It had been a long time coming.
The Pol Roger International Tasting Trophy has been fought over by the best of England and France in an epic blind tasting of French wines since 2003. The winning team of the Oxford-Cambridge Varsity match travels to Pol Roger HQ in Epernay to take on the top placed French university. Thanks to a three-year losing streak against our veritable opponents, Cambridge, in the Varsity match, this would be Oxford’s first visit since 2008. The French champion is traditionally from a Parisian school; however, this dominance seems to be have been broken with Lille SKEMA triumphing in their domestic contest.
The rules of the competition are simple – if somewhat stacked in favour of the home team. As in our Varsity match, teams compete over two flights of six wines – whites, then reds. Individuals record their tasting notes, the blend of grapes, region, appellation and vintage. These are marked and summed to find the team with the highest score.
The catch for us is that unlike the Varsity match, where the wines may be from all over the world, these wines are all entirely French.
With the immense range of French wine styles – the majority of which are relatively obscure on the export market – it was a daunting prospect. However, we attempted to prepare as best we could with our coach, Hanneke, tracking down some (impossible to guess) gems such as Mondeuse Noir from Savoie, oxidative Grenache Blanc from Roussillon and Vermentino from Corsica.
In Champagne, the battle lines were drawn and we sized up our erstwhile opponents at a pre-match dinner. However, unlike a boxing match weigh-in where the opposing sides attempt a little ‘gamesmanship’ to get a psychological edge, we found it a little hard to assess the fight ahead by our opponents’ menu choice…
The next morning, in the airy tasting room at Maison Pol Roger, the whites were awaiting. A pre-match team visit to Alsace ensured we should be able to nail the aromatic varieties – useful preparation as I could smell the Alsatian Riesling in the white flight a mile off. The remaining five wines were less easy: a rather austere Burgundy, a musty Jurançon sec, a very nice Rhône blend from Jamet – with surprisingly crisp acidity, a Saumur blanc and a Rolle (aka Vermentino) from Provence. Not exactly classic French wines see everyday on the wine store shelves in the UK. Nevertheless, we felt like we’d put down some reasonable guesses and looked ahead to the reds.
If we were expecting an easier ride here, we were out of luck. Two very pale wines were at the top of the flight – sneakily, both were Pinot Noir, one from Burgundy, one from Sancerre. The Burgundy I got, the Sancerre I put as a Savoie wine. The remaining four I had trouble differentiating; bizarrely, seeing at how little wine I’d had from this region, the one I felt most confident on was a Bergerac Rouge. I was way off on the Gigondas, and the St-Emilion; however, I got partial points for identifying Syrah as the dominant grape in the Côteaux du Languedoc wine.
It was a tense time in the drawing room at Pol waiting for the judges to mark the sheets and to unveil the winner. Both teams had retired to different rooms, having battled valiantly and not willing to relax (or indeed discuss the wines…) before the final result. The last time Oxford had won this competition was back in 2006; had we done enough for another famous victory?
At half-time, we were told, one team led by a slim margin of 15 points. Could the trailing team make up this difference in the reds? No! As it turned out, Oxford was in front, extending our margin to 35 points and taking the top two individual scores!
The captain of Lille SKEMA, Sylvain, has an entertaining write-up of the match here(in French) likening the contest to a Napoleonic battle. I won’t go that far with my report; however, in consolation to the French, while they may have invented the sport of blind tasting and found themselves defeated once again, this pales in comparison to the list of sports invented by the English that they no longer succeed in…!
Commiserations to our opponents, Sylvain, Amicie and Quentin and congratulations to my fellow Oxford team members, David and especially Ren, who took away the prize for best individual taster. Many thanks to Pol Roger for their generous sponsorship of this competition, our coach, Hanneke, for her hard work in sourcing such obscure wines for our training and the rest of the Oxford team – Jan-Karel, Henry, LJ and Peter.