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  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
20 Feb 2019

This year's taste-off between Britain's two most famous universities was filmed for HBO. 

Cambridge won yesterday's Pol Roger Varsity wine tasting championship, trouncing the Oxford blind tasting team 726 points to 635. Over the years I have acted as one of the judges, Oxford has more frequently won, but this year's Cambridge triumph may have been all the sweeter for its having been filmed for posterity, or at least for HBO, by an American TV crew (note sound recordist in the extreme right of the picture when viewed on the home page). 

A team of six, including two cameramen and host Bryant Gumbel, recorded the drama of the competition for Real Sports, a documentary news programme for what producer and reporter Emmett Knowlton predicted would be 'a really fun piece'. It should certainly make a change from their usual coverage. I have to confess that I have only just looked up this series and see that Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel is 'the most-honored sports journalism series, with 32 Sports Emmy Awards, including 18 for Outstanding Sports Journalism. Now in its 25th season, the monthly magazine broadcast produces unchartered investigative pieces and in-depth profiles from across the sports spectrum.' That's pretty impressive. Bryant and organiser James Simpson of Pol Roger bonded strongly. Both are keen golfers…

The competitors, being as usual a mixture of Oxbridge undergraduates and postgrads, were not exactly starstruck. They were, quite rightly, more intent on their task of identifying six whites and six reds blind.

My fellow judge representing Cambridge was not Hugh Johnson this time (who was in Nice) but Peter de Bolla, who near-professionally buys (and sells) wine for King's College as well as being Professor of Cultural History and Aesthetics and Chairman of the Faculty Board of English. As usual, we tasted the wines blind while the teams did so that we could decide on acceptable incorrect guesses. If we thought an A actually tasted like a B, then we would decide how many marks to award someone who guessed B.

Varsity_wines_2019-4.jpg

The white wines in particular were really difficult. The first was a Picpoul de Pinet if you please – not exactly a banker. Then came an Alsace Riesling that should have been a banker but it was made by Ostertag, whose wines are anything but typical – although to their credit many of the tasters identified it as Riesling. A Domaine Riffault Sancerre, Les Boucauds, at last presented a thoroughly recognisable grape variety, albeit one that was extremely stinky at first. The fourth white was the Mullineux's second label Swartland Chenin Kloof Street, which very few tasters realised was a Chenin, just as no one spotted that the Knoll, Trum Grüner Veltliner Federspiel 2017 was a Grüner (which is usually one of the more recognisable grape varieties). Very odd. Thank heavens for wine five, which was an Au Bon Climat Santa Barbara Chardonnay 2016 which was delicious, but actually could have been a burgundy.

The reds were in a kinder order at least. Felton Road's Calvert Pinot Noir 2017 Central Otago was a bit of a banker and came right at the beginning to calm nerves. I think only one person spotted that the next wine was a Barbera, Marcarini's Ciabot Camerano 2015 Barbera d'Alba, and the next red was seriously – I mean seriously – funky. I had it down for Musar or a Weinert, it seemed so dangerously evolved, when in fact it was Julien Sunier's Regnié 2016. He seems to have bit the natural bullet hard. The fourth red was my favourite, a very impressive, attractively round and ripe Royale Carmenère 2014 Colchagua from Koyle. Yummy and none of the greenness that this bordeaux variety can sometimes display in Chile. Then the fifth red was another funny. It smelt like a mixture of old cabbage and strawberry jam. Not for me, but the Birichino St Georges Zinfandel 2015 Central Coast has its fans, I'm sure. And finally a classic (though hardly any tasters got it), a Côte Rôtie 2013 from Patrick Jasmin.

The wines had apparently been sourced from Berry Bros & Rudd but I don't see them listed as a stockist of the Koyle on Wine-Searcher.

I'm delighted to say that the top tasters were both female. Anna Gautier of Oxford won the competition between the two Reserve tasters, while the single most outstanding taster was Emelyn Rude, in blue in the picture above, currently working on a D Phil in Food History at Cambridge. Why do we eat chicken is one of her topics, if I heard aright. She wins a year's membership of a particularly fine wine website in addition to her bottle of vintage Pol, a share of a massive silver cup and a trip to Pol Roger in the summer.