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Oxford vs Cambridge: Boats and Wines

Oxford vs Cambridge: Boats and Wines

The two legendary universities have been in competition for centuries – and their rivalry isn’t limited to merely sports or academia

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In the name of tradition, Oxford and Cambridge have been dueling for centuries to keep their prestige. Only this past Easter, the famous rowing race had all of England's eyes scotched to the television, hands glued to the wild boar sausages.  

Oxford emerged victorious in the 159th edition of the race. The course covers a 4.2 mi (6.8 km) stretch of the Thames in West London, from Putney to Mortlake. Members of both teams are traditionally known as blues and each boat as a "Blue Boat", with Cambridge in light blue and Oxford dark blue. As of 2013 Cambridge have won the race 81 times and Oxford 77 times, with one dead heat.

Oxford's second victory this year. Wine seems to be another field of interest for the University, beating Cambridge on yet another race. Blind folded students showed their expertise swimming in types of wines. The saying "no pain, no gain" definitely doesn't concern this type of competition, Epicurean to say the least, it demands a trained palate and a refined knowledge in wines.

For sixty years, the Varsity Blind Wine-Tasting contest has been challenging student-sommeliers to excel. With their eyes closed. There’s no limit to the historical rivalry between the UK’s two top universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Like siblings from established families, they’ve been pitted against one another practically since birth – which is especially challenging as Cambridge was actually founded by two ex-students of Oxford.

They are both esteemed institutions for the level of their academy and have each seen many of their students become Prime Ministers, Bishops and Nobel prize winners. On a more recreational level, students from both Universities compete in sports from rugby to cricket to ice hockey. And for the last sixty years, a handful of chosen representatives from both Universities (seven students from each) have also been challenging one another in wine tasting.

The tradition of the Oxford and Cambridge Varsity Blind Wine-Tasting Competition may not be as storied as their rowing competition, but it is the old blind-test in its genre. And the contest is extremely complex: sommeliers from each school must identify the grape variety, the region of origin and year of every wine. There are two forty-minute rounds in which contestants have to identify twelve bottles – six reds and six whites.

This year, in honor of the contest’s 60th Anniversary, the organization – overseen as always by the Champagne producer Pol Roger – chose some of the most prestigious wines available, including a Vega Sicilia Unico from 1953, whose value is estimated at one thousand dollars. For this special hallmark event, the students were particularly prepared. Among hints of tobacco, end notes of citrus and varying degrees of tannin, the two teams were tied for points until the final minutes.

The final winner, however was Oxford that beat Cambridge 689 to 677. Over the six decades, Oxford has won 36 of these contests, and Cambridge 23 (although Cambridge is ahead of Oxford in sporting competitions). The losing team members, however, do have some excellent consolation prizes: they get to take home excellent bottles from producers like Domaine Huët, Château Haut-Brion, Vega-Sicilia and Château Climens. In commemoration of this competition on its anniversary, a special volume has just been published: Reds, Whites, and Varsity Blues: 60 Years of the Oxford & Cambridge Blind Wine-Tasting Competition, curated by Jennifer Seagal.

Next year’s stand-off will be in February of 2014. Cambridge’s student sommeliers are already beginning to prepare. The rowing teams with their 184 years of tradition, are about to start six months of grueling physical training. Another year of fierce rivalry between two of the most prestigious universities is about to start all over as tradition requires.

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