March 8, 2013 7:20 pm

The wine race

The Oxford v Cambridge wine tasting is an extraordinary match – held well before the Boat Race but taken just as seriously
Illustration by Ingram Pinn of two competing rowing teams©Ingram Pinn

Blind tasting is a very odd activity. Contrary to what many imagine, it has nothing to do with blindfolds. It involves tasting a wine without seeing the label and it can deliver shocking surprises. I tasted seven non-vintage champagnes blind with a group of professionals recently. There was horror when they discovered the wine most of them preferred carried a label they regarded as their least favourite. That sort of result is especially common with champagne, arguably the most image-driven – rather than quality-driven – wine of all. But it happens all the time when wine is tasted blind.

Because I’m interested in how wines really taste as opposed to how I think they should, I taste wine blind as often as I can, especially when assessing similar young wines. But blind tasting when you know absolutely nothing about the wine in front of you is something completely different. The notoriously difficult Master of Wine exams include three sessions during which you have a dozen glasses in front of you and nothing more helpful than a printed exam paper asking you to identify each wine as closely as possible, and assess its quality.

Now that the MW is behind me, I taste wine completely blind only very rarely, and never in public. (When I started out in wine everyone expected me to get it wrong and noticed only when I got it right – today the reverse is true.) So my blind tastings these days are round the dinner table with good friends – and once a year when I act as a judge, with Hugh Johnson, in the Oxford v Cambridge wine-tasting competition.

This is the most extraordinary varsity match, always held well before the Boat Race but taken just as seriously nowadays. This year’s taste-off took place at the end of last month, as usual in the Oxford and Cambridge Club on Pall Mall in London. The teams of six plus a reserve had been training since the beginning of the academic year. The Cambridge coach, a past competitor who has served in the US army in Iraq and signs himself “Major Dave”, put them through five blind tastings a week in the month leading up to the match.

The Oxford coach, historian Hanneke Wilson, inflicts a similar routine, including a 12-bottle tasting under match conditions every Saturday afternoon. Captain of her team was Brunei-born biophysicist Ren Lim, whom I had met at last year’s competition where he was crowned top taster. Another alumnus of the Oxford team, Alex Hunt, now a Master of Wine and professional wine buyer, told me how he’d been drafted in to organise some practice tasting this year and Ren had nailed a 2011 Pinot Grigio from Collio precisely. Such precision, I should report, is rare.

When I attended my first Oxbridge wine-tasting match in the 1970s, two brothers from Hong Kong were competing and this was thought hugely novel. In this year’s teams, six out of the 14 had Asian surnames and the Cambridge team included an American, a Pole and a Lithuanian doing a PhD in “automatic emotion prediction in music”. I do hope none of them is neglecting their studies for wine. The top Cambridge taster, Stefan Kuppen, was a Dutch ex-investment banker and the top Oxford taster with exactly the same score (140 points out of a possible 240) was a first-timer, chemistry PhD student Tom Arnold.

Georges Vernay, Coteau de Vernon 2010 Condrieu, Rhone

Georges Vernay, Coteau de Vernon 2010 Condrieu, Rhone: this was the most difficult wine to identify as it is still too young to show much Viognier or Condrieu character. Hugh and I thought it was a very good Soave

In the end Oxford won by a dribble, 689 to 677 marks. Cambridge captain, Ellie Kim, a second-time competitor who grew up in Korea and Canada, was distraught. “I can’t believe it,” she kept repeating when the results were announced in Berry Bros’ cellars across the road, making me as co-marker feel decidedly guilty. Hugh and I always taste blind ourselves first so that we can judge what incorrect guesses we feel are admissible. And then, on the anonymous but numbered papers submitted, we allot up to five marks for the dominant grape variety, up to eight for geographical origin, up to two for vintage and up to five for the, generally almost illegible, written comments on each wine.

Usually the wines are fairly run-of-the-mill but, this year, Pol Roger champagne, which has sponsored the event since 1992, decided to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the competition by persuading some of the world’s top wine producers to donate some of their finest bottles. So it was that we were treated to the likes of Le Montrachet and first growth Château Haut-Brion, not to mention a 1953 to celebrate the anniversary (see below).

I was reminded of how, when asked to give tips to MW students on the tasting papers, I assured them that they would never be served a first growth, since the institute couldn’t afford one. The next year the red wines set before the candidates included three vintages of Château Lafite. (This was long before Chinese-led inflation of that particular first-growth’s prices.)

None of the tasters this year seemed to realise that the wines were quite so smart, but that’s not surprising since blind tasting is the least flattering way to show off a wine. And many of the student competitors had very probably never tasted a first growth, much less a wine from the 1950s.

The same could not be said for two other teams – wine writers v wine trade – who, exceptionally to celebrate the anniversary, were given exactly the same wines to identify in a separate room, their papers marked by senior Masters of Wine Anthony Hanson and Sebastian Payne. The atmosphere in their room was so competitively tense that at one point Pol Roger’s selector of the blind wines refused to enter.

In the event, the scores of wine writers Oz Clarke, Matthew Jukes, Will Lyons, Peter Richards MW, Anthony Rose, Michael Schuster and Joe Wadsack were even closer to those of the trade team of five Masters of Wine and two Master Sommeliers. The trade won by just six points. But the top individual taster was, much to his surprise, Anthony Rose of The Independent with 176 marks. “I must say, I have new respect for you hacks,” judge Sebastian Payne MW grudgingly admitted. “You’re actually quite good at your job.”

See tasting notes on JancisRobinson.com

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The varsity wine list

Whites

• Huet, Clos du Bourg 2011 Vouvray Sec, Loire

• Ch de Beaucastel, Vieilles Vignes 2011

• Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Rhône

• Marquis de Laguiche 2008 Le Montrachet, Burgundy

• Egon Müller, Scharzhofberger Auslese 1987 Mosel, Germany

• Georges Vernay, Coteau de Vernon 2010 Condrieu, Rhône

• Ch Climens 2004 Barsac, Bordeaux

Reds

• Clos Rougeard, Les Poyeaux 2006 Saumur-Champigny, Loire

• Dom Dujac, Premier Cru Aux Malconsorts 2006 Vosne-Romanée

• Biondi-Santi, Riserva 2006 Brunello di Montalcino, Tuscany

• Ch Haut-Brion 1995 Pessac-Léognan, Bordeaux

• Vega Sicilia, Unico 1953 Ribera del Duero, Spain

• Kongsgaard Syrah 2009 Carneros, California

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