Oxford are the University Wine Champions!

The Oxford University team triumphed over Edinburgh in a nail-biting finish to Wine Australia’s University Wine Champions competition last week.

Victorious Oxford Team (left to right): Ren Lim, George Scratcherd, Quizmaster Sarah Ahmed, James Flewellen, and Yvonne May from Wine Australia. (Photo from Wine Australia.)

I reported here on our semi-final win over Nottingham, with some details of the competition format. The final was very similar; however, to add to the pressure, we were playing in front of a packed audience in one of the exhibition spaces at the Saatchi Gallery. We had a strong supporting crowd, led by members of Oxford’s Australia & New Zealand Society, the Blind Tasting Society, and our sponsors, Oxford Landing Estates.

Quizmaster Sarah Ahmed opened proceedings and guided the teams through the first flight of white wines. Despite the pressure situation I did try to enjoy the wines as they were all excellent examples: Leeuwin Estate Chardonnay, 2008 (which I didn’t manage to taste in my recent trip to Margaret River); Tyrell’s Vat 1 Hunter Semillon, 2003; and Grosset’s Polish Hill Clare Valley Riesling, 2010. The points on offer for starter questions were hotly contested by both teams. Oxford managed to secure two out of three. The bonus questions were notably more difficult than in previous rounds, so after a low scoring flight, we had a narrow lead.

Enter the first blind tasting challenge and a wine perfectly suited to snap identification at a single whiff. A reminder for readers: this part of the competition involved teams attempting to guess the grape variety of a wine tasted (or in practicality, only smelled) on the buzzer. A whopping 25 points are awarded for correct identification, meaning success on this round has the ability to completely change the game. In the couple of seconds I took to smell the wine, identify it immediately as aromatic and then start to narrow down between the two options in my head – Riesling or Sauvignon Blanc – Edinburgh had buzzed in with the correct answer – Riesling. Edinburgh took the lead.

Our game plan with the reds was to fight back doggedly to secure enough of a lead to negate the random element of the final red wine blind tasting. The reds we shown were  also excellent: Ten Minutes by Tractor Pinot Noir, 2010; Clonakilla Hilltops Shiraz, 2010; and (my personal favourite of the night) Penfolds Bin 389 Cabernet-Shiraz, 2003. We started well when the Edinburgh captain gifted us a question by buzzing in too early. However, it was a common theme due to nerves on the night, as yours truly did the same thing for the next starter! Fortunately, we managed to secure the third and final starter question for this round. Unfortunately, however, the bonus questions were proving to be just as difficult as before. I distinctly remember getting the question about Kylie Minogue of Neighbours fame right (!) and there were a few others, but come the final red blind tasting round we had only edged ahead by 20 points – not enough to guarantee a victory.

The Oxford team wait for the blind tasting wine to be poured. (Photo from Wine Australia.)

The final wine was poured and the countdown begun. I studied the wine in the glass, a moderately deep ruby; earthy, spicey aromas – Shiraz perhaps? My musings were cut short by a buzzer – from Ren on our side. “Pinot noir”, he said, a little nervously. The colour was fairly pale, but surely it was too deep to be a pinot. Wasn’t it…? After an interminable silence, Sarah confirmed the truth – “Pinot noir is the wrong answer.” It was out of our hands now and the competition was Edinburgh’s to win. “Cabernet Sauvignon” came the guess. A reasonable guess I thought, but something didn’t feel right to me. Playing for drama, another sustained silence ensued – even the Edinburgh  supporters were quiet – before Sarah announced “Cabernet Sauvignon is the wrong answer.” The wine was, in fact, a Cabernet-Shiraz blend – as per the Penfolds we had tasted earlier. A very tough wine to guess blind, I feel, and one that would have taken a lot more time to taste than the few seconds we gave ourselves to have a fair shot at a right answer.

And that was that. With no points scored in the final tasting, Oxford took the competition final out by 20 points! Edinburgh were gracious in defeat, and this match certainly was the closest we had played in by far – an indication of worthy finalists.

The University Wine Champions competition has been enormous fun, and I hope Wine Australia run it next year. We are certainly looking forward to our prize trip to Australian wine regions in April. No doubt I’ll have plenty of things to post from there.

In the meantime, the competition has already received a fair amount of media attention, including the Drinks Business, Harpers, and Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages. The A plus wine blog also has a report, with links to more photos from the match.

Once again our thanks must go to: our sponsors, Oxford Landing Estates and Negociants UK; our coach Hanneke Wilson; all who came to support the team in the Saatchi Gallery and at the previous rounds; quizmaster Sarah Ahmed; and, of course, the Wine Australia team for producing such an excellent and smoothly-run competition.

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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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6 Responses to Oxford are the University Wine Champions!

  1. beyondanomie says:

    Congratulations James; and well done to the team.

    Congratulations too on your burgeoning media profile! 🙂

  2. Congratulations to your team sir! This just inspire us wine enthusiast to love wine more! Cheers!

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