Forget the Oxford-Cambridge Boat Race: Here’s the Wine Race
The Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge has been a tradition since 1829 when two friends challenged each other to a race on Henley-on-Thames. But as Oxbridge’s sporting elite works up a sweat through 4.2 miles of hard rowing, I shall be enjoying the Oxford vs Cambridge of wine.
Rooting for Oxford are Stephen and Fiona Duckett, who looked at more than 300 sites over three years before settling on the chalky slopes of Oxfordshire for their vineyard and winery Hundred Hills.
Fans of vintage Champagne and inspired by the boutique wine scene of Napa, they teamed up with Dr Michel Salgues of Roederer Champagne fame to create vintage sparkling wines.
“There is a relationship to Champagne,” says Duckett, “but we want them to express England’s countryside. This is a family business for the rest of our lives, and hopefully future generations to come – our eldest, Amy, is already working here.”
Hundred Hills favours long aging, so despite planting in 2014 its first wines were only released in 2020. It quickly gained a following at some of the most renowned restaurants in the country including the Goring and the Fat Duck. Hospitality manager Rupert Crick tells me that by the end of the year Hundred Hills should be in almost every three Michelin-starred restaurant in the UK.
They share a special relationship with Oxford University: “Lots of the colleges serve our wines,” says Duckett, telling me how Christ Church college bought the entirety of one of their wines before it had even been released. It comes as no surprise then, that they will be watching from a University VIP boat serving their Preamble No.2 2018, “a generous, aromatic wine of citrus and stone fruit”.
Gutter & Stars is a more quirky contender. According to winemaker and owner Chris Wilson, it is Cambridge’s first winery and “possibly the smallest in the country”. An urban winery based, rather whimsically, in a Grade-II listed windmill, Wilson buys in his grapes, having no land for vines, and creates small batches of still wines, a minority in the English wine scene.
“I’m not excited about sparkling,” he says. “I drink a lot of it and England has some excellent ones but making still wines is more interesting”. Gauntlet thrown.
“It means I can make eight different wines from one vintage, whereas a sparkling producer would only make two or three,” he explains.
A one-man-band, ex-journalist and Plumpton Alumni, Wilson does everything on-site from winemaking to bottling, labelling to waxing – and the Cambridge students flock there to see what he is up to and taste the wines.
He will be cheering them on from his windmill, pouring his acclaimed Bacchus for friends and family: “It’s lower in alcohol so perfect for day drinking and it’s a bright, zesty, anytime kind of wine, ideal for spring”.
Exposed Alexander Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2020, £36.99, Naked Wines
Jesse Katz’s wines auction for up to a million dollars and he was the first winemaker to be in Forbes 30 under 30. Now you can drink his wine for a steal – and it tastes like California. Bold, balanced and richly luxurious.
Roebuck Estate Rosé de Noirs 2017, £39.99, Grape Britannia
A vibrant burst of red berries and rose petals: herald the English summer with this joyful sparkling from beautiful Sussex. Bottle-aging for a whopping 48 months gives the wine a gorgeous complexity and depth.
Zeno Alcohol Liberated Sparkling, £11.99, Waitrose
Low and No wines continue to climb in quality, and I served this at a lunch party where half the guests weren’t drinking. Fresh and zesty with fine, elegant bubbles, it received much praise and repeated requests for more.
Drappier Brut Nature Rosé Champagne NV, £55.50, The Champagne Company
Rooted in history but with a forward-thinking mindset, Drappier Champagne is always compelling. With no added sweetness and no filtering this 100 per cent pinot noir rosé is a wine of pretty purity and precision.
Seresin Organic Pinot Gris 2022, £22, Great Wine Company
It is time to celebrate New Zealand’s wines other than Sauvignon Blanc and this one is certainly worth revelling in. Beautifully perfumed, vibrantly juicy, and with a gorgeous blend of blossom and spice.
A glass of wine with: Sarah Wright, head sommelier of The Mulwray wine bar in Soho
The Mulwray is one of Soho’s few hidden gems, a wine bar squirreled away above The Blus Posts pub where you can find a wine list filled with interesting and unusual bottles. That’s largely down to head sommelier Sarah Wright – I asked her where she gets her inspiration.
What got you into wine?
I grew up in a family that didn’t drink at all. One thanksgiving when I was 21, I did a wine tour with my Uncle and Aunt in California and I tasted Barbera. Oh my god. I usually had a lot of sweet drinks, and it was the first time I’d had something that wasn’t sweet but tasted like blackberries. It brought clarity and inspiration. I needed to know more.
What’s special about The Mulwray?
Our list is presented as a spectrum. First are the Firm Favourites, traditional grapes and regions. Then the Path Less Trodden, for the wine curious without being intimidating and then Wild and Free where we let it all go crazy.
Favourite wine right now?
Amphibolite Extra Brut 2019 by Nibiru in Austria. It’s traditional method, oak-aged sparkling Riesling and Pinot Blanc.
Perilla. The wine list is inspiring, the food incredible and the relaxed approach to service is lovely.
Best place for a late-night drink?
It has to be SOMA. It’s a three minute walk from here even if you’re crawling. Their Leaf cocktail is life.
Best thing about your job?
I couldn’t ask for a better team. I trust their taste; I trust them to be honest with me. And the freedom I have to determine the programme and set the standards.
And the worst thing?
Finding the balance between work and not work. When I’m out with friends or my husband it falls to me to choose the wine and I’m always representing The Mulwray.