Oxford team through to final of University Wine Challenge

The Oxford team of (L-R) Ren Lim, James Flewellen and George Scratcherd, with the Quizmaster - Sarah Ahmed.

Earlier this month, the Oxford University blind tasting team confirmed a place in Wine Australia‘s “University Wine Challenge” by defeating Nottingham University in the semi-final. The Wine Challenge is a knockout competition with teams of three from eight universities competing over seven rounds. The prize is a “trip of a lifetime” exploring some of Australia’s famous wine regions.

Guided by the Wine Detective, Sarah Ahmed, the two teams taste six wines over two rounds (three whites, then three reds) and answer starter questions on facts and trivia relating to each wine, by being first to hit a buzzer. The team that wins the starter question (worth 10 points) then has the opportunity to answer three bonus questions, each worth 5 points. The scope for these questions is a bit greater, with questions relating to general wine knowledge (“Why is Cabernet Sauvignon sometimes referred to as the ‘donut variety’?”), Australian wine knowledge (“Which well-known Australian wine writer has a property in Victoria?“) and Australian trivia (“Which song is known as Australia’s informal national anthem?“).

At the end of each round, teams compete in a ‘speed blind tasting’ of another wine – perhaps one of the varieties tasted earlier, or perhaps not. The first person to buzz in with the correct grape variety(-ies) wins a whopping 25 points for the team. As you can imagine, this is not the most educational way of tasting a wine, especially when the differences between many Australian reds in particular are quite subtle, to my tastes. However, I guess it adds an element of drama for the audience, and can keep the competition open until the last question.

In our semi-final against Nottingham, we got off to a flying start getting two of the first three starter questions based on the white wines, and then answering correctly the six associated bonus questions. Wines tasted were: Domaine A ‘Stoney Vineyard’ Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Tasmania; Tahbilk Marsanne 2007, Nagambie Lakes, Victoria; Vasse Felix Semillon-Sauvignon Blanc 2010, Margaret River, WA. At the first speed tasting round we were up 50 points to 15. The speed tasting question was tricky – the wine was clearly oaked, yet the reasonable answer of Chardonnay given by Oxford’s George “Lightning Finger” Scratcherd turned out to be incorrect. Fortuitously for us, Nottingham also gave an incorrect answer (Semillon) when the wine was, in fact, an oaked Sauvignon Blanc from Domaine A in Tasmania.

We kept the focus for the red wine rounds, again securing two starter questions and a number of bonus questions. Wines tasted here were: Innocent Bystander Pinot Noir 2010, Yarra Valley Victoria; McHenry Hohnen 3 Amigos Shiraz-Grenache-Mataro 2007, Margaret River, WA; Peter Lehmann ‘Stonewell’ Shiraz 2006, Barossa Valley, SA. Come the final blind tasting round we were comfortably ahead 95-25. Still smarting from the earlier mis-identification of the oaked Sauvignon, George got straight off the mark identifying the blind red wine correctly as a Grenache. Final score 120-25.

Despite the scoreline, Nottingham were indeed worthy opponents and the nature of the competition means that the scoreline may not accurately reflect how close the two teams are together.

The final of the competition is to be held on Australia Day (26th January) in the Saatchi Gallery, London, where we take on the team from Edinburgh University. Supporters are welcome to attend – if you’d like to come along, email me at oxfordblindtasting@gmail.com so I can have your name added to the guest list.

Finally, I’d like to thank our team’s generous sponsors, Oxford Landing Estates, who have been very supportive of our tasting training regime! and the team at Wine Australia UK, who have done a fantastic job of organising this competition. You can read more about the competition at their A Plus wine blog here.

PS – In case you’re wondering, the answers to the sample questions above are: “Due to a hole in the mid-palate”; “James Halliday”; and “Waltzing Matilda”.

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About James

James Flewellen is a biophysicist at the University of Oxford. He has competed for the University in international blind tasting competitions and won several awards. In addition, James is a wine educator and wine writer, most recently co-authoring "The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting". He also writes for the international gastronome site "The Rambling Epicure", and can be contacted for wine consultancy and educational courses through the "Oxford Wine Academy".
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One Response to Oxford team through to final of University Wine Challenge

  1. Pingback: Oxford are the University Wine Champions! | The Oxford Wine Blog

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