You will struggle to find anything more typically ‘Oxford’ than a black tie dinner. Perhaps it is because of a small number of College- and University-sanctioned events that actually require this dress, which thus encourage various College and University societies to hold their own black tie events in order to get maximum usage out of that dinner jacket. I’m also fairly certain that you can’t graduate from Oxford if you don’t know how to tie your own bowtie, thus black tie events make the perfect opportunity for practice.
At any rate, it was lovely to see a core group of 30 or so past and present members of the Oxford Blind Tasting Society resplendent in their black tie attire for our final event of the academic year, held last month. The evening was based around a three-course dinner in the sumptuous surrounds of the Fellows’ dining room at New College, one of Oxford’s oldest and grandest colleges. Two wines were served alongside each course. The excellent value Trimbach Riesling Reserve, 2004, and an interesting (from a blind tasting perspective…) Crozes-Hermitage Blanc (Pochon), 2007, were alongside the seabass with wasabi sauce. Château Cantermerle, 2004, and Crozes-Hermitage Cuvée Gaby, 2001, accompanied the beef Wellington.
The dinner itself was preceded by a blind tasting of wines specially selected for us by Tom Parker from the cellars of Farr Vintners, our generous sponsors for the evening. Tom has written an excellent post about the evening here, thus these are my brief impressions of the wines served.
Pol Roger Reserve, vintage 1996, was our celebratory start to the evening. A classic example of a classic champagne, this wine was a deeper colour than most champagnes – indicating its age. It had a well-rounded biscuity aromatic profile with golden apples, lemon, mushroom, and hints of orange peel. A light body, with a gentle, but robust mousse, lovely freshness and complex flavours reminiscent of the nose. A delicious champagne, and identified perfectly by the Society’s senior member, Dr Hanneke Wilson.
The whites started with an Austrian Riesling: Pichler FX V de Smaragd Riesling Loibner Steinertal, vintage 2000. A highly aromatic wine, with a complex aroma of butterscotch, sherbert, lime zest and lemon-scented verbena. Hints of diesel/benzene accompanied, indicative of the wine’s development. The alcohol was noticeable, but not out of balance (13.5%). To taste, the palate was a lot drier than the nose may lead you to expect. The crisp acidity balanced a fairly full body with a waxy, opulent finish. Austrian Riesling is relatively difficult to get your hands on, and it was fantastic to experience such an excellent example.
White wine #2 was a classic Burgundy: Puligny Montrachet ‘Sous le Puits’, vintage 2009, by producer Verget. Medium-straw in the glass; aromatic with butter, cinnamon, and apricot. Very well balanced in the palate: dry, full-bodied with an opulent, oily texture. Moderate alcohol and crisp acidity. What struck me most about this wine was the long, mouth-filling finish, redolent with lemons and minerality. An excellent wine, currently drinking very well.
Moving to a pair of reds, we were first shown the 1999 ‘Roc de Cambes’, produced by François Mitjaville, and from the Côtes de Bourg on the Right Bank in Bordeaux. The blend of this wine is 65% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc. A fairly deep ruby in the glass with a decent gradient, brickening at the rim. Wonderfully aromatic with savoury vegetal notes – almost asparagus and carrot – alongside blackcurrant, chocolate and coffee from the French oak. Medium acidity, a ‘medium+’ body, spice, mushroom and plum flavours and firm, precise, ‘vegetal’ tannins rounded out an interesting wine.
The final red of the tasting was a fascinating wine, and in a style I’d not come across before. Domaine de Trévallon, vintage 1989, from the Côteaux d’Aix-en-Provence. This wine is 50% Syrah and 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and had the blind tasters in the room very confused, with some putting this wine in the northern Rhône, and others in Bordeaux. As so often happens in blind tasting, they were as right as you can be while still getting the wine completely wrong, as this wine did indeed have characteristics of both regions. Medium ruby in the glass, with a long gradient just turning to vermillion at the rim. A fragrant, complex nose, with mocha, cedar, boysenberry, strawberry, white pepper, white truffle, cigar and black tea all entering my mind. On the palate, the wine had a ripe, blackcurrant entry, mellowing to a dark, molasses finish. Medium alcohol with fresh acidity, softish, forward and round tannins on a medium-weighted body. A very nice wine and I can see why this is one of Tom’s personal favourites!
We returned to the tasting room for the dessert wine, following dinner, a tour of the New College cellars, and a passionfruit tart with dark chocolate sauce for dessert. (Challenge for the day is to suggest a dessert wine that would go with that…) The sweet wine, sensibly served after dessert and coffee, was Château Suduiraut, Sauternes, vintage 2003, a classic Semillon-dominated Sauternes. Medium-deep gold, with just a hint of green in the colour. Wonderful aromas of an ‘aged library’ (with a prevalence of ancient libraries around, Oxford blind tasters have even been known to describe Sauternes aromas in relation to a particular library reading room!), vanilla, canned peach and lemon cheesecake. Fairly high acidity and notably high alcohol accompanied a medium-weight body, with only a hint of viscosity, moderate sweetness and vanilla and apricots on the finish. Delicious!
The year has been a particularly successful one for the Blind Tasting Society. While we may have lost to our arch-rivals, Cambridge, in the annual Varsity match, we triumphed over all winning the international SPIT competition held in Champagne. We have run a successful beginners’ course during the first term, drawing up to 60 people for tastings and sometimes even maxing out the number of seats we had available! The Society has put on a huge range of tastings with specific wine regions such as Sancerre, the Southern Rhône, Burgundy, Italy, Iberia, both banks of the Gironde and Germany. We have been most generously supported by friends of the Society such as Rupert Hosking, Jasper Morris MW, Mark Savage MW, Sebastian Payne MW, Anthony Hanson MW, who have all provided exceptional tastings.
I looked through some of our previous term cards for the year and discovered that we had put on 46 tastings throughout the 24 weeks of academic term time, with an average of 8.4 bottles per tasting (excluding additonal team training tastings!). Thus society members were able to sample an average of 2.3 different wines per day during the academic year! This looks like rather a lot, and it should be made clear that blind tasting is not your typical ‘drinking society’ pursuit. All members are interested in the intellectual pursuit of tasting, identifying and enjoying fine wine. It is gratifying to see huge passions for this inimitable beverage develop in people who, at the start of the year, had only a passing interest in wine.
I look forward to another successful year involved in the Blind Tasting Society. If joining the Society is something that may interest you, or a friend, do get in touch. In the meantime, I’ll be updating this blog with some informal summer tastings over the break, along with myriad miscellany of wine-related articles of interest!