Tasting and wine knowledge competitions between the wine clubs of top business schools, universities and similar institutions seem to be all the rage. There are certainly a fair number of these every year, both in the UK and in France and I was fortunate enough to assist, as Master of Ceremonies and partially as judge, at one of the most important of these recently. I found it very impressive, both on the organizational side and from the point of view of the levels of knowledge shown by the twelve teams involved. I am not even sure that all professionals would have done as well as these students in what was a very difficult contest.
The wine circle of the French School of Political Studies, called Science Po, is called « In Vino Veritas », just like the Belgian wine magazine for which my colleagues Hervé and Marc write. Students, members of this wine club and who change each year, have been running their wine competition for the past ten years, this year’s edition being the tenth. They suitably call it SPIT (the French just love acronyms, and this one stands for Science Po International Tasting). Twelve teams were candidates for a final round that selected the top three of these for a final round of blind tasting: six of the teams were from France and six from other countries including the UK, the USA, Denmark and Australia. The competition, which included both wine knowledge and blind tasting tests, took place in the cellars of Champagne Bollinger, who are the main sponsors of the event.One could be in a worse place! And my name is Bond, James Bond….
The twelve teams competing, after a preliminary round of selection, were, from France: Ecole Normale Supérieure, EM Lyon, ENSTA Paris Tech, ESSEC, Polytechnique and Paris Dauphine.
And, from elsewhere: Australian National University, Copenhagen Business School, Cornell University, London School of Economics, University of Oxford and University of St. Andrews.
Each team was comprised of three members.
The jury this year included five wine professionals:
Raimonds Tomsons from Latvia was the Jury’s President. He was Best Sommelier for Europe and Africa in 2017
Charles-Armand de Belenet, General Manager of Bollinger
Julie Dupouy, Best Sommelier of Ireland and number 3 at the last World’s Best Sommelier Competition
Edwige Régnier, Programme Director at Le Cordon Bleu Reims
Patrick Lafforest, Bollinger’s chief enologist.
I also participated in the judging of the final.
The blind tasting tests for all teams, who tasted and answered the questions simultaneously and on paper, involved four series, each consisting of three wines: one series of Champagnes (any guess for the brand?), one of white wines and two of red wines. Three of these series were preceded by a set of seven written questions. The copies were collected and the correct answers supplied after each series. The teams with the best three aggregate marks then went into the final.
An example of a tasting question? The three white wines served blind were, in this order, an Alsace single vineyard Grand Cru wine from Deiss, a Coulée de Serrant 1990 and a Beaune 1er Cru from Chanson. The teams had to guess the grape variety (or varieties) of the Alsace, which is pretty hard as Deiss does field blends on these wines, then say which of the three wines came from a vineyard with slate soils, and also guess the vintage of wine number 2.
The three teams that went into the final were: EM Lyon, ENSTA Paris Tech and Oxford University.
The test for each of the finalist teams was to taste one Champagne and one red wine, guessing the origin and the vintage of each, then preparing a presentation of each of the wines that had to be made successively to the jury, with just 90 seconds for the commentary on each wine. They were told that they would be judged mainly on the precision of their descriptions of each wine, but also on their creativity in associating each wine with food or some other evocation that came to mind, whether music, literature, painting or whatever.
It was a close call between these three teams, but Oxford came through by a short head, largely on account of the fluency, the coherence and the concision of their presentations of each of the two wines, just beating EM Lyon, who were over-long and slightly repetitive in their comments, and ENSTA who were more hesitant, but also the most imaginative of the three in their associations. The wines, by the way, were both from the 1975 vintage: a truly magnificent Bollinger RD 1975 and, to me at least, a somewhat tired but silkily refined Romanée Conti 1975. All the teams guessed the Pinot Noir as the grape for the latter, and the Côte de Nuits as the region. Bollinger was a sure bet for the Champagne, but nobody got the vintage, which is not surprising as the wine seemed incredibly young.
One can imagine the work involved in the organization of such an event, with teams coming from all over the world, being taken to Champagne and having a night out the evening before plus a gala dinner to finish, after the competition, and which was held at the Palais de Thau in Reims. So congratulations to all those concerned! Not everything was perfect, but this is a student project and was not managed by a professional events company.
I was very happy to give some time to such an enthusiastic and friendly bunch of students, and was very impressed with the level of knowledge and interest in wine that they all showed. Events such as this are part and parcel of the future of wine.