Oxford & Cambridge Blind Tasting Challenge

One of the great jokes of the wine trade is:

– ‘Have you ever confused Burgundy with Bordeaux?’

– ‘Not since this morning!’

Last week I realised it isn’t a joke. I’d been invited to take part in the Varsity Blind Wine Tasting Match. It’s sponsored by Pol Roger champagne and they thought it would be fun to have a team of journalists from the Spectator compete against the students from Oxford and Cambridge. Our crack squad was made up of in-house drinks supremo, Jonathan Ray, top sommelier and writer, Douglas Blyde, Nick Spong, the Spectator’s ad man who apparently likes a drink, and me.

As soon as I arrived at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in Pall Mall I realised I was out of my depth. The two university teams were standing in the lobby looking fit and focused. One of them even had bow tie like an old school wine merchant. They’d been training for this day all year. It was like the Boat Race for nose and brain only much more serious. I half expected an appearance from Trenton Oldfield as a protest against elitism.

The tasting consisted of six reds and six whites. Marks are awarded for correctly identifying the grape variety, country and region, and just like maths exams at school, you are also marked on your workings so even if you get everything wrong you can still score. Judging the contest were Jasper Morris MW and Hugh Johnson.

We sat down. The atmosphere was tense. I sniffed the first wine, immediately I knew it was a riesling from Australia. I had a little taste to confirm. This is going to be easy. Then the man to my left started having some sort of fit. I was just about to administer the Heimlich maneuver when I realised he was just sucking air through the wine. Extremely loudly. The man opposite then started choking, then others started up gurgling, gurning and coughing like Bob Fleming from the Fast Show. I read later that the Cambridge team are famous for being noisy tasters – there are even rumours that it’s gamesmanship. unnamed

Journalists at the far end looking old and confused. Credit: Freya Miller

I finished the whites reasonably confident that I’d done well. We had a quick break and it was on to the reds at which point I went completely to pieces and guessed most of them. The students, in contrast, wrote detailed notes and then only at the last minute filled in the region, variety etc. They were working methodically, we were going on hunches, or at least I was. They were concentrating so hard that at one point I was told to be quiet as my (very low-level) conversation about vintage car dealers in Wandsworth was putting some off. Then one of the students knocked over a glass of red (more gamesmanship perhaps?) and I was saved from further embarrassment.

There was a short prize-giving where it was announced that Oxford had won. The tasting champion was Oxford’s captain, Swii Yii Lim, who in the first round got five out of six absolutely spot on. Afterwards we had lunch and we got to swallow rather than spit some excellent wines provided by Pol Roger. Once the terrors of the challenge were over, both teams turned out to be rather jolly. It was interesting meeting these younsters. They are the Hugh Johnsons and Jasper Morrises of the future. I’ve spent most of my adulthood – about eighteen years – learning about wine but compared to them, I was a bumbling amateur.

So how did the journalists do? I learned that I’d confused a Cotes-du-Rhone with a Chianti though in my defence everyone scored badly on the reds. I’d done much better with the whites guessing grape variety correctly in half the wines though the riesling I’d been so confident about was actually German. It was announced that Johnny Ray came top from our lot. Probably to save face, we weren’t told our actual scores though I’d already prepared my excuse in the event of a woeful showing: I was put off by the noisy Cambridge team.

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Hugh Johnson’s shoe. Credit: Douglas Blyde

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About Henry

Henry Jeffreys was born in London. He has worked in the wine trade, publishing and is now a freelance journalist. He specialises in drink and his work has appeared in the Spectator, the Guardian, the Economist, the Financial Times, the Oldie and Food & Wine magazine. He was a contributor to the Breakfast Bible (Bloomsbury 2013) and his book Empire of Booze: British History through the Bottom of a Glass was published in November 2016.
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