It smells like sweaty cheese in here,” thunders Domen Presern, a chemistry PhD student, announcing his presence at a second-floor Thai restaurant in Oxford. “Something with lactate crystals. Manchego?” “No,” retorts Janice Wang, on a break from her psychology dissertation. “This is definitely Morbier.” A few seconds later, she reconsiders. “I can see where you’re coming from,” she says, “but it just shows you’re not attuned to Asian flavours. Asians know it smells like fish sauce.”
The room didn’t smell like much of anything to me. Then again, I haven’t been training to become a human bloodhound. By contrast, the noses of Wang and Presern were on top form: they had just wrapped up their penultimate training session for the Varsity match, an annual blind wine-tasting contest held between teams from Oxford and Cambridge since 1953. They had spent the previous three hours simulating the actual event with two flights of unidentified wines – six whites and six reds. They filled out sheets guessing the age, grape varietal and geographic origin of each, alongside notes describing subtleties of scent and structure that made distinguishing Manchego from Morbier look as easy as apples from oranges. At “the Varsity”, as competitors dub it, experienced judges mark the submissions anonymously. The team with the higher score gets to represent Britain at a taste-off in France, and the top taster receives a £300 ($375) magnum bottle of Cuvée Winston Churchill, a Champagne made by Pol Roger, the event’s sponsor.
This Varsity match is less well known than the Boat Race contested by the two universities’ rowing teams, but the blind wine-tasting societies have no trouble luring reinforcements at freshers’ fairs. Most recruits will lack the keen palate and dogged devotion needed to identify and memorise the flavour and aromas of dozens of varietals from hundreds of appellations. But those that do often have a bright future in the British wine trade: prominent critics like Oz Clarke and Jasper Morris cut their teeth in the contest.
Depending on your perspective, the Varsity is either an exercise in futility or a potent rejoinder to conventional wisdom. One academic study after another has found little scientific basis for wine criticism. Everyone has read florid promises of “gobs of ripe cassis”, “pillowy tannins”, and “seductive hints of garrigue”. Yet the relationships between such mumbo-jumbo and the chemical composition of a wine, between one taster’s use of it and another’s, and even between the same drinker’s notes on the same wine on different occasions tend to be faint at best. Articles arguing that, as Robbie Gonzalez of the blog i09 pithily put it, “wine tasting is bullshit” have become reliable clickbait.
Meanwhile, the Varsity match stands athwart history, yelling “stop!” at the consensus around this “BS hypothesis” – let’s call it the BSH. If wine tasting is truly BS, then blind identification of a single glass should be impossible: a monkey throwing darts might nail it one time in 1,000. Yet for 64 years, Oxbridge students have purported to do just that. Have the winning sides just lucked out on a couple of right answers? Or have they defied the BSH year after year?
The answer should be easy to come by. Unfortunately, in order to maintain a sportsmanlike spirit and focus on wine education – or to shield the reputations of poor tasters and inconsistent judges – these records are routinely destroyed. Even the contestants are never informed of their individual results. The only way to find out whether the kids were alright was to intercept their score-sheets in the fleeting hours before their date with the shredder. Fortunately, on the condition that I not disclose any specific participant’s score, the judges let me take a peek.
The Varsity match has long been a study in contrasts. “Historically, it was aligned with the philosophies of the schools,” says Cassidy Dart, the director of wine at Pol Roger and MC of the competition. “When Cambridge was doing well, they were methodical, precise and pragmatic – much like Cambridge. Whereas Oxford had people who grew up with wine. They’d just taste and say, ‘Oh, that’s obviously Bordeaux.’”
Recently, the two universities have traded places in their approaches. Today, the Cambridge team is comprised mostly of Anglos with a bent for the humanities. Its president, Henrietta Boyle, is an undergraduate from London studying classics. But its de facto ringleader is Jonathan Beagle, who goes by Jono.
A trim, brown-bearded Old Etonian, Beagle speaks in a posh baritone that carries across the room. Inheriting an interest in Asia from his parents – his mother is Indian and his father deals in Chinese antiquities – he spent over four years in Japan, received accreditation as a sake sommelier, and worked as a wine specialist at upmarket Japanese restaurants in London. Finally, at 29, he went off to Cambridge to study law. Despite his obligations to giving lectures on sake and to the university’s third-string cricket team, he somehow finds time to coach his teammates and compete in the match.
Beagle describes himself as intuitive and introverted, and keeps a pair of headphones around his neck with west African music at the ready to shut out the world at a moment’s notice. But wine puts him at ease: he enjoyed his first glass of champagne at age 11. As befits a budding lawyer, he is often the first to opine on a wine. And he has the palate and experience to become a formidable blind taster. The one time I tested him, he identified the specific appellation of a ripe, pricey Beaujolais I stockpile for the purpose of confounding experts.
