One of the great jokes of the wine trade is:
‘Have you ever confused Burgundy with Bordeaux?’
‘Not since this morning!’
A few weeks ago, I realised it isn’t a joke. I’d been invited to take part in the Varsity Blind Wine Tasting Match. It’s sponsored by Pol Roger champagne and they thought it would be fun to have a team of journalists from The Spectator compete against the students from Oxford and Cambridge. Our crack squad was made up of the in-house drinks supremo Jonathan Ray, the sommelier and writer Douglas Blyde, Spectator adman Nick Spong, and me.
As soon as I arrived at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in Pall Mall I realised I was out of my depth. The two university teams were standing in the lobby looking fit and focused. This was as important as the Boat Race. I half expected an appearance from Trenton Oldfield as a protest against elitism.
The tasting consisted of six reds and six whites. Marks are awarded for correctly identifying the grape variety, country, region and vintage, and just like maths A-level, you are also marked on your workings so even if you get everything wrong you can still score.
The atmosphere was tense as we sat down. I sniffed the first wine, and immediately knew it was a riesling from Australia. This was going to be easy. Then the man to my left started having some sort of fit. I was just about to administer the Heimlich manoeuvre when I worked out that he was just sucking air through the wine. Loudly. The man opposite then started choking, then others started gurgling, gurning and coughing. Apparently the Cambridge team are famous for being noisy tasters — there are rumours that it’s gamesmanship.
I finished the whites feeling reasonably confident. We had a quick break and it was on to the reds, at which point I lost concentration and just made semi-educated guesses. The students wrote detailed notes and then only at the last minute filled in the answers. They were concentrating so hard that at one point I was told to be quiet as my (quiet) conversation about vintage car dealers in Wandsworth was putting some off. Then one of the students knocked over a glass of red (more gamesmanship?) and I was saved from further embarrassment.
There was a short prize-giving where it was announced that Oxford had won. The tasting champion was Oxford’s captain, Swii Yii Lim. Afterwards we had lunch and we got to swallow rather than spit some excellent wines. Once the terrors of the challenge were over, both teams turned out to be rather jolly. These youngsters are the Hugh Johnsons and Jasper Morrises of the future. I’ve spent most of my adulthood — about 18 years — learning about wine but compared to them, I was a bumbling amateur. I’d confused a Côtes du Rhône with a Chianti and the riesling I’d been so confident about was actually German.
We learned later that Johnny Ray had saved the honour of the journalists by placing third overall behind the captains of Oxford and Cambridge. The rest of us, probably in an exercise in face-saving, weren’t told our scores, though I’d already prepared my excuse in the event of a woeful showing: I was put off by the noisy Cambridge team.