As the 500-year-old bell tower tolls, about 25 students from the University of Oxford cross a medieval cobblestone street. They duck under a stone archway and slip into a room named after T.S. Eliot, who studied here a century ago.
The students drop their backpacks and get ready for practice. They're here to hone their tongues. This week, an elite team of Oxford's six best tasters will battle the University of Cambridge to see which group has the most refined palate.
In the back of the Oxford practice room, the coach, Hanneke Wilson, is setting things up. She's published a book about wine. She oversees a wine cellar. And right now, she's struggling to uncork a few bottles.
"Corks can be very recalcitrant," she mutters to herself. Moments later, she succeeds and slips the bottles into cloth sleeves that disguise their labels.
Oxford and Cambridge have academic awards to see which school is smarter, and boat races to determine which is stronger. And for the past half-century, their blind wine tasting societies have held competitions. It's all part of an epic rivalry that dates back to the 13th century.
Now, these tasting teams are hoping to be recognized as an official sport.
As practice gets underway, wine is the only topic of conversation. Students list the regions they've visited: Bordeaux, Champagne, Alsace.
"I basically plan my holidays around vineyards," says Yee Chuin Lim, a master's student in development studies. Other students confess they do the same.
Soon the room is quiet and tense. One student makes his way around the long table, setting out wine glasses. Another student pours. Then, they start a sophisticated version of "guess the grape."
They study the color. They swirl the glass and take a big sniff. Eventually, they sip it and swish it, constantly jotting down what they notice. Finally, they spit it out; there is no drunkenness allowed. And, before the clock runs out, they guess.
Coach Wilson explains: "You get five points for the predominant grape variety, five for the country of origin, two points for the main viticulture region, three for the subdistrict, two for the vintage and then five points for your tasting note."
Basically, you need to know what grape, from when and from where — the more specific, the better. This means your tongue needs to have a database of wine. Plus, it helps to have a good working knowledge of agricultural practices and winemaking techniques.
"Wine tasting, as you will by now have realized, is very difficult," coach Wilson says.
Oxford's ultimate goal is, of course, beating Cambridge. Historically, Oxford has the edge, but Cambridge is the defending champion.
"It's very tense. People get jolly nervous. We go to the Oxford and Cambridge Club in London, so it's on neutral territory," Wilson says. "And the match happens in total silence."
Early in the morning on their big day, the team will head over to the train station. Ren Lim, a doctoral student in biophysics, has made this trip three times to represent Oxford. He says that on the train there is a scramble to find seats together. Then they pop open a bottle, cover the label and do a quick practice session right there.
"When you start dishing out glasses," Lim remembers, "you get funny looks."
When people ask him about why he devotes so much time to blind wine tasting, Ren Lim says, "I still struggle to find why."
It is fun and challenging, he admits. And of course, college kids will be college kids.
Remember how you have to spit out the wine after you taste it? Well, you spit into a black spittoon that students from the two teams are supposed to share. But Ren Lim says that when you've got a mouth full of wine, sometimes your archrival will "hog onto the spittoon and deprive you of the privilege to use it."
Coach Wilson says that in more than 20 years of coaching, she's noticed that "Cambridge always makes more noise slurping and spitting than we do. We think they do this to put us off our stride."
But there's one thing both of these teams agree on.
"We treat wine tasting as a sport," Wilson says. "We train for it, the way we train for a competitive sports match."
She says both Oxford and Cambridge have petitioned to become officially recognized as sports teams. After all, it worked for chess. But so far, the powers that be haven't been persuaded.
"They think that sport involves running around and kicking or hitting things. We disagree, but there you are," Wilson says with a sigh.
Still, other universities are catching on. Blind tasting has spread around the U.K., and it's even crossed the pond. Both Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania's business schools have teams, among others. They let spectators watch — and taste for themselves.
Here in Oxford, competitions still happen behind closed doors.
So do the practices. As this one winds down, the team captain calls on Mateusz Tarkowski to guess the last pair of red wines. Tarkowski studies computer science, and he's hoping to make Oxford's wine team.
