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  • Jancis Robinson
Written by
  • Jancis Robinson
4 Mar 2014

One of last year's crop of wine books that I enjoyed almost more than any other was Reds, Whites & Varsity Blues, the highly illustrated memoir-fest centred on the annual Oxford v Cambridge wine-tasting competition.

The subject matter sounds potentially boring, but Jennifer Segal, who amassed all the material for this Pol Roger-sponsored book, has done an outstanding job. As well as detailed interviews and reminiscences bordering on the seriously indiscreet, there are hundreds of photographs, menus, newspaper and magazine cuttings, recipes and special panels aplenty. And the 256 pages include an excellent index which helps enormously.

You might think it would be of interest strictly to doddery old members of the UK wine trade but you would be wrong. Tasters have come from all over the world, and tended to go back there. Some of their memories are hilarious, and the book effectively charts the evolution of the international wine scene from 1953, when the varsity tasting match was introduced - initially sponsored by Harveys of Bristol before Pol Roger champagne took over and considerably broadened the scope of wines presented at these annual blind tastings.

David_Peppercorn_at_CambridgeWe go from a photograph of Harry Waugh as a five year old dressed as Bacchus (don't tell The Daily Mail) via an account of David Peppercorn at Cambridge (left) flirting with the law (as a career, not in the form of an irate policeman), then a host of well-known wine personalities today, including our very own Alex Hunt, to the likes of Jeremy Seysses of Domaine Dujac, Edward Ragg and Fongyee Walker (now based in Beijing) and ex Iraq and Afghanistan US Major David Beall.

Arguably it's a little light on the most recent candidates but perhaps they just ran out of space, time and budget.

When I first flicked through it, my nose was put seriously out of joint. I was too scared to go anywhere near the Oxford University Wine Circle when I was there (1968-71) - which is probably just as well because if I had done, Oz Clarke and Charles Metcalfe would already have been well established in it and I'm sure any ounce of confidence would have been knocked out of me. But because Oz and Charles competed in the Oxford tasting teams in the early 1970s, they appear in the book in the pages devoted to the 1970s. I, on the other hand, am relegated to the 1960s!!!!! This was the first time I ever felt remotely sensitive about my age but I saw this as hugely unfair, considering that I am younger than both of them. But, you will be glad to know, I have recovered from this perceived slight. My connection is that I now frequently act as a judge in this annual taste-off - and always do the tasting blind myself.

You can read my account of last year's 60th-anniversary match in Leading theVaiva_Imbrasaite blind. This year's match was held recently and it was the turn of the Cambridge team to triumph, notching up an outstanding 894 points to Oxford's 774. This, apparently, was in no small way thanks to the Cambridge captain, Lithuanian Vaiva Imbrasaité (pictured), who managed to score 94 points out of a possible maximum of 120 on the whites and an amazing 101 on the reds. The university profile of this PhD computer scientist reads, 'I am working on a multi-modal dimensional emotion tracking system for music. I am interested in combining features extracted from the vocal part, the background music and the lyrics of a song.' These were the wines:

Château Reynon Sauvignon Blanc 2012 Bordeaux
Kumeu River Estate Pinot Gris 2011 Auckland
Norman Hardie, Unfiltered Chardonnay 2011 Ontario
Schloss Gobelsburg, Vom Urgestein Riesling 2012 Kamptal 
Elio Perrone 2012 Moscato d'Asti
Contino Rioja Blanco 2010 Rioja

Domaine Coudert, Clos de la Roilette 2012 Fleurie
Clos La Coutale 2011 Cahors
Mac Forbes Pinot Noir 2012 Yarra Valley
Allegrini 2012 Valpolicella
La Rioja Alta, Viña Arana Reserva 2005 Rioja 
Château Rauzan-Ségla 2010 Margaux

Unfortunately this highly recommended book is not on general release. To buy it, at £35, you can either drop in to Berry Bros in London or order it via Pol Roger's website. They will send it abroad for a small extra fee.

Reds, Whites & Varsity Blues by Jennifer Segal (£35 Pavilion Books)