Close Menu

‘Getting nerdy about wine’ celebrated in Varsity blind tasting contest

Last week, a group of young, self-confessed wine nerds gathered in London for the 71st Oxford vs Cambridge Varsity blind tasting competition, with impressive and surprising results.

Pictured l-r: Laurence Bialy, Marketing Executive at Pol Roger Portfolio, Theo Furnniss, Cambridge contestant, Chai Hao Chiu, Cambridge Coach Ben Wolstenholme, Cambridge contestant Benson Chen, Cambridge Captain Victoria Phan, Cambridge contestant (top) Andrey Karailiev, Cambridge contestant (bottom) Suyeon (Ellie) Kim, Cambridge contestant Cherlyn Tan, Cambridge contestant and Will Dennison, Head of Fine Wine at Pol Roger Portfolio

The contest, founded by the late Harvey’s director Harry Waugh in 1953, sees Cambridge pitted against Oxford to decide which university houses the best team of wine tasters.

Each university is allowed to put forward a team of seven students, two of whom must be ungraduates, to compete in a timed tasting of six white and six red still wines (which we’ve listed below).

This year saw a varied selection of wines selected by Will Dennison, who is head of fine wine at Pol Roger Portfolio, which has been sponsor of the event since 1992, when the baton of supporting and managing the competition was passed on from Harvey’s after almost 40 years.

Among the bottles were a few ‘bankers’, such as a Loire Valley Cabernet Franc in the reds and a barrel-fermented Rioja in the whites, with the rest of the wines proving hard to detect, particularly a Napa Cabernet Sauvignon from 1988 and a young Etna Bianco, with its firm acidity, due to the Carricante grape it is crafted from.

Having judged in this year’s contest along with Sarah Jane Evans MW – which saw us both doing the timed blind tasting – I can understand what the contestants went through, as well as the hardest elements of the line-up.

2024’s top taster: Victoria Phan

Also, by taking part in the experience, I was able to come up with a list of possible answers for each wine, and therefore help with marking the students’ answers – awarding points for near-misses, such as confusing a sweet Tokaji with a Sauternes, or a Sagrantino from Umbria with a Corvina from Valpolicella (which several did).

Cambridge put forward a more experienced team and won the contest, as well as the trophy for the ‘top taster’ ­– which went to Victoria Phan (pictured above) – but one of the most impressive competitors was on the Oxford team: an undergraduate called Victor Kolev (pictured below) who was the only person to correctly identify the Carricante from Sicily.

Kolev, who is Bulgarian, is in fact studying computer science at Stanford, but currently at Oxford as part of an academic exchange with the US university, and told me that he had met the Oxford team captain at an event, and had been enticed by the idea of “getting nerdy about wine”, before joining the Oxford University Blind Tasting Society (OUBTS).

Oxford’s Victor Kolev was the only contestant to correctly identify the Etna Bianco

Kolev was of course not alone in wanting to study the complexities of wine, with all the tasters appearing obsessive about this fascinating drink, and, at a relatively young age.

Indeed, it was exciting to be among these competitive and fiercely-bright set of self-confessed wine nerds, some of whom may be part of the trade in the future.

On that note, it is interesting to point out that past contestants have included famous figures of the wine world today, such as David Peppercorn MW, Jasper Morris MW, Mark Savage MW, Julian Jeffs, Oz Clarke and Charles Metcalfe, along with current head of Pol Roger Portfolio, James Simpson MW.

Another person who once competed for Oxford was former db editor and present contributor, Gabriel Stone (née Savage).

Meanwhile, I, having expressed an interest in joining the OUBTS while at Oxford, was denied a place on the team, having been told I didn’t take wine seriously enough to compete.

The captain of the time was absolutely right.

Please read on for more details on the wines tasted; this year’s contestants and some further facts about the Varsity blind wine tasting.

The Cambridge winning team:

  • Theo Furnniss
  • Chai Hao Chiu,
  • Benson Chen
  • Victoria Phan
  • Andrey Karailiev
  • Suyeon (Ellie) Kim
  • Cherlyn Tan

The Oxford team:

  • Mikolaj Poplawski
  • Julien Leidy
  • Sophie Gray
  • Joseph Rosenfeld
  • Victor Kolev
  • Mark Jennings (Captain)
  • Richard Jones (Reserve)


  • Leeuwin Estate Art Series Riesling 2020
  • Etna Bianco Alta Mora 2021
  • Vouvray Sec Clos de Rougemont Vigneau Chevreau 2022
  • CVNE Monopole Clasico Rioja Blanco 2019
  • Le Petit Smith Haut Lafitte Blanc 2020
  • Doisy Daene 2005


  • Fess Parker Sta. Rita Hills Pinot Noir 2021
  • Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil Les Quarterons Amirault 2021
  • Tabula Ribera del Duero Bodegas Tabula 2018
  • Elephant Hill Syrah 2017
  • Mondavi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1988
  • Arnaldo Caprai Montefalco Sagrantino Collepiano 2019

Further facts:

  • 2024 was the 71st competition and held at Berry Bros & Rudd on 22 February
  • Pol Roger has been involved with the BWT competition officially since 1992, taking over from Harvey’s who had run it for the decades before.
  • The move was spear-headed by Bill Gunn MW, the former Managing Director of Pol Roger Portfolio. The competition itself has a long history that goes all the way back to 1953 when the first competition was held.
  • The teams comprise seven members from each university, including a captain and a reserve. The reserves scores are not counted, unless there is an issue with another member of the team (illness, delayed train, etc.), however they share in the spoils after the match.
  • The winning team is rewarded with a bottle of Pol Roger Brut Vintage each, with the losing team receiving a bottle of Pol Roger Brut Réserve.
  • The Top Taster, who can come from the losing or winning team, is usually awarded a magnum of Pol Roger Sir Winston Churchill. This year, to mark the 175th anniversary of Pol Roger, the top taster was given a Jeroboam of Brut Vintage 2016.
  • The winning team is invited to Epernay for a tour and tasting at Pol Roger headquarters on the Avenue de Champagne. Afterwards they compete in the Pol Roger International Concours de Degustation.

Other competition formats:

  • The Edinburgh vs St Andrews blind wine tasting format is exactly the same as the Oxbridge one.
  • The Pol Roger International Concours de Degustation is held in the summer, usually early June, as a competition between the best Austrian, English, French and Scottish universities. The format for the international competition remains six reds and six whites, however all the wines in this competition are French.

It looks like you're in Asia, would you like to be redirected to the Drinks Business Asia edition?

Yes, take me to the Asia edition No