"Cherries on the palate. Of course it's a dry wine," Tarkowski looks down at his notes. "I definitely thought it was Italian." Then, he decides to hazard a guess.
When the sock comes off, Tarkowski has guessed right — full marks. It's been a good practice.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Let's have a drink and a little friendly competition, Great Britain style. That's right, competitive wine tasting. Students at Oxford and Cambridge are set to face off in a blind tasting match tomorrow. They've been doing this for more than half a century. Gabrielle Emanuel was at Oxford, ahead of the competition.
GABRIELLE EMANUEL, BYLINE: As the 500-year-old bell tower tolls, about 25 students hurry through traffic. They cross a medieval cobblestone street, duck under a stone archway, and into a room named after T.S. Eliot. He studied here a century ago. Hanneke Wilson is getting things ready. She's the coach of Oxford's Blind Wine Tasting Society. And right now, she's struggling to uncork a few bottles.
She succeeds and slips the bottle into a cloth sleeve to disguise the label. Many of the students here are hoping to make the elite team of six that get to represent the University.
HANNEKE WILSON: Thank you everyone for being here.
EMANUEL: Soon, the room is quiet and tense. One student makes his way around the long table, setting out wineglasses. Another student pours. Then, a sophisticated version of guess the grape - study the color, swirl the glass, take a big sniff, eventually sip it and swish it. Then, you've got to spit it. No drunkenness allowed. And before the clock runs out, you guess.
WILSON: You get five points for the predominant grape variety, five for the country of origin...
EMANUEL: ...Two points for the region within the country, three to narrow it even further...
WILSON: ...Two for the vintage, and then five points for your tasting note.
EMANUEL: Your description?
WILSON: Your description, yes.
EMANUEL: Basically, what grape, from where, from when? Your tongue has to have a database of wine.
WILSON: Wine tasting, as you all by now have realized, is very difficult.
EMANUEL: Oxford's ultimate goal is of course beating Cambridge. Historically, Oxford has the edge, but Cambridge is the defending champion, and students are practicing almost every night.
WILSON: It's very tense. People get jolly nervous. We go to the Oxford and Cambridge Club in London, so it's on neutral territory. The match happens in total silence.
EMANUEL: Ren Lim, a graduate student, has represented Oxford three times.
Do people ask you the why question - why you care so much about this.
REN LIM: Yes. I still struggle to find why. (Laughter).
EMANUEL: In the end, Lim says, it's fun and it's challenging. But he admits college kids will be college kids. So remember you have to spit out the wine?
LIM: Your neighbor will sometimes like to hog onto the spittoon, deprive you of the privilege to use it.
WILSON: Cambridge always makes more noise slurping and spitting than we do. We think they do this to put us off our stride.
EMANUEL: But there's one thing these teams agree on.
WILSON: We treat wine tasting as a sport. We train for it, you know, the way you train for a competitive sport's match.
EMANUEL: Coach Wilson says Oxford and Cambridge have petitioned to become officially recognized as sports teams. After all, it worked for chess. And in blind wine tasting, they are actually using a muscle. The tongue is honed even if it is not toned.
WILSON: They think that sport involves, you know, running around and kicking or hitting things. We disagree of course, but there we are.
EMANUEL: Other universities are catching on. It's even crossed the pond. Both Harvard and UPenn's business schools have wine tasting teams.
WILSON: All right. Shall we discuss these two?
EMANUEL: Here in Oxford, it's Mateusz Tarkowski's turn to guess. He studies computer science, and he's hoping to make Oxford's team.
MATEUSZ TARKOWSKI: Cherries on the palate. Of course it's a dry wine, and I definitely thought it was Italian. I'm not sure. Are the tannins too big for sandrebese (ph)?
WILSON: The tannins are humongous.
TARKOWSKI: I thought it was going to be a little.
EMANUEL: A student stands at one end of the long table. He yanks off the cloth. Mateusz guessed right. Grape variety - Nebbiolo. Country of origin - Italy. Region - Piedmont. Sub-region - Barolo. Year - 2009. Full marks. It's been a good practice. For NPR News, I'm Gabrielle Emanuel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.