Oxford at the Left Bank Bordeaux Cup

At the end of June a team of blind tasters – Neel Burton, Henry Little and myself – travelled to Bordeaux to represent Oxford University in the Left Bank Bordeaux Cup. The LBBC (as it is affectionately known) is the expansion of a competition formerly known as the Vingt sur Vin, in which Oxford traditionally competed against Cambridge and two Parisian schools in a wine tasting match that tested both theoretical knowledge and practical tasting ability of Left Bank Bordeaux wines.

Baron Eric de Rothschild shows the traditional garb of La Commanderie du Bontemps, complete with the ‘pudding bowl’ hat.

The competition is organised and sponsored by La Commanderie du Bontemps de Médoc et des Graves, Sauternes et Barsac. This mouthful is a trade body of Left Bank winemakers, châteaux proprietors and merchants formed to promote the wines of the Médoc. The organisation has been around for over 60 years, yet traces its lineage back to a similar guild that existed through a religious order in the Middle Ages. It is for this reason that members of the Commanderie thus wear a robe (scarlet for red wine producers, gold for sweet wine producers) and a curious bowl-shaped hat. The hat is a reference to le bontemps – a ‘pudding bowl’ – traditionally used to whisk the egg whites before they were added to the wine for fining.

The cheese course at the French Embassy.

2011 saw the expansion of the competition to include teams from Asia, North America and wider Europe and 2012 was the first year that Oxford took part in this revised format. The first step was the European qualifying round, held in May at the French Embassy in London, where the top two teams were to be selected for the final in Bordeaux. Oxford was pitted against Cambridge and St Andrews from the UK, along with Nyenrode Business School from the Netherlands and Copenhagen Business School from Denmark. On this occasion, we comfortably dealt to our opposition, with Copenhagen securing the second place and sat down to a sumptuous meal at the embassy including the novel Camembert en tube for the cheese course.

The final in Bordeaux was not to be as smooth sailing…

We were joined in Bordeaux by teams representing: Wharton and Chicago Business Schools from the USA; Lille EDHEC and Lille Centrale from France; Hong Kong City University and Jiao Tong University from Shanghai.

The eight teams were shown quite wonderful hospitality by la Commanderie through a two-day tour of the Médoc, taking in château visits, lunches and tastings at a range of Left Bank properties from the high end (e.g. Château Margaux) to the more modest (Ch le Tuquet for instance). It was fascinating to get an insight into how the Left Bank wine business works from the ground up and I’ll try to write a couple of posts on the most memorable aspects of this tour.

But for now, back to the competition!

The venue for this exclusive event was none other than the cellars of arguably the world’s most well-known wine – Château Lafite – with our host, Baron Eric de Rothschild. We arrived in plenty of time to allow all teams to stew over the impending competition; to take our minds off matters, the Oxford team ventured for a tour of the Baron’s lovely rose garden.

Chateau Lafite from the Rose Garden.

Eventually the teams assembled at the outside entrance to the barrel hall and we were invited to process inside to a trumpet fanfare. After some suitably ceremonious bowing and scraping to the Grand Master of the Commanderie and a word of introduction, we were off.

Our fate awaits… Into the barrel room at Lafite.

The final consisted of four rounds. First up, 10 questions to test the candidates’ general wine knowledge and specific facts on the Left Bank. The questions weren’t all easy, requiring some quite specific knowledge. For instance, “How many appellations can be found on the Left Bank?” (16); “In what year did the Rothschild family purchase Lafite?” (1868); and “Which of the following producers is not classified for white wine: Fieuzal, Malartic, Olivier?” (Fieuzal). Overall, I thought all teams did very well and there was very little between us.

In the next round we were all served three red wines and asked a variety of questions on them: “List the wines in increasing order of age.” “Which appellation is the youngest wine?” “Which of these three is a Cru Bourgeois?” I hope I’m not alone in thinking these were pretty fiendish questions. Indeed, the top judge said at the end that were the jury from the Commanderie to be placed in our shoes, he felt they would struggle as much as we did!

After a reasonable performance in the trivia, we were a bit disheartened by this round. We were never far wrong with our guesses, but there are no half-marks in this competition. The third round was one we thought we could make up some ground. Teams were served one red wine – a different one for each team – given a few minutes, then asked to select one team member to present a tasting note on the wine and a guess as to its identity.

Team Oxford at the LBBC

Reviewing my tasting note now it seems crazy we didn’t pick this wine immediately for what it was. However, hindsight is 20/20 and I think the closest any team got was one that picked the right appellation. Our wine showed plum fruit with classic blackcurrant on the nose; chocolate and cedar from the oak and initial signs of tertiary ageing; a ripe fruit entry with alcoholic warmth on the palate; a gravelly flavour in the midpalate too and a licorish/herbal finish. The tannins were very firm, yet elegant and the wine showed a rapier acidity despite the gentle alcoholic warmth. I feel my note was accurate, and well-received. Our identification was way-off, however. As it turned out, the wine was Domaine de Chevalier, 2004, from Pessac-Léognan. Bewitched by the power and elegance of the tannins and the leanness of the acidity, we went for a ‘classic’ year in Pauillac, guessing the wine to be Grand Puy Lacoste 2000.

The final round was (believe it or not!) perhaps the hardest: sweet wines. Sauternes is notoriously difficult to identify blind. I feel the main reason for this is that there are few ‘rules’ you can use to pin down vintages or to differentiate between Sauternes and Barsac. Each house has its own style and you really need to be familiar with these (usually at great expense!), rather than trying to use an analytical process of elimination.

Out of the three wines we were served, we had to identify the youngest wine, guess which vintage the other two wines were from (they were the same year) and identify which of the three was Barsac. Tricky questions and tricky wines, and I think all teams were feeling the same!

Unlike our qualifying round, there was no clear winner after the competition and we awaited the results anxiously, but with clear relief the competition was over and we’d soon have the weight off our backs. It turns out we were nowhere near a podium finish, with Lille EHDEC taking first place, followed by Chicago and then Copenhagen.

The Oxford team during dinner after the final of the LBBC.

Not one to be downhearted, I thoroughly enjoyed the fabulous dinner in the Lafite cellars to celebrate the event and will carry many wonderful memories of the trip as a whole. Particularly memorable was the inter-team singing contest during dinner – a particular tradition of this event – where teams choose a song to perform to the intoxicated crowd. While our singing prowess did not impress the judges sufficiently for this consolation prize, Henry, the only British-born member of our team, took great delight in leading the predominantly French crowd in a rousing edition of “The Grand Old Duke of York” as a round!

Many congratulations to the winning team in such fiendish conditions. I’d also like to thank all our hosts for their most generous hospitality throughout the trip, and of course our coach, Hanneke, who has put on some excellent tastings for us in the course of our training.

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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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