There is nothing more difficult than to talk about really fine senchas. What to say about them? How to describe them? They are very difficult to pin down, their qualities are hard to sum up, and, at first taste, many people prefer lower quality teas that have more immediate appeal. Very often, it is only when we return to lower quality teas that we finally understand the beauty of very great vintages, though we may still be unable to transform our impressions into words.
And then there are questions of taste, and the fact is that the majority of drinkers of Japanese tea probably prefer “amino acid soups,” such as those produced in astronomical quantities in Kagoshima, to fine traditional mountain teas.
This brings me to my Yamakai, a masterpiece by Mr. Tsukiji Katsumi, which was selected in 2012 by Teas of Japan, along with his Yokosawa and above all the soaring Tôbettô. (The linked article will give you an idea of this exceptionally gifted producer.)
Yamakai is a relatively old cultivar that was registered in the late 1960s. Slightly early, it is harvested 3 days before Yabukita. Its leaves are large, and have more fibre than those of Yabukita, so they require longer steaming. Registered as a cultivar for unshaded production, rich in umami, it is often used in Yame (and also in Uji in the past) for Gyokuro and Kabuse-cha, even though today Saemidori and Okumidori are increasingly used instead for such teas.
It is said that this cultivar lost its popularity owing to a tendency towards a special fragrance that was considered unappealing. However, the strength of this mountain Yamakai by Tsukiji-San is a mellow, fresh fragrance, potent but not heavy.
For those who know Tsukiji-San’s teas, broadly, it is a relatively rustic fragrance, with tones close to other products by Tsukiji-San: scents that also recall the fact that very little fertilizer is used.
The fragrance is very dense, and it provides a perfect before-taste of the liquor. In the mouth, it attacks the taste buds, the nose, the throat. Smooth and with no heaviness, it glides down of its own accord. Yet, its richness is impressive, and its sweet mellowness does not speak of amino acids. No, it is entirely natural, and harmonizes well with a slightly tannic foray (which can be reduced by using fewer leaves or by infusing for a little less time).
Nonetheless, these powerful flavours do not take you by the hand. You have to reach out to them and learn to appreciate them. They change over the course of infusions: the grassiness and peat of the beginning tend very subtly towards apricots and peaches, with menthol notes.
What remains constant is the length. Your mouth waters long after you have finished drinking the tea.
When the leaves are open, they are rather large, but their slimness is surprising. Tender to the tooth, the leaves of this Yamakai are delightful!
This article does not provide many hints to give you a clear idea of this tea, but like Tôbettô, and even Yokosawa in the end, you need to set aside preconceived notions about Japanese tea when you try this sencha.