11 March 2016

Varsity Blues


Blind wine tasting is a fool’s game. Every professional wine writer, taster or oenophile will tell you there is simply no upside, get it wrong and sceptics will laugh heartily, teasingly suggesting that perhaps you don’t know what you’re talking about after all. Get it right and you can be accused of getting lucky or worse still smugness.

I have enjoyed the challenge of blind wine tasting for more than 20 years now. A practice, one could argue it’s more of a parlour game, where a wine is placed in front of you without prior knowledge of country of origin, region, sub region, year or grape variety. It’s your job to find out through a process of careful olfactory recognition, memory and vinous elimination. In theory, the objective taster should be able to correctly identify the wine style, country of origin and year. That’s the plan anyway, but it isn’t easy. Perversely the more you know, the harder it gets. Any critic, no matter how high profile or experienced, can get it spectacularly wrong. I have read a fair few nightmare stories and witnessed some awfully embarrassing moments too. None repeatable here.

My favourite fall from grace was last March when I was asked to judge the Edinburgh v St Andrews blind wine tasting competition in Scotland. Many years ago, as a past President of Edinburgh University Wine Society I organised the inaugural competition between the two ancient Scottish Universities. That day we lost, it went down to the wire, a youngish port, which St Andrews correctly identified. Happy to say that since then revenge has been truly sweet with Edinburgh winning every fixture since apart from 2013.

But last March as we judges tasted with the undergraduates I stuck my nose in the glass and confidently declared: “These South African Chenin Blancs have changed style a little.” To my right, my fellow judge was speechless. A look of surprise ran across his face before he said: “But Will, this is a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc.”

“Of course!” I replied, shamed in the knowledge that this is perhaps the easiest style to identify blind. I later redeemed myself correctly identifying the three reds, but it was too late, the damage had been done.

This year will mark the 12th year of the competition and once again I will be journeying north to Scotland to adjudicate.

The Oxford and Cambridge fixture, which has been going for more than 60 years, took place a few weeks ago in St James’s.

It was first held in a private house in 1953. Organised by the late Harry Waugh, one of England’s most charming, modest and erudite wine merchants. A man who when once was asked whether he ever confused a Bordeaux with a Burgundy in a blind tasting replied: “not since lunch.”

Back in the 1950s the spirit was very much that of the amateur, a far cry from the ferociously competitive fixture it is today.

A few years ago I travelled down to Oxford to put their blind wine tasting team through their paces ahead of their annual match against Cambridge. No one could question their application. They tasted wines blind not weekly but daily and their ambition, like Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire, was to win.

The match itself may only be 12 wines, six white and six red with points awarded for the correct identification of grape variety, country of origin, region and vintage, but for the 14 undergraduates taking part it may well have been the vinous equivalent of a 374 yard skull down the Thames. This year Oxford emerged victorious.

In Edinburgh the feel is much more relaxed but no less studious.

Edinburgh is a city after all with an enviable wine heritage having imported Claret from Bordeaux since the 12th century to the port of Leith.

As Scottish historian Billy Kay observes in ‘Knee Deep in Claret’: “Once on shore the wine was served as a staple beverage for those living in Scotland’s capital.” Kay cites the memoirs of Scottish judge and literary figure Lord Cockburn who writing in the 18th century describes how when a cargo of claret arrived at Leith a hogshead of it would be carried through the town in a cart with a horn. Anyone who wanted to sample the drink could stop the cart and fill up their jug for sixpence.”Hence Scotland has a lively and engaged wine trade.

But blind wine tasting isn’t easy, anyone who says it is either hasn’t participated in it or is double bluffing. The trick is to keep practicing. This January, after a long day’s tasting in Mendoza, I was fortunate enough to be the guest of European winemaker. He had some European wine he wanted us to taste. “Serve them blind,” I said and “we’ll see if we can identify what they are.” Fortunately, he forgot to cover the label of the first wine, a particularly charming Sangiovese from Southern Italy which I would never have guessed. As the second wine was poured I lowered my head and gave it a huge sniff. My golden rule is to always go with your first impressions. “Old World, Europe, France,” I said. After a second sniff. “Bordeaux, I’m going Right Bank from a cool year, could it be 2008?” My host looked genuinely impressed. “O.K., I’m going to give this one a go, is it Cheval Blanc?” It was! I couldn’t help but fist pump the air. I’m not sure I’ll ever pull that one off again, but it’s always nice to identify the wine correctly, if only once. After all, blind wine tasting is a fool’s game.

Three to Buy

2011 Gewurztraminer, Hugel & Fils, Alsace, France

Always easy to spot in a blind wine tasting. The smell of the wine gives it away with a huge perfume of rose water, turkish delight and lychee. Once sipped it finishes off with an attractive, steely finish.

2011 Pinot Noir, Wild Earth, Central Otago, New Zealand

This is one of the best Pinot Noir’s I have tasted from New Zealand. Hugely aromatic with fragrant, red berry fruit. Then once you sip it has lively, bright acidity and soft finish. Could easily be mistaken for a wine made in Burgundy in a warm, ripe vintage.

2014 Fleurie, Domaine de Gry-Sablon, France

Beaujolais is such a delight to drink, this has plenty of soft red fruit and a little bit of tropicality. Serve this cold with a pate or cold meats while you are watching the rugby this weekend.

Will Lyons is a columnist for the Sunday Times and was short listed for Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year 2015.