Nonetheless, Beagle’s performances at the Varsity match have been disappointing. He admits to wilting under pressure, and to a mild case of impostor syndrome. “My first year, I felt like I hadn’t earned my place on the team,” he says. “A lot of people looked at me as this guy who had worked in the trade for a long time, this saviour who was going to rescue Cambridge. Everyone just assumed that I would be on the team, so I was a bit nervous at the trial. Like, if I do really badly at this, should I really be taking part?”
Beagle yearns for a halcyon era when the match existed to promote appreciation of wine rather than to foster competition. Exuding the jocular attitude common to English public-school boys taught to feel they belong, he evinces no embarrassment after mistaking boxed wine for fine Burgundy, and describes his own coaching with wry self-deprication. “I’ve been doing all the chats for the blind wine society,” he explained the day we met, “doing the talking about what the wines and flavours are, taking the piss out of myself.”
The Oxford team is Beagle’s polar opposite, in background and ethos. It consists of students from Asia and eastern Europe, with a lone Briton of Mauritian descent. Although they seem at ease with Oxford life, they clearly prefer the meritocracy of blind tasting to the aristocratic traditions at Britain’s historic bastions of privilege.
Every Oxford taster is a scientist in one form or another, ranging from endearingly geeky to absurdly so. The first time I chatted with Presern, the jovial, heavyset, bearded Slovenian was all too eager to introduce himself. “Domen,” he repeated. “That’s Delta Oscar Mike Echo November.” “Do you always speak in the NATO alphabet?” I inquired. “Only when around Americans,” he said. “I like to emphasise that we’re a NATO ally. Did you know Slovenia makes lots of nice wine?” I asked what he studied. “I use really big computers to study the biophysics of DNA,” he responded gleefully. “I can show you pictures! Of DNA!” He took out his MacBook, and loaded a 3D image of genetic material arranged into the shape of a rabbit.
Whereas Presern was proud of his roots, Wang is unsettled by them. “I’m very confused about my identity,” she says. “I was born in China, but grew up in Texas. And I’m Canadian. I’ve been brainwashed by communism and [George W.] Bush’s policies.” Following an epiphany at Alinea, a culinary temple in Chicago, she decided to research how music affects perceptions of taste. Upon starting her doctorate, she contacted student wine societies seeking participants for her studies. “Then I heard about the Cambridge-Oxford match,” she recalls. “That was the most ridiculously British thing, and I thought, ‘I have to join.’” Wang won last year’s best-taster award, but it wasn’t her palate that made her the team leader. “I’ve been president for two years because no one else wants to do it,” she gripes. “I have to wash glasses all the time.”
Training for the Varsity match is an endeavour of immense scope. Dart has served wines based on every varietal, including many that veteran drinkers have never heard of. The practice sessions I attended featured a South African Cinsault and a Galician Godello (just Google them). No one is expected to identify every wine: judges award partial credit for a logical but incorrect guess. Nonetheless, the only way to get full points for a wine is to get it exactly right.
The two teams’ practice sessions reflected their overall attitudes. The weekend before the match, Dart headed to Cambridge. The Cantabrigians drank out of petite, flat-walled glasses resting on small square tables, sharing blender jars as spittoons. A few of the numbered sleeves used to cover bottles were missing. The sounds of sniffing, slurping, straining and spitting filled the air. Dart tried to motivate the team by reminding them that the Oxonians had won three years in a row. “We don’t do it for the Varsity match,” Boyle responded. “We do it because we learn about…wine.”
Oxford’s preparation, meanwhile, was downright monastic. The team draped crimson tablecloths over three large tables, and laid out full sets of glasses and a black spittoon for everyone. I picked a random book off the shelf: it was in German, published in 1738. The group spat so discreetly they could have expectorated in front of the queen. Oxford’s secret weapon – a crib sheet describing the major varietals and regions – lay on the table; Wang forbade me from copying its contents.
The training was chaired by Hanneke Wilson, an Exeter don and the author of a book on literary depictions of wine, who has coached the team since 1994. After each flight, she called on tasters to explain how they had identified a given wine. When the red I had found hardest to recognise came up, she landed on Jackie Ang, a square-headed, gap-toothed Singaporean with wide-framed glasses. “I thought this had clear reduction,” he began, referring to the rubbery character of wines with too much sulphur. “Black pepper. A bit sour on the nose. Crisp acid, medium alcohol. Powdery tannin that doesn’t grip that much. It was medium-bodied with no new oak. I said Crozes-Hermitage” – a French appellation known for £20-ish Syrahs. My jaw dropped when she revealed the bottle: not only was it French Syrah, it was Crozes.
