It’s 11AM on a freezing Saturday in Oxford, and I am spitting wine into a communal spitoon. At this time, I’d normally still be asleep or eating a fry-up. I don’t think I’ve ever communally spat into anything.
This, however, is a normal Saturday (and Wednesday and Thursday) for the 20-plus members of the blind wine tasting society at Oxford University. Founded in 1951, the club members meet four to five times a week to ‘taste’ wines, mastering the art of identifying an unlabelled glass of wine from its colour, body, taste, smell, ABV (alcohol content) and acidity. Using these factors, the members learn to guess the grapes and region and by deduction, the name of the wine. Together, they meet and train for hours every month – one member estimates he spends 35 and 40 hours a week on “wine-related stuff” including studying, tasting and teaching. Two have relationships thanks to the society, and another met his wife through the sport.
“When people first find out about [blind wine tasting], they laugh,” Sarah Beth Amos, a physicist in the society tells me. “Then they say, ‘Tell me everything you know’. You know you're all doing something a bit weird but you all come together.”
Blind wine tasting more than just a niche hobby with the potential for romance – there’s status to be won. Every year for the past 65 years, the Oxford team has competed against Cambridge University to be named the best blind wine tasters. Oxford has won 41 times, while Cambridge lags behind with only 24 wins. For the last four years in a row, Oxford has won.
On the day that I learn how to spit into a bucket without dribbling wine down myself, there’s a month to go until the competition. Only two people from the previous year’s winning team are eligible to compete, so with a team of six and one reserve, most are first-time competitors. Ten to 15 people are competing for a spot on the Oxford team and for those members, many of whom have only been training seriously for three or four months, the heat is on.
“At this point, we're all trying out,” Sam Budnyk, an American student tells me.
“There are no front-runners,” says Domen Presern, vice president of the society. “It's too early. There's plenty more tastings. Each of them gets graded. We know during those four or five weeks that people get markedly better or just stagnate.”
You might think blind wine tasting is bullshit or some sort of elitist flex, but it’s both a real thing and extremely hard. Extremely hard but not impossible, and nothing to do with how good the wine is – £6 supermarket bottles are used alongside the more expensive stuff. A paper published this year (co-authored by two members of the Oxford society) analysed the team’s success rate over a training period and found that accuracy increased. In 2017, the Economist analysed data from that year’s blind wine tasting competition and discovered that participants did on average better than random chance. But even if training increases aptitude, rates of success are slim: correctly guessing 50 percent of the wines tasted is considered impressive.
“The problem is the following: there are 1,800 grape varieties in the world – about 200 of which you should know if you're doing this," says Presern. "These grape varieties also exist in so many places around the world, each of them with a particular climate. So, the space you operate in isn't 200 grape varieties. You're not picking for 200 possible answers. If you include vintages, you might be picking between 3,000, 5000, 10,000 options. It's ridiculous.”
Amos adds: “You can't have an ego about it, and you can't be pretentious about it, because most of the time you're going to be wrong. You're going to have to stand up in front of people and make howling mistakes and be corrected by other people all the time.”
This becomes apparent in the bright room at Merton College, where the society is training today. First, six white wines are poured into small glasses and lined up in a row. Everyone is silent. I look around, tentatively, not knowing how to approach the glasses. Am I just meant to … drink them? Someone sees my confusion and pityingly hands over a sheet of paper with pointers and tasting notes. First, you compare the colour of the wines (a pale, almost green wine might be a Sauvignon Blanc, while a deep gold with a pink tinge could be a Gewürztraminer grape). Next, I’m told I should sniff. In the glass I pick up, I can smell peach and vanilla. I have no idea what this means (according to the sheet: possibly Macôn Burgundy). Finally, I take the wine in my mouth and just hold it there. It makes my mouth salivate, an indication of high acidity. I spit it out, take a guess (Pinot Grigio????) and move onto the next glass. This goes on for half an hour. I do not get any correct.
Reeling from my failure, the team and I head to a nearby Thai restaurant. Over vegetable pad Thai and spring rolls, I ask what makes a good blind wine taster. Turns out, being a scientist helps.
“What's interesting is that almost everyone who takes it seriously at this table or sat in that room are scientists or number-based people,” Budnyk tells me. “There are a couple of people who handle qualitative things but there are people who go into it with a very algorithmic approach.”
“Twenty-five years ago, classicists were probably the most represented group with History, and a few others like that,” adds Presern. “That's no longer the case. This has been truly taken over by scientists.”
It’s not just a natural aptitude for logic that helps with guessing wines. A good blind wine tasting session has a lot to do with the type of wine you get, and whether it expresses its characteristics accurately. A white wine with apple and citrus aromas, a high acidity and light to medium body, for example, is likely to be a Chardonnay – specifically, a Chablis from Burgundy. A glass of red wine with a pale ruby colour, tasting of sour cherries with high acid and tannins, is probably a Barolo made from Nebbiolo, an Italian grape called Piedmont. If you smell cherries, I’m told, it’s probably an Italian wine, and the ‘jammier’ the cherry smell, the more likely the wine is to be from a southern region of the country.
