A Long Rivalry Resumes, Over Sips and Crackers
By Scott Sayare, NY Times, February 27, 2013
LONDON—Both teams had filled their rosters with only the most devoted competitors, training for months for this contest, doubtless the most prestigious of its kind in England and perhaps the world. They arrived early on the morning of the match, tense and unsmiling and prepared to compete.
The first round was hard-fought, a grueling 40 minutes from which both sides emerged a bit dazed; the second round proved more trying still. In the end, despite a valiant push from the younger, upstart squad, the match perhaps came down to experience, a turning point that came 20 minutes before the final bell for which no amount of training can prepare a competitor.
“Tannin buildup,” said a knowing David Soud, who last week helped Oxford narrowly defeat its archrival, Cambridge, in the 60th edition of what was in all likelihood the world’s first wine-tasting contest.
The Oxford and Cambridge Varsity Blind Wine-Tasting Competition, wherein participants must identify 12 unmarked wines by grape, country of origin, region, subregion, vintage and taste characteristics, seems a testament to man’s will to compete over just about anything. Or perhaps it is a measure of the attraction to the esoteric and bizarre that seems to reside somewhere deep within the English spirit. Or perhaps, some competitors suggested, wine-tasting ability is simply one more realm in which Oxford and Cambridge can play out their long and much mythologized rivalry.
Whatever the case, the gustatory capacities of the competitors are remarkable, to say nothing of their knowledge of winemaking practices and trends.
“It’s very serious, there’s no doubt about that,” said Jancis Robinson, the wine journalist and critic who served as one of two judges at this year’s contest. “You train like an athlete.”
Certainly, the competitors seemed all business when they gathered last Thursday at the Oxford and Cambridge Club, a grand edifice just a few steps from Buckingham Palace.
They were eight men and six women, among them a handful of Britons but also Chinese, Americans, a Pole, a Dutchman and a citizen of Brunei, among others. There was a physicist, a biochemist and an archaeologist, but also a creative writer and an expert on modernist poetry.
They sat around a table in a basement room, unspeaking, beneath a dour portrait of King Edward VII. On the table were 84 fine-stem crystal glasses—six for each competitor in each 40-minute round, with one round for whites and a second for reds—14 water glasses, nine black spittoons and four plates of water crackers, to neutralize the palate.
The competitors twirled and sniffed and inspected, some holding their noses while sipping, others warming their glasses between their thighs, all of them scratching notes on their tasting sheets.
Tasting cannot fairly be called a spectator sport, but there were plenty of curious sounds, a dissonant chorus of slurping and sluicing and spitting, marked by the occasional chime of crystal on crystal and the creaking of wooden floorboards beneath a plush carpet. One Cambridge competitor, aerating her wines in her mouth, produced a sound akin to the pressurized rush of an airplane vacuum toilet.
“I’ve been mocked a couple of times,” said the woman, Vaiva Imbrasaite, 23, a Lithuanian doctoral student in computer science. (It can, however, be a useful party trick, Ms. Imbrasaite said.)
Most competitors concluded that the reds, which were on average significantly older than the whites, were more difficult. As they age, even very different reds tend to converge in flavor, said Mr. Soud of Oxford, the poetry expert. The senior competitor at 46, he said it was the taste or smell of American—not French—oak that allowed him to identify, with near exactitude, a 1953 Vega Sicilia.
According to the 15-page crib sheet that Oxford competitors are meant to memorize, an accurate description of that wine might have noted aromas of “coconut”—from the oak—and “tobacco leaf,” as well as a “horse manure character.” It also would have indicated that the wine was made largely from tempranillo grapes, in the Ribero del Duero region of Spain, and was a “gran reserva,” the top classification.
(Organizers said that, in commemoration of the contest’s 60th anniversary, the wines were older and more expensive than usual; a bottle of the Vega Sicilia goes for about $1,000, give or take a few hundred.)
The white wines were tricky, competitors said, in particular No. 5—a “bear,” said Mr. Soud, an American—which was revealed to be a 2010 Condrieu from the northern Rhone valley. “If you misread astringency as acidity, you get it wrong,” Mr. Soud said, seeming to think this constituted a coherent explanation. An ideal description of that wine, according to the Oxford guide, might have noted the aromas of “peach, apricot, quince, musk” and “blossom.”
The contest was not always so scientific. The inaugural match, in 1953, involved wines from a single merchant, which published a full list of the bottles it stocked.
Oxford won that first match, and maintains a slight lead over all. In the years after it started, the contest was the province of the well heeled and finely bred, a “semi-aristocratic boys club” much like the schools themselves, Ms. Segal said. The wine selections were accordingly pricey and conservative, largely Bordeaux.
This year, Oxford began training in October with at least three tasting sessions a week, said Ren Lim, 27, a Bruneian doctoral student in biophysics and the team captain. He employed a training schedule meant to boost confidence, with a difficult tasting about a week before the match, followed by several much easier sessions.
“You have to do it,” Mr. Lim said of the psychological engineering, though he was at a bit of a loss to explain his interest in competing.
“It’s just this Oxford-Cambridge thing, I suppose,” Mr. Lim offered, though he added cheerily, “There are perks, too.” Last week, these included a bottle of Pol Roger Brut Vintage 2002 champagne for each member of the winning Oxford team; Cambridge competitors received bottles of Pol Roger Brut Reserve, which can hardly be deemed a punishment. Everyone was poured a steady flow of complimentary Champagne at what proved to be a boozy midday awards ceremony.
Earlier, after the contest had ended slightly before noon, the competitors went to a nearby pub for celebratory beers. Mr. Lim had two pints, the second of which he drained in an impressively extended gulp. He offered no tasting notes, but emerged smiling.