Following the tasting, the Oxonians asked whether I had visited Cambridge, and pumped me for details about the detested “Tabs” (their pejorative term for Cambridge students). They took the Varsity very seriously – excessively so, given that the only prizes are bragging rights and a bottle of bubbles. It was only once we stopped discussing wine that I sensed what motivated them. “Did you meet Jono?” Wang asked. “We don’t like him.” “He just can’t stop running his mouth and belittling people,” Ang chimed in. I was taken aback by their animosity: I had never heard Beagle disrespect the Oxford tasters. Despite his links to Asia, they seemed to see him as a symbol of the native establishment. “He is very English,” Presern said. “He went to Eton.”
“Do you always train this hard?” I asked. Wang responded with an anecdote. After last year’s triumph, an article about the event by Jancis Robinson, one of the judges, was headlined “Asian Triumph”. “I took offence”, Wang said, “because I’m Canadian.” “Even if you weren’t Canadian, you’d still take offence,” Ang concurred. “It’s racist.” Robinson dismisses such concerns as “oversensitive.” Beagle was disturbed by Robinson’s headline as well. “I feel sorry that they have to put up with that sort of thing,” he says. “Maybe it spurs them on to win a little bit more.”
When the big day came on February 15th, both teams showed up to the Oxford and Cambridge Club in London, decked out in dark suits and dresses. James Simpson, the managing director of Pol Roger, laid out the day’s agenda. “We’re going to divide you up, Oxford-Cambridge, Oxford-Cambridge, Oxford-Cambridge,” he said, referring to the seating chart. “And in due course, we’ll ensure your sheets are anonymous – partly because many of your names are too long and complicated to spell.” No one cracked a smile.
The BSH I hoped that the Varsity students would undermine rests on a number of seminal papers. In the most famous experiment, Frédéric Brochet, a French academic, served oenology students the same white wine twice, using food colouring to make one round appear red. The respondents described the “red” wine using adjectives associated with reds. He later poured the same wine into two bottles, one with a fancy label and one with a modest one, and found that a panel of experts used loftier descriptors for the former. Another oft-cited article, by the statistics professor Robert Hodgson, found that when connoisseurs drank the same wine three times in succession, each taster’s rating varied between trials by around four points on a 20-point scale. Most damningly, Richard Quandt of Princeton gave a blind-tasting group sample flights of fine Bordeaux alongside wines from, of all places, New Jersey. He found no statistically significant gaps in their rankings.
On one hand, these studies certainly sound definitive. On the other, blind tasting is really hard. In identification tests like the Varsity match, there are so many possible answers it’s a miracle anyone gets anything right. They only do when a wine displays the precise attributes a taster associates with a given region and varietal. There may be no easier task in science than inducing an “expert” to flub a wine: if you pour a Merlot that tastes like Syrah, they’re going to say it’s Syrah. Similarly, even skilled tasters will not score the same wine identically every time they drink it, because both wine and humans are organic, varying from container to container and day to day. Finally, quality is only one driver of wine prices. Scarcity and branding often matter more and cannot be discerned in blind tasting.
As long as the public delights in seeing pompous winemakers and critics humbled, journalists will keep writing Schadenfreude-laden stories about the latest “Gotcha!” study. But these articles generally confuse absence of evidence with evidence of absence: they presume that if a handful of researchers did not find that one group of connoisseurs possessed statistically significant tasting ability, any claim to wine expertise must be a hoax. The truly interesting question is the opposite one: whether it’s possible for a critic to look smart rather than silly.
Unfortunately, designing an experiment that gives tasters a chance to succeed requires the scientist to understand wine. They need to give the drinkers plenty of time on a small number of wines, in an odourless room with appropriate stemware; to taste the bottles and ensure they are not flawed; to choose wines that are representative of a well-known style; and to serve them at the age where they best strut their stuff. In other words, what you would need is the Oxford-Cambridge Varsity match.
After Simpson finished his introduction, the tasters were escorted to an august room featuring a portrait of Edward VII. Six numbered glasses sat at each place, alongside spittoons, score-sheets, pens and water biscuits. For 80 minutes, save a brief break, the room was eerily silent. As soon as the sheets were in, the judges began assessing the accuracy of written descriptors and assigning partial credit. While they debated whether Corvina tasted enough like Gamay to award a few points (yes) or Albariño like Riesling (no), I furiously copied down the sheets. Only after tallying them up could I step back and marvel.
