The Oxford Blind Tasting Team had success after three consecutive Cambridge victories in the annual Varsity Blind Tasting Match between the two universities last Monday, held at the Oxford-Cambridge Club. The format was identical to last year’s Varsity match – as it has been throughout the Varsity match’s 59 year history – although the wines selected were notably more manageable than those from last year, then described by Jancis Robinson as ‘the trickiest blind tasting ever‘.
Having had a very succesful time in the Blind Tasting Society personally, over the last two years, with some victories in other wine-tasting competitions, a Varsity match victory had still eluded me. Due to the consistent quality of the opposition, and the history of the match, the Varsity match is seen as the pinnacle in university blind tasting. This was my final opportunity to represent Oxford in a Varsity blind tasting match and I had done my best to ensure the team was as ready as possible.
This year’s Oxford team was comprised mostly of students new to blind tasting, with only myself and Ren Lim returning from last year. Taking a leaf out of our competitors’ book, we aimed to focus on consistency across all team members in identification, and thus to maximise scores. Led by our coach Hanneke Wilson, and ably assisted by stalwart members of the society George Scratcherd and Neel Burton, our approach was to focus on identifying regional characteristics in wines in order to make sensible guesses on their origin. Typically these express themselves in the structure of the wine – the acidity, alcohol and body primarily. However, we also concentrated on detecting other elements of the winemaking process that could lead to identification – malolactic fermentation, the use of oak, residual sugar, whether the wine has a clean purity of fruit (typical in the New World) or has some funkier, earthy/vegetal notes. Added to this is the knowledge of the varietal expression itself.
It had been an intense build-up to the match, and I was certainly feeling the strain undertaking our training while currently writing my D.Phil. thesis. Most of the group had been through our blind tasting beginners’ course in the previous term, which covered many of the structural elements of wine, so all that remained was to simply get stuck in and taste a lot of wine! Come the day of the match, we all felt as prepared as possible and were quite keen to get the blind tasting business over with so we could go back to enjoying wine for wine’s sake.
I felt the whites started off badly for me – the room was too cold and the weight of the occasion was making itself felt. However, the wines gradually opened up and I correctly identified the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc and the Mosel Kabinett Riesling – the latter no doubt aided by the fact a very similar wine was our ‘palate calibration exercise’ on the train down to London. A Chablis I took to be further south in Burgundy, and a (very nice) Hunter Valley Semillon I ended up putting in Bordeaux, perhaps overestimating the alcohol and mistaking the Hunter’s classic nutty development for oak. The other two whites were a Verdejo from Spain (which I contemplated as an unoaked Viura, but thought that was too obscure a guess) and a Gavi di Gavi from Italy.
I felt happier during the red round, although in retrospect this may have been unfounded! A Marlborough Pinot Noir was absolutely classic, and a Ribera del Duero Tempranillo I put not too far away in Rioja. Then there was an incredibly peppery Argentinian Malbec – I’d never experienced an aroma on a wine that smelled so much of black pepper! I thus took this to be a Northern Rhône Syrah, a guess which clouded my judgement over the South Australian Shiraz. Surely, I thought, there couldn’t be two wines of the same grape – an error in judgement I’d warned my team about no end! Right bank wines have always been a personal bug-bear of mine, and so it proved with the example in this flight. It was just too tannic and too ripe to be Bordeaux I felt, and ended up placing the wine in Tuscany. Perhaps this was a function of the vintage (2005), nevertheless Right Bank Merlot is something I need to work on. The final wine had me completely stumped. It was pale in colour, ripe in fruit profile yet with a surprising acidity that steered me away from the New World. It turned out to be a Chilean Carmenere– a result that surprised me as all the Carmenere I’ve thus far experienced has been dark and inky. I quite enjoyed this wine and tells me I should expand my knowledge of Carmenere.
The two teams waited nervously, although with a palpable relief that the exam was over, while the judges marked. The prelude to the main announcement was the reserve’s award – won by Cambridge – and the top taster announcement. This year, the prize was won by Ren Lim – an immense achievement, meaning that for at least the last 6 years, by my count, Oxford can claim to have produced the top taster in the Varsity match! The announcement of the overall result was met by an understandably joyful Oxford team, with no-one happier than myself. It seems we were ahead by 10 points after the whites and then took it away with the reds.
I am immensely proud of the team, and especially of Ren, with his impressive personal performance. We certainly did not underestimate the quality of the Cambridge team and all team members committed themselves to training over the last few weeks. I feel we all put in a consistent effort on the day, showing the weeks of dedicated training certainly paid off. We all look forward to traveling to Pol Roger in Champagne in the summer to face the best French university.
It remains for me to offer my commiserations to our worthy opposition and to congratulate my team – Ren Lim, Henry Little, Jan-Karel Pinxten, LJ Ruan, David Soud and Peter Power, our reserve. I’d like to thank our coach, Hanneke Wilson, and the other members of the Oxford Blind Tasting Society who have supported our training. Thanks must go, of course, to our generous sponsors Pol Roger, who really do put on a fantastic competition, to the judges and everyone else involved.
You can read Jancis Robinson’s report of the match here, which contains the details of the wines tasted.
As a postscript, next year the Varsity Blind Tasting Match celebrates 60 years. Pol Roger are sponsoring a book that charts the history of the competition. If you have been involved in a Varsity match in the past, we’d love to hear from you. Please contact Jennifer Segal at email@example.com.