The Judgement of Cambridge: Cambridge Vs Oxford Blind Merchants Challenge

In a small room upstairs at the St John’s Chop House in Cambridge on a wet Tuesday night, the Oxford Wine Company meet for a debrief following round one of their blind tasting challenge against hosts Cambridge Wine Merchants.

“I think it was Viognier,” says one of the team, far from confidently. “No”, says another, “Albarino.” “Chardonnay?”, enquires a third before a string of possible white grapes are reeled off; Chenin, Semillon, Godello, Riesling all get an airing.

It turned out to be Albarino, but that’s far from the point. The merchants were gathered in Cambridge for the revived blind tasting challenge between two of the UK’s best known independents; a chance to pit their staffs’ tasting skills against one another in a friendly(ish) varsity battle.

Never mind the Boat Race or the official Varsity Blind Wine Tasting Match, this is where heroes are born and reputations come to die… and both teams were taking it very seriously.

“We had a little competition eight years ago and never got around to having another one, so we thought we’d revive it and we hope to make it an annual event,” said Oxford MD team leader and Ted Sandbach before the event.

“We are naturally going to be competitive because that’s human nature,” he said, adding that his team have had their noses in glasses for the past few weeks practicing for the completion. “The day before yesterday we tasted a wine and all four people had different answers,” he joked, but on the whole the sessions have been a success.

Hal Wilson’s Cambridge team had been blind tasting in preparation too, and they even carried out heats among staff to see who made to the cut and earned a place on the six-berth team.

“It’s easy to forget to do blind tasting in your business practice – you have to make the opportunities and this has helped us get back into that habit and it’s a really good thing to do,” said Wilson. “It’s good to ‘learn’ yourself back into knowing what good value is. Seeking value is a different prospect to looking just at price, and our job is often to select the best wines across the board.”

The format for the competition was simple; 12 wines were tasted in two sittings, six whites and six reds, and points were awarded for correctly identifying hemisphere and country of origin, principle grape variety and RRP. There were supplementary points for reasoning, and to separate the wheat from the chaff head judge Martin Gamman MW threw in a couple of ‘out there’ wines including an Austrian Pinot Noir.

Gamman, the UK Market Manager for Champagne Joseph Perrier who sponsored the event, sourced the wines for the tasting from The Stroud Wine Company, Majestic and Waitrose, steering clear of anything in either merchant’s portfolio.

“It’s a game,” said Gamman and mustn’t be taken too seriously, “we’re here to have some fun.” When training for his MW and blind tasting with merchants such as Berry Bros. & Rudd he was tickled by the huge differences in perception of wines and the ways that different people approached blind tasting. “The Berry’s lot were trying to work out if it was Pauillac or Margot, and I was trying to see if it’s Australian or French,” he laughed.

When the game was up - and after a few nervous minutes while the scores were compiled - both teams grabbed a glass of Champagne as Gamman listed the top tasters from each team and revealed the overall winner.

“Out of a total of 864 marks up for grabs, there were only 19 marks between the two teams” he teased before handing the trophy to the home team which defeated Oxford 233 points to 214.

Magnanimous in defeat - and thrilled that he was named one of the top tasters of the competition - Sandbach invited the Cambridge crew to Oxford in 2020 for the return fixture.

“As wine merchants we share a lot of values and we do a lot of business together,” he said, “and an event like this is good for everyone, we look forward to welcoming Cambridge next year.”

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