Varsity Wine-Tasting Preview

Tasting Glasses

This week will see the 60th varsity wine tasting match between Oxford and Cambridge universities, sponsored by Pol Roger, at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in London. For the Oxford Blind Tasting Society, this is far and away the most important event of the year. After a year of training hard to try to learn more about wine identification, a few weeks ago I was thrilled to learn I would be a part of the Oxford team. So I thought I would do a little preview of the match coming up, as it has been such a large focus for me the past few months. As it’s been about a year since I started blind tasting, I also thought I’d give some reflections on a year learning about wine.

The 60th varisty blind tasting match

The match itself is fundamentally very simple. There are twelve wines (six white and six red), and your job is to identify them.

The first job in identifying them is to write your tasting note. The note should include the appearance of the wine (colour, intensity, etc.), the aromas you get from the wine (citrus, minerality, herbaciousness, etc.), and, the wine’s structural elements. Five points are up for grabs for the tasting note, then you’ve got to make your guess. Your guess includes dominant grape variety, country, main viticultural region, sub-region, and vintage. For example, a tasting note I wrote recently looked was

Pale yellow wine. Aromatic wine. Citrus, melon, stone fruit. Some floral/herbally flavours.
Dry, med body, med alcohol, crisp acidity, med finish, no new oak.
Guess: Albariño, Spain, Galacia, Rias Biaxas, 2010

It turned out to be all correct except for the vintage, which was 2011, but I was pretty pleased.

There are fifteen total points available for the guess, but you might get some points for a sensible guess that is wrong. Twenty points total per wine then gives 240 total points available. It’s unlikely, especially for a rookie like me, that you’ll get anywhere close to that total of 240 though. If I have a score over triple digits, I think I’ll have done okay.

So what are the wines like? Well, some are straightforward, known as the “bankers”, as you should be able to bank on getting them right. Of course, some are much more difficult. As a first-timer, my focus is on getting all of the bankers right, and then making sensible guesses for everything else. If I don’t get the Piqpoul de Pinet? Fine. But if I miss the Loire Sauvignon Blanc, I’m going to be annoyed.

The team that wins is then the team with the highest total score among their six main tasters. If it’s a draw, the reserve seventh taster score (this year, that’s me) comes in to play. Then, we all go out to lunch. Last year Oxford won the competition, and many of the tasters that were a part of that team are returning for this year. We know very little about the Cambridge team, so all we can do is go our and do our best. Exciting stuff. I’ll post about the results on Friday.

Tasting Sheet

Reflections on a year blind tasting and learning about wine

Before joining the blind tasting society, I definitely had a keen interest in wine, but I think my efforts were very misguided. I used The Wine Society as my springboard for learning about different wine styles, sampling their own labels to try to get “textbook” wines of given regions. I didn’t really build up a picture of why I liked a wine, but more just whether or not I enjoyed that particular bottle. I didn’t (and still don’t) have a large budget for wine, so for regions like Burgundy or Bordeaux, I couldn’t afford what I might now consider “reasonable” wines from those regions. Even worse, I pretty much only drank French wine. Not a very good (and certainly not complete) picture of the world of wine.

By tasting wines blind, though, the picture you build up has to be objective. You have to figure out what makes a Chardonnay French as opposed to Australian, for example. You can really like wines that cost £5, and really dislike wines that cost £20, without knowing what the price is. With the varsity competition having wines from all over the world, you practice with wines all over the world. I’d like to think I’ve lost a lot of my pre-conceptions about wine, and built up a much better idea about tastes of all sorts of wines.

In particular I’ve noticed a profound change in my attitude towards wine. Instead of knowing what wines I like and what I don’t like, I’ll happily drink anything now. My focus instead is on how well the wine is made, how all the different structural elements are balanced, and the representation of the grape variety. If the wine is “interesting”, it’s likely something I will enjoy drinking. I won’t scoff at the American Chardonnay like I used to, but I don’t have the same passion for French country wines like I once did.

It’s hard to describe here the number of tastings I’ve been to and quite how much I’ve learned. So lastly I’d just like to say a large thanks to those who have been involved in my year of learning about wine. The effort of the Blind Tasting Society committee and everybody else in the society giving up their time to source wines, do administration, set up, and clean up is very much appreciated. The depth of knowledge at the society has pushed me to work harder at my own wine understanding. Similarly, those wine professionals who came to the society to teach and share their passion for wine really made a difference. Lastly, thanks to Pol Roger for their sponsorship of the varsity match and the society, as this not only allows to activity of the society to flourish, but to give it a prestige. The experience I’ve had this year from inexperience to competing as part of the varsity team will be one I will remember for a long time.

My Tasting Notes


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