It was a drizzly morning that saw the Oxford Team board the 7.52 train to Paddington on Wednesday 23rd February for the 58th annual Varsity Blind Tasting Competition. The weather worsened upon arrival into London, but it at least fitted with the cosmopolitan team’s stereotype of the English capital, and the grey skies provided adequate natural lighting through the skylight in the competition tasting room. The venue for the match was the Oxford-Cambridge Club on Pall Mall, and the match was very generously sponsored by the Pol Roger Champagne House.
The Oxford Team had worked hard over the previous term. Drilled by their coach, Hanneke Wilson, and more-than-ably assisted by team alumnus George Scratcherd, the team had tasted literally hundreds of wines at up to 10 weekly tasting trainings. One thing the team had not counted on though, was the gauntlet of obscurity laid down by Pol’s wine selector, Cassidy Dart. Indeed, such was the difficulty of the selection that the judges, Oxbridge alumni and famed wine critics Jancis Robinson and Hugh Johnson, who also taste the wines blind, were said to be scratching their heads over many of the wines.
Round one was the whites. Served rather cold and all identical in colour, this was a difficult flight to get anything out of initially. The Pfalz Riesling the team had quaffed on the train down put us in good stead to nail the Dönnhoff Riesling from the Nähe. The other wines were less obvious. A neutral Loire Muscadet was gettable, but easily confused with the myriad other ‘neutral wines’ out there. A South African Roussanne was certainly not on anyone’s radar, nor was an Aligote, a Clairette or a Sauvignon Gris. Nevertheless, sensible guessing on the locations of these wines gave us a good showing on the whites and at half time both sides were evenly matched with Cambridge leading Oxford by only three points.
Fortunately not ice cold, the reds were at first more accessible to the nose and palate. We thought points were there to be scored; however, it soon became clear that Cassidy was up to his old tricks. It would be fair to say that nobody got the Blaufrankisch, nor the Mencia. Even the Savigny Les Beaune was a very tannic, atypical Pinot. The other wines were a 2007 Côtes du Rhône, a Cru Beaujolais and an Italian Primitivo, which to our credit, some of us got as a Zinfandel.
Nerves were fraught at the pub following the match, while we waited for the judges to mark and as Cassidy revealed the identity of the wines to some incredulous competitors. There were a large number of varietals that most of us had not even heard of, let alone tasted. As we filed back to the Oxford-Cambridge Club and showed the answer sheets to the coaches, the Oxford coach could be heard to mutter, “Let the lottery begin.”
And a lottery it was. The wines were there to be confused with others, resulting in a large difference in points. Unfortunately the dice rolled the way of the Cambridge side, who took the overall points on the reds and thus the match. To their credit, they were gracious in victory and in full acknowledgment that the match could very easily have gone the other way.
A lot of credit must go to the Oxford reserve, Ren Lim, who performed very well, but ended up facing Cambridge’s highest scorer! The question must be asked, if Cambridge’s highest scorer was not even a competing team member, then how did they win? Well, ultimately it seems that Cambridge consistency overcame Oxford flair. It was not a total whitewash, however, with the top taster prize going to the Oxford Captain.
The Oxford Team of Lukas Brandt, Omar Farid, Tom Parker, Paul Phelps and Will Pooley all put in a huge amount of effort going into this competition. They can all be proud of that, and look ahead to thrashing the old enemy next year.
Oxford Captain 2011
- Making Blind Tasting Easy (theoxfordwineblog.wordpress.com)