Tea has largely lived on its history; the great regions, names and traditions. There’s one area, though, where it’s the future that looks glorious, rather than just the past. This is clonal teas. These are not GMO – genetically modified organisms – but naturally evolved seedlings nursed through generations of complex and meticulous selection, nursing and propagation. The lead time from introduction to full-scale production is typically at least seven years.

There are a few of these that are taking on an identity beyond the technical, rather like the distinction of grand cru and premier cru in French wines. One, in particular, AV2, stands out as, well, “magnifique!” Darjeeling tea lovers are recognizing it as adding a something extra to the already wide range of choices they have of pedigree black teas and increasingly outstanding whites, varied oolongs and improving greens. It’s worth looking directly for an AV2 clonal and then checking out the estate, description, reviews, prices.

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Clonal teas change some element of the genetic structure of the bush and the molecular composition of the leaf. Successful varieties improve elements of crop yield, root strength, hardiness, resistance to blight, and water requirements. They have been widely adopted across the many tea growing countries in Asia and Africa, mainly for larger-scale production. The Yabukita clonal accounts for 80% of tea bush acrage in the Japanese archipelago. It achieved cost and quality: bred for a rich aroma and “umami” taste and also for mechanized harvesting.        

In Darjeeling, the focus has been on high-end innovation, often by very small-scale operations. It may be summarized as: the best estates making their best teas better. Here, the priority is on significantly transforming some aspect of quality in teas that already have an outstanding reputation.

The result is a marked but subtle floral boost, often described as “melon.” Reviews single out AV2 freshness, cleanness and brightness. The clonals lightly and not harshly accentuate flavor. They are not at all astringent. This makes the Moonlight white teas from around ten estates matching the reputation of even the superb Yunnan and Fujian Moonlights as among the very best teas on the market.

Each of the elite estates’ AV2s offer some nuance of difference. They are often interblended with other clonals and established “chinary” and hybrid sinensis/assamica bushes. (Darjeeling clonals are named for the estate that created them: AV2 stands for Ambari Vegetative.) Growing these teas is not mass farming but highly selective and meticulous crafting.            

There are hundreds of clonal teas in China, Japan and East Africa. Development and deployment have been continuous for fifty years or so. AV2 may be the first that is in itself a primary differentiator. That is, if instead of picking out an estate, first or second flush or grade (STGFOP), you search “Show me an AV2”, would that ensure you an outstanding selection?

Simple answer: Yes.

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