All 14 drinkers recognised the Pinot Noir, and six knew it was from New Zealand. Twelve correctly identified the Beaujolais and Chardonnay, while 11 nailed the Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon. In three more cases – the Riesling, a white Rhône and the Bordeaux – the most common guess was the correct one. Finally, nine of 14 sheets pegged the second white as Australian. That left just three wines the group struggled with, one of which was an obscure white grape barely exported outside Italy. Had the group known which wines would be in the tasting, the probability of getting that many right by chance would be tiny. Given that they also had to rule out every varietal that wasn’t served, the odds were essentially zero.
The final outcome of the match seemed preordained. Once the scoring was complete, the teams returned to the judging room, with the table set for a hearty lunch. On the reds, Simpson announced, Cambridge had eked out a close victory. But Oxford had achieved a greater advantage on the whites, giving them their fourth straight title. Ang, who had spotted the Crozes-Hermitage while training, was duly named the top taster. Wang and Boyle gave gracious speeches, and Pol Roger flowed freely as Simpson slipped the score-sheets into his briefcase.
Following the meal, the victors took a tour of the cellars of Berry Bros. Rudd, Britain’s oldest wine merchant. The vanquished Cantabrigians headed to a bar and ordered beer. “I had an absolute mare [nightmare],” Beagle said later, having missed the country, varietal or both on every wine. “But we expected to lose. Oxford turn up needing to win. And they have. They’re good tasters, you can’t deny that. We knew that we couldn’t have hard training, because we didn’t want to scare people off. Maybe if we were a bit more technical and arsey about making people learn the wines and little subtleties, we’d win more. But wine has never been about that for me. I said, ‘You know what, if I’ve messed this up, I don’t care. These wines are lovely.’”
Dart admits that he wouldn’t mind a bit more focus from Cambridge in 2018. “You want it to be competitive,” he says. At the same time, he also wonders whether the Varsity is drifting from its ultimate purpose. “Oxford are fixated about getting it right all the time,” he says. “Do they actually like wine? If you do something at the very highest level, is it a job or do you really enjoy it? Anyone who gets to the top of their craft, you almost lose the love.”
As I got to know Ang, Oxford’s star taster, I found myself asking the same question. Born to a fourth-generation immigrant family in Singapore, his first passion was bridge. He gave it up to pursue his studies abroad, ruling out American universities after hearing that “lots of people have guns there”. “I thought it would be safer to come [to Britain],” he explains. “At least I know I won’t get shot.”
Ang was accepted by Cambridge to study pharmacology, and switched to Oxford for his PhD. He has made little effort to adjust to British life: for years he returned to Singapore, where “you get a much better climate and better food”, every two months. Now 27 with a wife and young son, he keeps the walls in his flat bare, the heat on to “tropical” temperatures and his kitchen stocked with hard-to-find Asian ingredients. It was only when he attended an eight-course Oxford dinner with a wine matched to each dish that he wondered how the pairings were chosen and began to embrace his first British tradition: wine criticism. “It’s an interesting intellectual pursuit,” he says. “You start appreciating how wine connects with culture, how it’s a window on the world.”
Four years after his curiosity was piqued, Ang has compiled an encyclopaedic knowledge and writes impeccable tasting notes: he got perfect scores on all six white-wine descriptions at this year’s match. “There’s a reason Oxford has so many Asians,” he says. “Pressure. We’re used to it. We have exams from age six, and they matter. If you don’t do well, your parents will be very disappointed in you and you get caned. I’ve been caned many times.” He currently serves as a wine steward at his college, advising on purchases for events, and teaches bilingual wine courses for Chinese expats. “Asians know we don’t have a wine culture,” Ang explains. “We’re starting from zero, so we want to learn everything. I want to find out what makes every wine different.”
Mastering fine-grained subtleties is indeed the path to Varsity victory. But absent from Ang’s mission statement is any penchant for consuming beverages he finds delicious. “The [Varsity] is geared to prepare people to be wine professionals,” he says. “Jancis [Robinson] writes very clinically, impartially, like a judge. That’s what’s expected among British writers. I do value enjoyment, but mainly I consider wine academically. I’m more than happy to score styles I don’t like highly. If a wine expresses itself well, I have no hesitation.”
The more I heard Ang discuss his philosophy, the less satisfied I was that the Varsity scorecards had vindicated my belief in the veracity of wine connoisseurship. The tasters’ accurate guesses might refute the strongest form of the BSH, which holds that no one should be able to fare better than random chance when tasting blind. But even hard proof that amateurs can recognise wines using their senses alone wouldn’t necessarily make true believers out of the wine-is-BS crowd. “OK,” a sceptic might say, “so you can tell your Zweigelt from your Xinomavro. But can you tell me whether either one is any good?” I resolved to find out.
