Wine: Dinner with the Oxford Blind Tasting Society

Photo: James Flewellen

It’s a darn good thing that MasterChef has already staged a cooking task at New College Oxford (vegetarian Jacki struggled to get her rabbit done in time; Sara ran out of chutney for the starter – remember?)  Thank goodness they didn’t wait a few months for the Oxford Blind Tasting Society dinner (hosted last Saturday at New), or I fear they would have gone to town on cliché soundbites from a bunch of unashamed wine lovers who paused only from debating the relative merits of Puligny and Chassagne in order to shovel more sea bass and beef wellington down their throats, throwing to the wind the risk of bursting their cummerbunds.

There was plenty of that, admittedly (that’s what made it such a good evening) but it’s all too easy to dismiss wine appreciation in such a way.  Blind tasting is the great leveller – capable of debunking the sniffiest prejudices of those who believe they “dislike New World wines”, for example, but also casting to the dustbin the reverse snobbery of those who would like to think that it is impossible to tell the difference between, say, cheap or expensive wines.  Hanneke Wilson, veteran coach of blind tasting at Oxford, got off to a great start identifying 1996 Pol Roger precisely.  Lucky guess?  I don’t think so.

For me the wine of the evening was the 2009 Domaine Verget Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru “Sous les Puits”.  Verget is a small producer (only 300 cases of this wine are made, available in England from Farr Vintners).  I understand that most of their wines come from the Maconnais and Chablis, but this premier cru Puligny Montrachet (albeit not from a single vineyard, not that that matters) is superb.  According to Clive Coates, the proprietor “is vociferous, rude and indiscreet, irritating rather than congenial”, although if the domaine produces good wine, who cares?  Judging by this one, they clearly do.  The colour is a light pale straw.  The nose is very giving and complex, showing lemon curd, fresh herbs (even a tropical “green banana” smell, to me) and underlying oak.  The palate is fat and rich, creamy textured, finishing with searing acid.  A really amplified, bold chardonnay that I will be very interested to see develop over the next decade, if not more.

The 2000 F.X. Pichler Smaragd Loibner Steinertal Riesling (Wachau, Austria) is a very interesting wine indeed.  In the decanter it was a deep gold but in the glass it was lighter with a bright green tinge.  Some apparent fine spritz hung in the glass.  The nose is powerful with kerosene and orange zest in abundance.  The palate is very lush and expressive with loads of peaches and a definite mineral streak.  Before the wine’s identity was revealed, two camps emerged, with roughly half those in attendance arguing that it was Riesling.  I had set out my stall early in the discussion in favour of it being Alsace Riesling, having abandoned a competing thought that it was Australian.  Although the profile seemed right, for me it was clear this was a wine with some age to it, the “petrol” aroma was more balanced than I suspect it might have been in an Australian Riesling of similar age.  I also considered it could have been from Pfaltz, which produces Germany’s ripest Rieslings, but there was not enough sherbet tang for me.  The other camp thought it too fat for a Riesling, and detecting more rosewater aromatics (I must admit I did not think this was a characteristic of the wine at all) were arguing that it was Gerwurtztraminer.  The answer was really somewhere in between.  The lush fatness came from it being Austrian, but I think you would have to be very brave to have made such a guess.

As for the Reds, 1999 Chateau Roc de Cambes Cotes de Bourg stood out as very impressive.  Darkish plum coloured, just translucent in the centre, with a mid-red rim.  The nose was complex – preserved cherries, jam and chocolate, with an equally robust palate full of chocolate, cocoa powder and a mint overlay.  Mouth-coating and complex.  But the biggest surprise of the evening was the 1989 Domaine de Trevaillon Coteaux d’Aix en Provence.  I was pretty confident that this was a left bank claret (as was most of the room) but it turned out to be an old and rare example of a 50/50 cabernet/syrah blend from the south of France.  Such blends are typical in the no-rules New World but in France it takes a degree of bravery to depart from the traditional (and in many regions prescribed) grape variety blends.  Translucent mid red with an obvious, heavy deposit, it had a mature, cedary nose and that characteristic “library book” scent with an iron rich, fleshy palate and pretty rustic tannins.

The complete list of what we tasted is a follows.  Wines marked “B” were donated by Farr Vintners for the pre- and post-dinner blind tasting, and presented engagingly by Tom Parker.

1996 Pol Roger (£57) (B)

Bright, light gold colour, impeccably clean-looking.  Powerful bready, doughy nose with stone fruits lying underneath.  The mouthfeel is luxurious, with very fine bubbles and a very long acid finish of lemons and granny smith apples.  I detected less secondary development than others but either way it has a great future ahead of it.

2000 F.X. Pichler Smaragd Loibner Steinertal Riesling (Wachau, Austria) (£19, N/A UK) (B)

2009 Domaine Verget Puligny-Montrachet 1er Cru “Sous les Puits” (£22) (B)

2004 Trimbach Reserve Riesling (£14)

One of my favourite wines, from one of my favourite houses.  Textbook dry Alsace Riesling, absolutely bursting with orange blossom, fresh peaches, grassy herbal notes and a high note of kerosene.  Drinking excellently now it has perfect balance between fruit and developed secondary characters.  Superb as an aperitif, and frankly I continued to drink it throughout the starter in preference to…

2007 Domaine Pochon Crozes-Hermitage Blanc (£7)

Ripe, nutty nose; slippery-textured palate with abundant pineapple, mandarin and apricot flavours and a classic bitter almond finish.  A bit simple.

1999 Chateau Roc de Cambes Cotes de Bourg (£33) (B)

1989 Domaine de Trevaillon Coteaux d’Aix en Provence (£82) (B)

2002 Domaine du Colombier Crozes Hermitage Cuvee Gaby (£9)

Oh dear.  Most people were served the 2001 but the bottle at our end of the table was

Part of the cellar at New College Oxford. But where do they keep the good stuff?

corked and it was the last one.  So we got the 2002 instead, which is frankly a bit of a disappointment.  Not a great vintage in the Rhone, and an unhappy nose of wet cement and airing closet masked the underlying raspberry and cherry flavours that were attempting to come through.

2004 Chateau Cantemerle, Haut Medoc (£15)

A classic claret but I really struggle to say a great deal about it (I think by this stage I had stopped paying attention).

2003 Chateau Suduiraut Sauternes  (375mL £15) (B)

Vivid yellow gold, very lush and classic.

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