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  • Jancis Robinson
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  • Jancis Robinson
25 May 2005

Here’s an ideal way to teach someone about red bordeaux in record time.

Rather to my surprise, our 20 year-old son has been chosen to represent Oxford University next month in a wine tasting competition at Ch Lafite in Bordeaux. 20 sur vin (geddit?) is an annual wine match that has been held for some time between France’s famous Grandes Ecoles, the top seats of tertiary education, and anyone who wants to see how competitive they are can take a look at http://www.esseclive.com/elyxir/edito/5eme-place-delyxir-au-concours-20-sur-vin-de-la-commanderie-du-bontemps.htm

Last year the organisers, the Bordeaux tourism board I believe, apparently decided to make this competition ‘international’ and accordingly widened it enormously – by inviting Oxford and Cambridge to take part. Top two places were promptly taken by the visiting anglo-saxons apparently. All well and good but I have to confess that, wine-sodden as this household is, I have hardly forced wine knowledge down my children, and I would not call any of them accomplished blind tasters.

I therefore offered to give the three-strong Oxford team (one of them the daughter of another Master of Wine – do I discern a pattern here?) a crash course in tasting bordeaux blind. I thought the most important thing - though I may of course be proved wrong – was to get them conversant with characteristics of the different communes.

Accordingly I ordered one of each of the six generic clarets in Berry Bros own range, a Pomerol, St Emilion, Margaux, St Julien, Pauillac and St Estèphe, and rubbed their noses in them. I chose these because I’d tasted them myself recently and been very impressed that they were actually serious representatives of each appellation – second wines in the main but truly expressive and distinctive.  They are also all, except for the 2002 Pomerol, from the same vintage, 2001, and looking good now. The St Emilion and St Julien are new additions; all have recently been relabelled, doubtless just in time for the old labels with the old black and white drawing of St James’s Street to acquire retro chic.

After less than an hour of exposing the young tasters to these wines, I sent them out of the room, poured three of the wines out in random order and asked them to guess which they were. Three out of three right. Result! And no penalty shootout involved.

Obviously, if you were to do this at home, it would make sense to have 12-15 tasters involved to make the most of the investment, which totals close to £100. But £8 apiece for an evening’s entertainment and lifetime’s facility with bordeaux tasting is surely a bargain?

Here, for what it’s worth, are my notes on these very instructive wines, with scores out of 20 and suggested best drinking periods as I always give in the tasting notes section of purple pages:

Berrys’ Pomerol 15.5 Drink now-2007
2nd wine of Ch Feytit Clinet 2002 £14.95
Ruby, mature colour. Sweet, fresh nose. Gentle, velvety and ready. Very easy to drink – a good, representative, definitively right bank choice. Perhaps more of a Pomerol shadow than a Pomerol essence – not especially deep and  perhaps a little softer than the 2001s below but therefore all the easier to place as a Pomerol.

Berrys’ St Emilion 15.5 Drink 2006-08
From Ch Fonbel 2001, made by Alain Vauthier of Ch Ausone £15.95
Bright youthful crimson. More structure than the Pomerol, with a definite nose of raw red meat. A little restrained – definitely the classical face of St Emilion but with some potential.

Berrys’ Margaux 15 Drink now-2008
Serene de Ch Giscours 2001 £15.50
Very fragrant and delicate – even a bit fragile – but definitively Margaux. Light mineral/wet stone character on the nose. Transparent with quite soft tannins already. Needs careful handling and food that’s not too forceful.

Berrys’ St Julien 15.5 Drink 2006-11
Fiefs de Lagrange 2001 £14.95
Very mellow, round and well-mannered with a dry finish. Definitely heavier than the St Estèphe but not quite as tannic as the Pauillac. Good balance, as all St Juliens should have.

Berrys’ Pauillac 16 Drink 2007-13
Tour de Ch Pibran 2001 £15.50
Made by the AXA/Pichon Longueville team this is clearly a very superior wine, hitting the palate initially with a mass of ripe, velvety, concentrated fruit and great density and revealing its considerable charge of ripe tannins only on the finish. A very substantial wine that has lots still to give. Correct, fruity, dry.

Berrys’ St Estèphe 15.5 Drink 2006-11
Frank Phelan 2001 £15.75
Really gravelly nose then lovely texture though marked acidity and tannin. Transparent wine, much less concentrated than the Pauillac and a bit more austere.

I think they should offer a six-pack, with notes, at a special price. Though they really need a Graves too...

Later that same day: A mixed case is now available at £92.40 inc VAT and delivery to any UK mainland address which, according to my calculations is a saving of £10.20p on the prices above, taking into account the normal £10 delivery charge for orders between £50 and £180.

13 jun: A less-than-glorious outcome, alas. Top two places went to the French finalists with Cambridge in third position and Oxford an inglorious fourth - despite the coaching. To say they were under-briefed would be an exaggeration. They (and their coach) didn't even know that the context was restricted to the Médoc, so when they guessed a wine as St-Emilion it did not go down well. Small mitigation: the two British teams had been flown out on such an early plane that none of them got much sleep the night before the tasting contest. The French were delighted. All had the most fabulous time and were consoled with some very generous bottles.