Getting a Taste for Wine at University Competitions

Carol Wright on University Wine Tasting Competitions that teach students how to appreciate wine

Wine tasting is a weird hobby with like-minded people,” says Ian Cheung a top scoring competitor in the annual blind wine tasting Varsity match between Oxford and Cambridge universities.
Jancis Robinson, a frequent judge of the competition, agrees, “It’s a very odd activity.”

It’s nothing new, however. Harry Waugh, then a director of Harvey’s, a leading UK wine merchant, founded the contest in 1953 and Harvey’s sponsored the event until 1992 when Pol Roger Champagne took over, now also sponsoring contests between Edinburgh and St Andrews, and Bath and Bristol universities. James Simpson, a Pol Roger director, runs the competition and says becoming a blind taster at Cambridge in the early 1980s was “my introduction to wine”, which inspired him to enter the wine industry. Later, when working at Pol Roger, he felt sponsoring the competition would get the champagne brand recognised by a younger generation than that of Churchill, whose enjoyment of this champagne had boosted sales. Simpson thought, if people aged
18 years got the taste, they would be brand loyal for 40 years.

Simpson was not the only university blind tasting student to become noted in the UK wine industry. Five became Masters of Wine and others include David Peppercorn, Charles Metcalfe, John Harvey, Julian Jeffs and Oz Clarke. The latter, though reading theology and psychology at Oxford, led the university tasting team. He said after his first Bordeaux tasting, “A flame had been lit in my brain of flavours, scents, perfumes…. emotions, people, places — memories and experiences reverberated in my mind and became part of the wines.”

The university wine clubs give many who have no knowledge of wine an entry into that somewhat mysterious world. One with a definite, though limited, wine background was Nicholas de Rothschild, a late 1970’s Cambridge team blind taster. He joined the tastings because, as he says, “My father, Edmund Rothschild, had a fine cellar of Château Lafite and Mouton, but it was very limited in other wines, and I wanted to extend my palate.”

Every year, each university fields a tasting team of six, plus one reserve. They meet in London to taste six white and six red still wines, blind. Originally the wines were predominantly from Bordeaux and Burgundy, with some Rhône and German whites. When picked from Harvey’s own list, the competition wine selection was more predictable; a lot of Sancerre and no non-European wines. Scores went down when Pol Roger took over and expanded the range of wines tasted, which today includes many from the New World.

Will Dennison, Head of Fine Wine at Pol Roger selects the competition wines which tend to reflect his travels and the wine merchants visited. Though the wines get increasingly difficult to judge and two of each colour are deliberately tricky, two are ‘bankers’, reliable benchmark wines of types that appear regularly in the competitions. Obscurity of origin is not the point of the competition; the wines should be identifiable. One team captain commented that with increasing exchange of viticultural ideas, it has become more difficult to tell the difference between French and Californian
wines of the same grape.

Jancis Robinson, often a judge representing Oxford with co-judge Hugh Johnson for Cambridge, insisted that the judges also do a blind tasting of the same wines beforehand so that, ‘we can decide what we think are admissible near misses and guesses, and how many points we would award them’.

The anonymous score sheets give points for knowing grape variety, country of origin, main viticultural region, sub-district, vintage, and notes and comments leading to identification; the latter considered most important. The maximum possible points a team can get is 1092, but scores are in fact much lower and often very close. In 1992 Oxford had 365 and Cambridge 363 points. Among the winners’ prizes are a visit to Pol Roger’s Epernay headquarters to compete in the company’s similar-format competition of solely French wines against French, Austrian and other British universities.

Jancis Robinson pictured with Ian Cheung from Hong Kong, this year’s top competition scorer

Over the years, the teams’ training has become more serious and intense. Jancis Robinson asked Dr Hanneke Wilson, Wine Steward of Exeter and Lincoln Colleges to coach the Oxford team. Wilson says the initial training sessions ‘were really a formalised version of trying out wines with fellow anoraks’. She soon found that new tasters needed proper teaching and so the Oxford University Blind Tasting Society (OUBTS) was set up.

Pomposity and pretentiousness are discouraged and initially tasters who seem hopeless are given time to learn from mistakes. As Wilson says, “Arrogance is counterproductive, but confidence is vital, because a line-up of six samples is a daunting sight.”

