Blind wine tasting is never easy, even for the experts

The Art of Blind Wine Tasting

Eyes down. In front of you are six different glasses of white wine, each poured into an International Standard tasting glass. It’s your job to identify the country of origin, region, sub region, year the wine was made and the main grape variety. Do you think you can do it? After the whites come the reds, same drill. Come on, how hard can it be?

Welcome to the niche and fiercely competitive world of blind wine tasting. Believe it or not there are wine lovers out there who train for this sort of day. Who spend hours, weeks and months head down sniffing, swirling and spitting their way through the world’s myriad wine styles. Honing their taste buds and olfactory skills so when it comes to the final test they can correctly identify the wine style, country of origin and year.

If you think the Varsity Boat Race along the Thames is competitive you should try attending the Oxford v Cambridge blind wine tasting competition, held every year since 1953 at the Oxford and Cambridge Club on Pall Mall. Judged by our Club President Hugh Johnson. This year Cambridge took the Cup after a run of four defeats in what was described as a fiercely competitive competition.

Even though I have been tasting wine professionally for more than two decades I still find it the most terrifying and humbling experience

My roots in this amateur pursuit lay north of the Border. In 1999 I set up the first Edinburgh v St Andrews fixture, which is now held every year in the New Club on Princes Street. Back in 1999, when I was a recent past President of the Edinburgh University Wine Society, the fixture went down to the wire with St Andrews winning by just one point! Since then Edinburgh has been on a tremendous run, winning a slew of victories and distinguishing themselves as some of the best blind tasters in the academic world.

Last year not only did Edinburgh University’s Wine Society beat St Andrews, they went on to compete in and win the prestigious Left Bank Bordeaux Cup in France where they beat, among others, Yale Law School, Harvard, Oxford and Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. A significant achievement by any measure. As Alex Wendelken-Dickson, who competed for Edinburgh says: ‘We were the first Scottish team to ever qualify for the final and the first to win the final so it was a huge achievement for us.’

Too right. I judge in the Edinburgh v St Andrews fixture every year and we taste the wines blind with the teams. Even though I have been tasting wine professionally for more than two decades I still find it the most terrifying and humbling experience any wine writer can put themselves through. Get it right. Well, that’s your job. Get it wrong? Well, it’s obvious he doesn’t know what he is talking about isn’t it? It’s good practice and over the years I have had some spectacular failures! But also some surprising successes. One involving a 19th century Margaux served over lunch in Champagne and the other a Right Bank Claret put in front of me in the cellars of a vineyard in Argentina.

This year, in what I thought was a particularly tough line up of wines including a Grüner Veltliner from Austria, a Pinot Gris from Alsace and a Barbera from Italy Edinburgh once again emerged victorious. Team Captain Alex Wendelken-Dickson said they had a little help from The Sunday Times Wine Club, using more than 65 different Club wines for their blind wine tasting practice with favourites being Dark Corner Durif Shiraz from Australia, 2010 Château Pericou from Bordeaux and Groote Kapp Cabernet Sauvignon from the Western Cape.

How did I get on? Well I’m glad to say it was a vintage year in that in terms of country of origin, region and grape variety I managed to get more than half of the wines. Some great successes but also some failures. I take it in the spirit of the late Harry Waugh, the charming and modest wine merchant who set up the first Oxford v Cambridge fixture. When asked whether he had ever confused a Bordeaux with a Burgundy he replied: ‘not since lunch.’

Published by

The Sunday Times Wine Club

Will Lyons writes about wine for The Sunday Times and is Vice-President of The Sunday Times Wine Club.

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