Inside this year's Varsity wine tasting competition.
Dr Hanneke Wilson (Merton 1981)
Roll over Twickenham, move over Boat Race. To some of us, the only Varsity Match that matters is in a sport that Vincent’s doesn’t even recognise: wine tasting. The Oxford vs. Cambridge Blind-Tasting Match, the 61st of which took place on 18 February, is the oldest in the world. Since 1992 it has been sponsored and organised by Pol Roger, and I have coached the team since 1994.
Boarding the 10.31 from Oxford to London I wondered nervously how my team was getting on. They would have finished their six white wines by now, and probably were doing their utmost to get as close as possible to identifying their six reds. Five points each are available for the predominant grape variety and the tasting note; three for the country of origin; two for the main viticultural region; three for the sub-district; and two for the vintage. So, a maximum of 20 points per wine. Apart from the occasional sounds of spitting and slurping—Cambridge is always a good deal noisier than Oxford—the match takes place in silence, without conferring. Blind tasting is so difficult that anyone who gains a score of 120 out of a possible 240 has done well.
As I arrived at the Oxford and Cambridge Club, which is the usual venue, the judges, Jasper Morris MW for Oxford and Nancy Gilchrist MW for Cambridge, were still hard at work. When I saw my team, our captain— Tom Arnold, who was last year’s top taster—had his left shoulder strapped up and his arm in a sling: he had spent Sunday night in Accident & Emergency. Because it involves the intellectual assessment of physical sensations, blind tasting is really a mind sport, and anything that interferes with one’s ability to concentrate is bound to affect one’s performance, so despite Tom’s admirably Stoic attitude, this did not bode well. And why were they all looking so tense and glum?
For those of you interested, these were the wines, chosen by Cassidy Dart of Pol Roger, that were tasted just before I arrived:
- Château Reynon Sauvignon Blanc, Bordeaux 2012
- Kumeu River Estate Pinot Gris 2011 Auckland
- Norman Hardie Chardonnay Unfiltered 2011 Ontario
- Schloss Gobelsburg Riesling Vom Urgestein, Kamptal 2012
- Moscato d’Asti 2012 (Elio Perrone)
- Contino Rioja Blanco 2010
- Domaine Coudert Clos de la Roilette Fleurie 2012
- Cahors, Clos La Coutale 2011
- Mac Forbes Yarra Valley Pinot Noir 2012
- Valpolicella 2012 (Allegrini)
- La Rioja Alta Viña Arana Reserva, Rioja 2005
- Château Rauzan-Ségla, Margaux 2010
The fifth white—the Moscato d’Asti—explained the long faces. We had always been given to understand that sparkling wines were not included in the match, and in truth Moscato d’Asti is mildly effervescent rather than fully sparkling, bottled with an ordinary cork. But it had never occurred to any of us, or to Cambridge, to include it in the training programme. But, sadly for us, Cambridge had recently had a Piedmont-themed dinner.
If it had been the Moscato that cost us the match, I would have been cross; instead we were out-classed by a stunning performance from the Cambridge Captain, Vaiva Imbrasaite, who scored a record-breaking 195 points. Our total of 774 points was higher than in 2012 or 2013, when we were victorious, and although Cambridge did a lot better on the whites—425 to our 300—we beat them on the reds, with 474 to their 469. So we didn’t do badly at all: Cambridge just did better.
The subsequent lunch was a jolly affair. I was pleased to congratulate Vaiva and her team, and teased the Rev’d Gareth Powell, a former Cambridge taster, who had turned up in a pair of lime-green trousers that only an off-duty High-Church priest can get away with. David Beall, the victorious coach and a Major in the US Army, gave me a hug and told me that he was now posted at RAF Northolt to engage in "liaison". He claimed not to know what the job involved but was pleased that the mess was well-stocked. The two captains made gracious speeches, and after much delicious food and wine most of the guests went off in search of madder music and stronger wine while I, being an eight-stone weakling, caught a train back to Oxford.
It was light enough to walk back to Jericho along the towpath: a few birds were singing, hesitantly announcing the imminent spring, and I saw my parish church across the canal. When I took my leave, Tom Arnold said quietly, "The Tabs have only got Cambridge to go back to: we shall be returning to Oxford." That's the spirit.
Dr Hanneke Wilson (Merton 1981) is the wine steward of Exeter College, Oxford. Top image by Mr Tin DC/Flickr.