The end of April saw Oxford University send a team of three blind tasters to compete in the Sciences Po International Tasting (SPIT) Competition held at Maison Bollinger in Aÿ, Champagne. The competition was perfectly timed for an escape from the bout of Royal Wedding fever seizing the country; however the internationally-flavoured Oxford team found the French almost as enamoured with the Royal festivities as the British. Indeed, our very generous hosts at Bollinger were bursting at the seams to inform us that their Royal-warranted champagne had been the tipple of choice at the wedding reception.
The competition certainly prides itself on having a more international flavour than most other France-based blind tasting competitions. As well as four teams from the UK, there were representatives from Italy and Switzerland, alongside the eight French teams, two of which were from local schools in Champagne. Theoretical questions in the competition could concern themselves with any wine-producing region in the world, and, excluding the champagne round, the wines in the tasting rounds could also be international.
Each team of three competes collaboratively to come up with a single answer for each team. The competition consists of three sections: champagne, still white wine and red wine. Each section is divided into two rounds: a theoretical round, where questions are displayed on a screen in French and English, with points assigned for difficulty; and a tasting round, where three wines are presented to the team members, who are then required to answer specific questions on the wines’ origin, grape and age. Points are tallied after each round to give a running score; at the end the six rounds, the top three teams go through to a final tasting round to decide the winner.
Oxford started off slowly with the theoretical questions on the Champagne region; unsurprisingly the two local teams surged ahead. We clawed back some points with the champagne tasting round, however, being the only team (along with judge, Steven Spurrier) to correctly identify the vintage order of the three samples of Bollinger La Grande Année.
During the white wine section, Oxford really showed its pedigree, demonstrating a broad knowledge of Italian whites, Burgundy appellations and French poetry to reach the top three after the theory questions. The white wine tasting round consisted of three wines made from the same grape varietal. The team sharing our table, Les Mines, could only watch in amazement as we correctly identified the grape as Riesling and then the individual wines as from the Clare Valley in South Australia, the Rheingau in Germany and Alsace in France. Following the white wine section, Oxford had surged to first place.
The red wine section proved to be rather challenging with an Argentinean Malbec and an uncharacteristically light Bandol perplexing us on the tasting round, however we did correctly identify the claret. We ceded some ground during this section, however managed to remain in a shared first place with Cambridge, while the Parisian School, École Normale Supérieure, rounded out the top three for the final tasting.
For the final round, the top three teams were given a tasting sample of a champagne and a red wine and ten minutes in which to prepare a presentation on each of these wines. A single member of each team, typically the captain, was nominated to present a complete tasting note, along with identification of the wines, to the judging panel.
It is here where the efficacy of the team dynamic really comes into its own. The advantages of a collaborative team effort in such a competition are notable in that three heads have a greater pool of information and experience to draw upon. The downside, however, is that too often a dominant voice can influence others. This is especially true in the blind tasting environment, where a stray word can implant a false flavour or aroma into your perception and thus dramatically alter your final identification. We were very clear from the outset that we would give each other a silent space for a few minutes to allow us to draw our own independent notes and identifications. As the burden of presenting the note was to fall to me, I swiftly set to work writing a comprehensive note on the two wines. It was a credit to my fellow team members, Neel Burton and Omar Farid, that I was able to draw upon their expertise and opinions without feeling pressured into a decision. We thus arrived at a democratic team decision.
Having drawn the straw to present my note last, I made the most of the late April sunshine to enjoy my tasting samples, as they were very impressive wines indeed. The red was a medium deep ruby, with a very slight brickening at the rim. The nose showed to be very elegant, concentrated but not overt. Initial aromas were truffles, earth, vanilla – clearly from aging in new French oak. There was an appealing green herbaceous note alongside cedar wood and forest floor. All this was underpinned by a core of blackberry and blueberry, ripe but not overstated, and coffee and chocolate. The palate revealed an incredibly balanced wine. The alcohol we put at about 13%, however all facets of this wine – acidity, body, alcohol – were in complete harmony. The tannins were firm, grippy and forward, yet retained an elegant texture. The finish was lengthy, with notes of anise and liquorice. Altogether a powerful yet elegant wine. Clearly a Cabernet Sauvignon-dominated Left Bank claret – we put the proportion at about 80% Cabernet – and clearly a very serious wine. Having come this far, it is difficult to nail down the vintage, the appellation and the producer, without having drunk a lot of class growth Bordeaux previously. We decided on a wine from Pauillac, vintage 2000, and given the quality of the wine, classed it as Lafite.
We were the closest team on vintage, and the only one to credit the quality of the wine. It was not Lafite, however, and turned out to be Château Margaux, 1999.
The champagne was a rich, deep golden colour, with fine elegant bubbles. It had quite incredible aromatics: golden-delicious apples, subtle hints of lemon cheesecake, truffle and brioche, rich and buttery and very well developed. It had almost an aged Meursault-like character to the nose. Crisp acidity cut through a full, creamy body. There had clearly been extensive lees contact in the making of this wine, and the richness indicated Pinot Noir dominance. A very finely textured and elegant mousse rounded out the mouthfeel along with some sweetness, indicative of a Brut style. This wine had serious finesse, perhaps best exemplified by the very long finish, which started with a ripe, round red apple note before being overrun by truffles. A perfect match for foie gras or pan-fried scallops, although I could happily have the wine all by itself.
We credited this wine as Bollinger La Grande Année, vintage 1990; however, this was not to do the wine justice. It was in fact Bollinger’s mythical champagne, Vieilles Vignes Françaises, vintage 1996, of which only a few thousand bottles are produced in a given vintage!
The rest of the day passed with a lovely lunch at Maison Bollinger, prepared by Philippet Traiteur, with dishes chosen especially to match three different Bollinger champagnes. Nerves were taut during lunch as the prizegiving was not until the lunch concluded. M. Jérôme Philippon, the director of Champagne Bollinger, announced the order of the competing teams. Especially given our recent defeat to Cambridge at the Varsity Tasting Match, we were very pleased to triumph in top place, over École Normale Supérieure in second, and Cambridge in third. It was gratifying to hear M. Philippon congratulate Oxford on their sense of style – a reference, in part, to him seeing us adjust our ties in the car park earlier in the morning!
We were treated to a tour of the Bollinger estate and the extensive cellars. Some highlights included seeing genuine Balthazar bottles (equivalent to 16 regular bottles, or 12 litres) aging in the cellar, and conversing with Steven Spurrier beside one of the original plots of Vieilles Vignes Françaises Pinot Noir.
On behalf of the Oxford team, my sincere thanks must go to all the competitors who travelled such distances to compete, to the wine society at Sciences Po who organised a very professionally run competition, to Mr Spurrier and the rest of the judging panel for their expertise and time, and of course to M. Philippon and Champagne Bollinger for their incredible generosity in hosting this competition.