IT"S OXFORD BY A NOSE
- Friday 1 August 2003
The annual Oxbridge wine tasting competition reached a milestone this year with the 50th clash between the two universities. JOHN STIMPFIG was there to celebrate the half-century
t's fair to say that the annual Oxford vs Cambridge wine tasting contest isn't quite as well known as the Boat Race, or the Varsity rugby clash at Twickenham. But if you ask any of the Light or Dark Blue wine tasters from the last 50 years, most will chorus back that it is no less keenly contested. 'It was intensely serious,' says Decanter's Stephen Hobley, who was on the Oxford team in 1978. 'We were very passionate about the result.'
I discovered just how serious the competition can be at the last blind tasting in London, which Oxford won by a handsome margin. The tasting was followed by a party at Vintners Hall, thrown by the competition's sponsor, Pol Roger, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of what is the longest running competition of its kind in the world.
Oxford's victory, by 630 points to 508, means that it has now won the last six competitions in a row, much to the delight of current captain Tom Bromwich. 'It was a hard match,' he points out. 'This year's wines included a Touriga Nacional and an Albariño, which turned out to be very tough to identify.'
Indeed, having tasted in parallel with the teams, I can assure you that this is a fiendishly challenging exercise. On the day of the competition, the two teams of six have one flight of six white wines to taste completely blind. They must then write comprehensive tasting notes on each, identifying the grape variety, vintage, country, region and sub-district as closely as possible. They then do the same with six reds. The contestants have 40 minutes for each flight.
The standard of tasting is extremely high. James Simpson MW, of Pol Roger, believes some of the competitors are as good as first-year MW students. 'A lot of their answers and tasting notes are intimidatingly accurate,' he says.
Perhaps not surprisingly therefore, this enduring competition has launched many a famous wine career, spawning MWs, merchants and journalists aplenty. Jasper Morris MW, Charles Taylor MW and David Peppercorn MW, plus Simpson himself, all cut their teeth in this competition. So too did journalists and authors such as Oz Clarke, Harry Eyres and Julian Jeffs.
Many of these former competitors were able to attend the party, including some of its first ever contestants. Sir Nigel Althaus of Oxford recalls that, 'The first event, in 1953, was conceived and organised by the late Harry Waugh MW.' Waugh was working for Harvey's of Bristol, which sponsored and organised the match at its Pall Mall shop in London. 'In those days, the wines were all clarets, Burgundies and Hocks,' he adds.
'The scoring system was very different,' says Malcolm Davidson, who was in the Cambridge teams of 1957 and 1958. 'If you didn't get the vintage you couldn't get any more marks. But we knew that the wines were bound to come from the Harvey's list. So it was partly a matter of anticipating what the wines were likely to be!'
By the mid 1970s, the match was even more firmly established. It was also much more serious, according to Robin Lane, who was in the Oxford team from 1973 to 1975. 'When I was captain, our coach was Oz Clarke and we practised like hell,' he remembers. 'Back then there were no New World wines, so in that sense it was a lot simpler. In my second year, they changed it so that you were marked on your tasting notes as well as your ability to identify the varieties, region, commune and vintage.'
A decade later, New World wines were creeping into the competition, and the event moved from the Harvey's shop to the Oxford & Cambridge Club.
Today, the tally remains stacked in favour of Oxford, by 33 wins to 17. Perhaps this disparity is due to Oxford's seemingly more professional approach to the competition. In particular, they use a number of wine trade professionals to help with practice tastings. By contrast, Cambridge have always relied on their team captain to lead from the front.
Interestingly, this year's first ever female captain, Freya Cameron, was hinting that the Light Blues might just follow Oxford's lead in the coaching department. In which case, next year's match might be as close a finish as this year's Boat Race.
John Stimpfig is a Decanter contributing editor.