When Oxford wins at blind tasting

Since 1953 Oxford and Cambridge students have battled in a blind tasting competition. Twelve wines, six whites and six reds, are served blind in two flights of 20 minutes. Students must guess varietals, country and region of origin, appellation, and vintage. The team that gathers the most points wins. 

In 2021, in spite of COVID-19, the competition was still run remotely employing 50ml sample tubes from Avino. For the first time in the history of the competition, this allowed the University of St Andrew’s, Edinburgh, Bath and Bristol to participate in the event at the same time as the Oxford-Cambridge match. Traditionally, separate regional matches are organised, but the virtual nature of the competition opened up the possibility to compare all of the teams simultaneously.

The Oxford University Blind Tasting Society had an experienced team of tasters this year (perhaps a biased opinion, since I was in the team myself) and rose to the top by a considerable margin to the second team, that of the University of Bath. 

Under normal circumstances, winning what is referred to as the varsity match leads to an invitation by the organiser of the event, the Champagne house Pol Roger, to visit their winery in Reims. Yet, with international travel heavily restricted, the prize was an invitation for lunch at the Cherwell Boathouse in Oxford, well known for its extensive wine list. 

Located along the west bank of the Cherwell River, the restaurant offers classic European food, roughly following the season’s produce. The dishes are simple, but well prepared and sourced. If desired, they provide a great canvas on which to pair great classic wines. For this occasion that is what I decided to do.


  1. Heritage tomato salad with parma ham and croutons
  2. Rack of lamb, fine beans, caramelised onion purée and confit potatoes (similar to those from QCH)
  3. Poached Peaches, peach sorbet, pistachio and sponge

And indeed the main attraction here is the wine list. It holds over 400 wines by the bottle, neatly organised by varietal and with a clear focus on the Old World, especially Burgundy Champagne and Bordeaux. The top tier selection also covers Rhône, Spain, Italy and the US with names like Vega Sicilia, Isole e Olena and Ridge. 

Most of the range consists of mature wines, with the red Burgundies and Bordeaux averaging over ten years while the white Burgundies, over five years. For these aged wines, sometimes difficult to source, the prices are particularly compelling. Markups lie below 1.5 for the top tier bottles and around 2 for the lowest tiers.

The wines of the day

Pol Roger’s UK head of Fine Wine, Will Dennison, selected all the wines to be served blind. A special mention should be given to the Ridge Montebello (see notes below), the Château Climens and the Alión. They showed exceptionally well.

Ridge – Montebello 2000
Nose:Elegant tobacco aromas, cigar box, leather. Upon agitation, plush cassis. Indicating a warmer climate. American oak is not evident.
Palate:Plush cassis, soften by time, blackberries and tobacco. Precise aromas and beautiful structure. Long finish of cedar and tobacco.
Structure:Crisp acid, soft medium tannins, medium alcohol and medium body. Very long finish.

The afternoon ended with a short trip on punts along the river to The Victoria Arms. Later on, we would get to enjoy the second part of the prize, a bottle of vintage Pol Roger for each team member.

Pol Roger 2013
Nose:Ripe apples and pear, hint of lemon. Sourdough and brioche as it opens. Refined and serious nose.
Palate:Ripe apples and green apples merge to give way to lactic and yeasty aromas. The finish is dominated by those brioche notes just compensated by a touch of ripe fruit.
Structure:Medium alcohol, full bodied, high acidity, but not fully dry (brut). Beautiful soft mousse with tiny bubbles. Very long finish.

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