A week after the Varsity match, I lured five Oxonians back to London, promising vinous delights at 67 Pall Mall, a wine-themed club in St James’s. I picked 12 wines whose quality – in my fallible opinion – was commensurate with their prices, which ranged from £8 to nearly £300. And I asked the blind tasters to judge the wines as well as identify them.
On the surface, the experiment was a success. The team did what it was trained to do: the majority of the group correctly identified the varietal of nine of the 12 wines, and the country and region for seven of them. Moreover, the relationship between price and perceived merit was indisputable: for both whites and reds, the cheapest wine was ranked last on average, and the most expensive first. That said, their qualitative scores were packed into a very narrow range, and their guesses of the wines’ ages skewed far too young. None of this was a surprise: most Varsity tasters have little exposure to old or fine wine. But that only meant that cash-strapped graduate students were probably not the ideal cohort with which to slay the BSH.
Seeking an alternative, I invited Dart for lunch. Born in South Africa and raised in Britain, he is 36, and has overseen the Varsity match since 2008. He is in the final stages of becoming a Master of Wine, a lofty credential held by just 350 people in the world. In our previous chats, I was heartened by his broad knowledge and astute palate, and by the genuine joy he seemed to take from the finest fermented grape juice. It might not pass as peer-reviewed research, but if anyone could prove that fancy wine was not a sucker’s game, it would be him.
As far as Dart knew, he was showing up for an interview. But no sooner did he sit down than I ambushed him with seven reds, a score-sheet and a stopwatch. I asked whether we should wait to order food, lest a meal contaminate his palate. “I’ll survive,” he responded. “I’m a professional.”
Dart first held up each glass against a plain white background, and then quickly smelled through the line-up. “Wine number two is young, not high quality, and relatively straightforward,” he said of a 2015 red, which was indeed the line-up’s cheapest member. “Wine number five, is minty, spicy, eucalyptus. Old California Cabernet.” Bingo: it was a 1991 Heitz Martha’s Vineyard, hailing from a Napa plot surrounded by eucalyptus trees. “Number seven has got quite a lot of cedar, spice and graphite. It’s older Bordeaux.” It was none other than a 1978 Bordeaux. Dart had not yet taken a sip of any of them.
Finally, Dart deigned to try a drop of the first wine. He had barely swallowed before pronouncing it as another mature Bordeaux – a mid-level Left Bank wine, he said, from the 1980s. It was Chateau Lascombes, a mid-level Left Bank Bordeaux, from 1982.
I braced myself as he reached for the star of the line-up, a 1997 Gaja Sperss from Piedmont, Italy. “This is really good quality,” he said, as I exhaled in relief. “Subtle, round, ripe. The tannins are harmonious. Really well put together. Complete. Complex, developed, fine.” The corners of his lips kept turning upwards after every sip, until he exhausted his supply and asked for seconds. “This is at a beautiful stage. Very, very polished and remarkably refined. This has got perfect balance. So then you’re at the very top tier. Lovely maturity, too. Price: expensive. This is a £200-plus bottle of wine.” If you can find a bottle, it costs around £275.
There was one wine Dart pronounced as flawed from oxidation, and thus could not evaluate. And he did mistake the third glass, a mid-priced, high-octane Australian Shiraz, for a costly modernist St Emilion. But when he returned to the second bottle, he promptly honed in on it like the shrinking gps circle in Google Maps. “It could be an Argentine Malbec,” he said. “Yeah. That would be a case where you have a wine that isn’t screaming anything. It’s quite aromatic, deep colour, not too tannic or acidic. Argentine Malbec. And you’ll tell me it’s Lafite [a $1,000 wine] and I’ll wet my bed.” It wasn’t Lafite. It was Argentine Malbec.
Dart’s scores correlated perfectly to the wines’ prices at every step. The bottles cost £15, £35, £60, £80, £120 and £275. He assigned them 89, 91, 91, 92, 94, and 96 points respectively.
Of course, just because Dart happened to have a very good day doesn’t mean that wine critics are oracles. He and I probably also like similar wines. Most expensive bottles aren’t worth their price tags, and those that I think are fairly priced might not align with someone else’s palate. The only way to find out what you like is trial and error – preferably when another person is paying. But the next time you read another story mocking wine aficionados as hopeless dupes and wine criticism as junk science, go grab a bottle of your favourite tipple and ask yourself: who are you going to believe, the author or your own lyin’ nose?
Read more The Economist’s data team break down the results of the 2017 Oxford-Cambridge wine-tasting competition