Oolong teas from the Wuyi mountain region of Northern Fujian province, China, are generally known as "Yen Cha" or "Yan Cha," which means "rock" or "crag" tea, in reference to the famous mountains, crags, and rock cliffs where the tea plants traditionally grow. They are renowned for their unique characters, rarity, and accessibility. In fact, the most famous Wuyi Rock Tea--Da Hong Pao (Big Red Robe)--is currently one of two oolong teas on the China Ten Famous Tea list. In fact, the Wuyi region has such a rich tea production history that it has its own "famous tea" list, the Si Da Ming Cong, which refers to the four most famous Wuyi teas (as both cultivars and finished teas). They are Da Hong Pao, Shui Jin Gui (Golden Marine Turtle), Tieluohan (Iron Warrior Monk), and Bai Ji Guan (White Rooster's Crest). Two of the other most well-known Wuyi Rock Teas are Shui Xian (Water Sprite) and Rou Gui (Cassia Bark). Oolong production in the Wuyi mountain region is so dominant that it makes up about 80% of the region's output. Black teas (like the famous Lapsang Souchang) make up 14% and the rare but sometimes high-quality green Wuyi teas make up only 6%.
As with most famous teas, the highest quality Wuyi teas place equal importance on the cultivars that the leaves come from and the processing methods used to produce them (for a very interesting two-part article about the history of the Da Hong Pao cultivar, read Guang Lee's excellent two part article on the Hou De blog: Part 1, Part 2). In reference to my introductory oolong entry, Wuyi oolongs are typified by their oxidation and roasting; in general they are highly-oxidized and roasted with medium- to high-fire for long periods of time, giving them a characteristic roasted, warming flavor. Premium Wuyi oolongs offer a balance between this roasting character and delicate floral, herbal, fruity, and other aromas and flavors that unfold with each steeping. Lower-grade Wuyi oolongs tend to be dominated by the roasted character due to low quality leaves or unskilled roasting abilities, so it may be difficult to tell the difference between different types. If you've tried a few Wuyi oolongs and are of the opinion that they all taste the same, rest assured that this is not the case and there are Wuyis out there that can really blow your expectations away and justify their reputation!
To offer an example of a Wuyi oolong, I've shared pictures of a nice mid-grade Da Hong Pao that we sell at Miro Tea. In this first picture (click to enlarge), you can see that the leaves have been rolled into long, curly shapes. This is called "stripe rolling," and is typical of most (if not all) Wuyi oolongs. Another thing to notice is the color--because of their high oxidation and roasting, Wuyi oolongs often exhibit much darker coloration than other oolongs. At a quick glance, the color appears black, but if you look closer, you can see dark green, brown, and reddish colors as well, especially depending on the lighting conditions. High-grade oolongs usually consist of quite large leaves, so this oolong's mix of medium-large and a few broken leaves is a good indication of its medium-grade.
After infusion, some of this Da Hong Pao's trademark characteristics are revealed. The tea's liquor is a dark amber, which is again typical of Wuyi oolongs in general. The leaves have slightly unfurled to reveal their original size, as well as the variation of color that can often take place in one leaf. Wuyi teas are often so tightly stripe-rolled that they remain so even after several infusions. If you're brewing a Wuyi in a small pot or gaiwan gong fu style, make sure to leave enough room for the leaves to unfurl as much as they can; if they're too cramped, they won't expand and release all of their flavors evenly (or at all).
Wuyi oolongs are such a unique treat that it's worthwhile to seek out excellent examples of the teas you're interested in. At Miro this spring (after Wuyi harvests come in), we'll be offering a high-grade Da Hong Pao and a more affordable mid-grade selection to represent this diverse and famous region.