DARJEELING, India: Among connoisseurs, few teas surpass a good Darjeeling. The smooth and mellow taste commands a premium price and the name itself evokes a bygone era when the British first introduced Chinese tea plants in the Indian foothills of the Himalayas.
To Anil Jha, the superintendent of the Sungma Tea Estate, all this would be extremely good for business, except that much of the tea sold globally as ''Darjeeling'' is not grown there. Foreign wholesalers often put the name on a blend of the real stuff and lesser teas.
So Mr Jha and Darjeeling growers have followed the example of Scottish whisky distillers and French wineries, winning legal protection for the Darjeeling label under laws limiting the use of geographic names to products that come from that place.
In a decision this year, the European Union agreed to phase out the use of ''Darjeeling'' on blended teas. ''That flavour, that uniqueness that comes from here - it is nowhere else,'' Mr Jha said as he stood among manicured tea bushes 1500 metres above sea level, near the border with Nepal. ''People have tried to replicate it, but have failed,'' he said.
The mountainous terrain also limits production. India produces almost 908 million kilograms of tea a year, more than any other country, but Darjeeling accounts for only about 1 per cent of that output. The district has 87 certified tea gardens, as they are locally known, and the potential for expansion is almost nil.
Local tea growers had already fought to save their product from the vagaries of Cold War politics. As India drew politically closer to the Soviet Union, a deal to sell tea to Moscow ushered in a dark period for Darjeeling. The Soviets ordered in bulk and mixed Darjeeling with pedestrian teas from Soviet satellite countries so it could be marketed more widely.
Growers saturated their tea gardens with chemicals and pesticides to maximise output. But when the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, so did the export deal, leaving Darjeeling with a crop it had trouble selling in Europe, where many customers, especially in Germany, were aghast at the chemical usage.
''It took a long time to revive the image of Darjeeling,'' Mr Jha said. The key was quality. Growers began discarding chemicals and shifted to organic farming. ''Here, we are not doing anything,'' he said. ''It is all God-gifted.''
The New York Times