Or none of the above could apply if you get a wine that is very uncharacteristic, like a weird Slovenian riesling. Or you might encounter a vintage that throws you off, making the whole skill very challenging. So why the hell do it?
“I think there is a social aspect to blind wine tasting as well,” says Amos. “‘Cult’ is not the right word but you're welcomed into this fold, and that is really nice.”
Andrew Lawrie, another member of the society, agrees. “We're all nerds and we all enjoy the huge intellectual challenge. There's such a combination of knowledge that's learned from books and lists and the physical application. You have to really taste to the best of your senses, then you have to match that with book learning and practice. There are a number of time where everything I knew about wines was completely different to what was in my glass. It's this continually evolving challenge.”
This level of obsession at a university society seems strange, but I can empathise. My entire second year of university was taken up with a similar obsession, albeit not culinary. I was the president of my university debating society. My boyfriend at the time was a debater, and my best friend was also my debating partner. On Tuesday and Thursdays, we would hold two-hour training sessions, and weekends usually involved long drives to another university to sit through nine hours and numerous rounds of a debating IV (competition). After a year, I dropped the “vaguely immoral” hobby, as Irish writer Sally Rooney, calls it. Nonetheless, I see similar levels of obsession in Oxford’s blind wine tasters.
“In terms of things that are competitive,” says Lawrie, “it's really hard. Really super hard.”
“There is [an infinite amount of knowledge],” says Presern, “and that is what makes it so interesting. You have puzzles until the rest of your life.”
A month after the communal spitting at Merton College, I join Oxford's blind wine tasting society for another training session. The competition is only three weeks away now, and the mood is serious but excited. We discuss what people are going to wear and some of the big names in wine who will be attending. I haven’t heard of any of them.
By the end of the session, I’m convinced Oxford are going to win. Still, I’d like to know what the other side think so I call Tom Ogden, president of the Cambridge blind wine tasting society. He tells how the team's training has been going, but not in enough detail to give anything away.
“When I first started doing it, I didn't drink wine,” he says. “Usually, the [Cambridge] team has a lot of people in it every year who, in October, did not buy, taste, or know anything about wine.”
How do they fancy their chances? “The teams vary from year to year, and Oxford have had a lot of continuity and have tended to have people stay for a long time. They have also had also had some of the best people there have ever been.”
But Ogden is optimistic. “This year we've been really focused,” he says. “I think we've got a really good chance.”
The Oxford Cambridge Blind Wine Tasting Varsity takes place at the Oxford Cambridge Club in central London. The judging panel includes Jancis Robinson, a legend in bind wine tasting circles. The only time she speaks to me is to correct me when I accidentally call her ‘Janice.’ The building is similarly intimidating: women were only allowed here as full members in 2001, and there is a strict dress code. Even if it’s possible to view blind wine tasting as a nerdy past-time for people obsessed with knowledge, rather than a posh hobby with expensive wine, it’s hard not to feel the elitism that surrounds today’s competition.
Amos and Budnyk have made the team, alongside four others. For the next three hours, the Oxford and Cambridge contestants sit opposite each other on a long table in a room named after a monarch I’ve never heard of. A timekeeper from Pol Roger, who sponsor the competition, pours out the wines, their labels covered in a black cloth. Then the clock starts.
First, in total silence, the tasters check the colour of the wines, lifting them against the light or a white sheet of paper to get the right hue. Then, gradually, the room starts to fill with the sounds that define competitive wine tasting. Slurping, swilling, gargling, spitting. This continues for hours as the tasters note down their answers on A4 sheets of paper. When the time is up, the teams exits, desperate to discuss their answers like students emerging from a GCSE exam. Clint Wong, Oxford’s captain and the only competitor to have taken part in the competition before, walks out of the room shaking his head.
I accompany everyone to historic wine shop Berry Bros. & Rudd to drink some probably quite notable Champagne, while the judges mull over the tasting notes sheet back at the club. The tasters are scored for either correctly identifying a wine, or providing the correct analysis of its taste, even if the get the identity wrong. It is hard, after all.
When it’s time to announce the winner and find out if the months of training have paid off, the teams stream back into the club. After a short preamble, Cassidy Dart from Pol Roger announces the winners. Cambridge have beaten Oxford, breaking the four-year stretch without a win. Oxford look crushed, and Cambridge burst into cheers.
The Oxford Cambridge Blind Wine Tasting Varsity ends with a boozy lunch, just incase anyone hadn’t had enough wine. Everyone is understandably merry and Ogden, who captained the Cambridge team, stands up to give a speech. “It’s incredible that we get to do this,” he says, his voice emotional. “When you think about it, we get to come here and get this lifelong appreciation of wine doing this – win or lose. Truthfully, it means a huge amount to us. This is a gift that frankly, is impossible to repay.”
After my time with the Oxford society, I certainly feel a greater appreciation of wine and all its complexities in flavour, aroma and hue – even if I’m no closer to correctly identifying them.