 2/3 – 3/4 full, which is plenty for my tastes.
The overall mouthfeel of this tea is medium-bodied, being neither thick and syrupy nor thin and vaporous. It feels buoyant, as if its edges are round and won’t sink below the sides of the tongue without special movement to make that happen.
Aftertaste is huge, and unfolds over a very long time. This is apparently one of the sure signs of a quality Dancong. I’m convinced that if left to itself, and not covered by eating or drinking something else, this aftertaste could remain all day. The sparkle texture alone stays on the tongue for a surprisingly long time. Breathing stokes the aftertaste like a bellows, with the post-sip retro-nasal aroma release having potent effects. I feel there is a whole orange grove here! The woody bark, the ripe fruit, breeze and sunlight, even birdsong in the trees. Fantastic.
After ten or so short steepings, the tea seems to be waning, but don’t be fooled! It’s just changing and about to start giving out different qualities. In the later steepings, the sparkle texture expands to the side of the tongue , the body grows creamy, a melon-like flavor begins to develop, and then yields to notes of butternut squash.
This tea is invigorating, and will definitely wake you up and feel alert, but I feel it also has enough relaxing cha-qi to allay any sharp caffeinated feeling – like you might get with a CTC black Indian tea or machine-cut Japanese green tea.
All in all, I will say that I am deeply pleased with this amazing tea. For me this tea sets a benchmark for the complexity I want in a Dancong oolong. I love it!