Dan Rosenheck in The Economist:
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.