Camellias reign supreme in the gardens of the north of Portugal. They love the rainy, temperate climate and the slightly acidic soil. The first camellias were probably brought from China by Portuguese merchants five centuries ago. These merchants also brought back some leaves that, when infused in hot water, produced an extraordinary drink called tea.
Tea is made from the leaves of a camellia shrub called sinensis. If camellias grow so well in the north of Portugal, how come no one has tried to produce tea there in the last five centuries? The answer is that tea production requires great patience, there’s a five-year lag between the plantation and the first harvest. It also demands knowledge, dedication, and the humility to accept the whims of nature. These are the same traits necessary to produce port wine. Perhaps that is why Dirk Niepoort, whose family has traded port since 1842, and his wife Nina Gruntkowski had the courage to venture into tea production.
Knowing that Dirk and Nina share a passion for tea, a friend offered them a small tea shrub. They planted it in a cold corner of their garden in Oporto and made each other a promise. If the plant survived, they would try to produce tea in the north of Portugal. The plant thrived, so in 2011 Dirk and Nina imported 200 shrubs and planted them first in their garden in Oporto and then in one of the Niepoort properties, close to sea. This year they harvested the first leaves.
Nina took us on a tour of the lush plantation. She talks about her plants with great affection. “These are my babies,” she said with pride “they will have a very happy life.” The production process is entirely organic and the leaves are harvested manually. Haruyo san and Shigeru Marimoto, a couple who produces premium organic tea in Japan, offered Dirk and Nina technical assistance. Producing tea is as complex as producing wine. But while enologists have plenty of time to make adjustments to their wines, tea leaves are processed in just four nerve-wrecking hours right after the harvest.
We tasted several premium green teas produced by the Marimotos. Some are mixed with herbs and flowers produced in Portugal, such as lemongrass, rose petals, elder flowers, and lemon verbena. They offer a wide palate of floral, grassy and nutty flavors.
We then sampled one of Dirk and Nina’s experiments: oolong tea aged in port-wine barrels. It is a blend of east and west that is enticing and new.
Finally, Nina brought out a small can, took out some leaves and brewed one more cup of tea for us. “Try it,” she said, her eyes shining with excitement. “It is the first tea made in continental Portugal.”
We closed our eyes to sip the precious liquid. It does not taste like Chinese or Japanese tea. It has the understated elegance of a great port. And it marries the exuberance of the Douro valley with the melancholic aroma of the sea. Why did we have to wait five centuries to drink this Portuguese tea? Perhaps it was the time required to wait for someone like Dirk and Nina, someone with the audacity to forsake the ordinary to strive for the extraordinary.
Click here for the Chá Camélia web site.