In the latest instalment of her quarterly column, Exeter’s wine steward Hanneke Wilson tells how she uncorked a surprising winner for the college’s 700th anniversary.

By Hanneke Wilson

Exeter’s 700th anniversary year has now come to an end. We have had dinners and parties, for the Senior Common Room, junior members, alumni and college staff, and of course a ball.

The fun started on the first Sunday of Michaelmas Term. Strictly speaking (as bursars do) this was an ordinary guest night, so we paid for our wine. With our first course of lemon sole we had an unusual Italian white, Roero Arneis “Davej” 2011 (Deltetto), but for the main course I was grateful to be able to draw upon the stocks of claret laid down by my predecessor-but-one, Susan Lochner: her Château Malescasse, Haut-Médoc 2000 showed beautifully with our venison – round and silky, with lovely freshness.

As we drank our port (LBV, not vintage), the Rector pointed out that three colleges may claim to be older than we are but that we are the only one to have original title deeds, “So shucks to Univ, Balliol and Merton!” And again much laughter when the chapel choir sang the Red Book (the regulations for junior members) as Anglican chant.

Attempts made in my youth to teach me to dance were unsuccessful, so I escaped the ball; but the final event of the year, the Fellows’ Feast, with a retro menu that would allow the wines to shine, was a wine steward’s dream. A powerful consommé was a lovely meaty foil to a tiny glass of sherry, Tio Pepe 2014 Release Fino En Rama (González Byass), and Sole Véronique came with Pouilly-Fuissé “Tête de Cru” 2011 (Château de Pouilly-Fuissé), the ripe fruit of the white Burgundy blending nicely with the grapes in the fish dish.

The main course of beef demanded a show-stopping claret, and Château Lynch-Bages 2000 was the obvious choice. It had been lovingly bought for just this purpose in the summer of 2001, when the college could just about afford it: prices of classed-growth claret have since gone through the roof. Two colleagues had tasted it independently and found it disappointing: what about Château Gruaud-Larose 2000 instead? We decided to put a bottle of each in the SCR so that everybody could taste and vote.

The difference was astonishing and the vote unanimous. The Lynch-Bages was still dark ruby despite its age, with a nose of lightly stewed black fruit, the oak noticeable; full-bodied, with prominent tannins, not enough acidity and no sign of development. The Gruaud-Larose had lightened a little and showed a lovely freshness on the nose, minty, with fresh blackcurrant fruit and a pleasant touch of cloves and cinnamon; the palate was light and elegant, with a beautiful balance of crisp acidity and fine tannins, a sweet fruitiness, intense without being in any way heavy, with that refreshing touch of bitterness on the finish that is characteristic of St Julien.

Why had the Lynch-Bages been so clearly outclassed? The bottle I tasted had been made in a modern style that doesn’t age well, dull though not faulty, a heavily extracted wine from late-picked grapes. Yet the American wine critic Robert Parker, writing in 2011, called the 2000 “one of the all-time great examples of Lynch-Bages”. Lynch-Bages is a large estate of 100 hectares, so variation between different parts of the vineyard and different vats is inevitable, and Parker may be talking about a better batch.  Nevertheless, it is always best to rely on one’s own experience.

Three more treasures from the cellar, laid down by my predecessors Susan Lochner and Ben Morison, accompanied the pudding and, after a pause, dessert. The bursar assured me that there were no sore heads the next day.

Dr Hanneke Wilson (Merton, 1981) is the wine steward of Exeter College.

All images by Didriks via Flickr.