Wilson describes how the changing world of wine has affected the university tastings. “Fine wine has rocketed in price; gone are the days when a training session could be a lineup of high-grade white Burgundies. Standards of viticulture and winemaking have improved and this has not made blind-tasting any easier.

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The pale, old-style Chiantis made from highy ielding vines and compulsorily adulterated with Trebbiano no longer exist, and modern Chianti is nowhere as easy to spot.”

Increasingly, blind taster students are scientists and come from all over the world. An Oxford physics graduate, Ian Cheung from Hong Kong, was this year’s top competition scorer. Originally more interested in rock climbing as a hobby, a friend’s ability to dissect wines made him think this was ‘a nice party trick’ and so he joined OUBTS. He says, “Wine tasting fits with the scientific
mind. Even so, I was very ignorant. I had to do a lot of hard work and use my scientific mind to break down and analyse wines.” Nick Joinson, studying natural sciences at Oxford, says he learnt about wine from reading and videos. He proved a natural taster, getting ten out of twelve wines correct at his first tasting.

Tastings are held weekly in different colleges. Wines bought and tasted are good but not necessarily expensive. The tasting format follows that of the Competition with similar score sheets, except that space is added for preferences. whether the wine should be poured away, the glass finished, a second glass drunk, a bottle or a case bought.

Joinson emphasises that tastings are not stressful but fun. Cheung has his own way of dissecting wine, creating a graph of a wine’s structure, aroma, tannins etc. “Building models and slotting new ones into the model.” For him, analysis is less about taste than keeping a clear, open mind. “Pre-conceptions can throw you.” He adds that it is difficult to judge poorly made wines which may not necessarily be cheap ones. “They have no identification of place or winemaker. Burgundy and Bordeaux can be mixed up. If wines are well made it is easier to identify them; they will have a sense
of place.” He sums up his tasting approach as 85% nose, 15% palate.

When tasting six reds together, Nick Joinson says, “After the third, tannins remain in the mouth making it difficult to separate the wines. Aromas of the reds are more similar compared to those of whites which are more distinctive.” Colour is important for Joinson. “It is so variable that it is difficult to trust anything.” Cheung thinks Gewurtztraminer is the easiest to guess, ‘for its peachy, lychee sweetness that coats the mouth’.

The 2023 Oxford University winning team with Ian Cheung, third from left, and leader of the team, Aletta Csapo, holding the Pol Roger trophy

Competition team members are selected, says Cheung, on their consistency rather than on variable scores over the weeks. During the competition, he warms his glass in his hands for both white and red wines as ‘cold wines are not as aromatic as when warmed’. After a first taste, he places his hand over the glass to concentrate the aromas.

The Oxford University Blind Tasting Society is open to all. Since many joining the Society have never tasted wine before, the society began its own introductory course. It attracts new people and gives the committee who run it a chance to develop teaching skills. Dr Wilson’s helpful pointers for beginner tasters includes comparing colours and holding the wine in the mouth to taste. Getting the wine right has a lot to do with whether a wine expresses its characteristic consistency and continuity. Tasting precepts give a white wine with apple, citrus notes, high acidity and a light-to-medium body as probably a Chardonnay. A red and pale ruby wine with sour cherry aroma, high acidity and tannins as probably a Barolo. A cherry aroma usually indicates an Italian wine.

Dr Wilson believes one should always trust one’s instincts or first impressions. Her advice is to go back to basics if you don’t know, and eliminate colour, nose, tastes. It is important to write down one’s thoughts about wine when one is a beginner taster. Those notes form frameworks on which to build knowledge.

“The more one knows the more difficult it gets,” said one Cambridge team taster. Edward Wragg who co-authored a Cambridge blind tasting society publication, “Guide to Blind Wine Tasting”, says it may help blind tasters of today to think less in terms of Old World and New World and focus more on types of climate and latitudes of grape growing. “When blind tasting a wine consider the balance of all its characteristics and the length and finish of the wine.”

The late Michael Broadbent MW describes what it means to be a blind wine taster. “Tasting completely blind, without any hint of what it might be, is the most useful and salutary discipline that any self-respecting taster can be given. It is infrequently the most humiliating.