Wine tastings at Exeter College, Oxford

When you think of Oxford, what comes to mind? Spires, of course, and gowns, and punting on the Cherwell, and the tinkle of bicycle bells, and perhaps a certain grouchy, pub-loving detective. But not fine wine, I’d wager – until now, that is.

James Flewellen and Neel Burton, co-founders of The Oxford Wine Academy, are on a mission to share their oenological know-how with drinkers from all over the country. The pair, who got to know each other through the university’s highly regarded wine-tasting societies while they were studying for postgraduate degrees, are positively effervescent with passion for all things vinous. They go on wine holidays, blog regularly about wine and are both currently studying for the two-year WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits. Their infectious enthusiasm for the subject is equaled by their knowledge of it, as I discovered on an afternoon’s tutored tasting they led in the picture-perfect surroundings of 700-year-old Exeter College.

The sun was out and the chapel bells were chiming as I crossed Main Quad and knocked on the door of the Rector’s Dining Room to meet James and Neel. They greeted me with a glass of superb Boizel Pinot Noir-Chardonnay Meunier Champagne – a world away from the 90p pints of Snakebite I used to sip as a cash-strapped undergraduate. Undaunted by their ever-so-slightly scary audience (a group of wine-loving female journalists, pens poised intimidatingly), over the next three hours they gave us a tremendously entertaining and informative introduction to six fine wines, including a classic white Burgundy, an earthy Rioja and a deliciously sweet Sauternes.

Using their chosen bottles as a framework, James and Neel taught us all about balance, intensity, length and complexity, pausing frequently so we could apply our knowledge to the contents of the (constantly refilled – no parsimonious pouring at The Oxford Wine Academy) glasses in front of us. We also broadened our tasting vocabulary by getting familiar with the various aromas, from the delicious-sounding (chocolate, green apple, liquorice) to the rather less obvious (wet dog, kerosene and, erm, farmyard).

We were also given an impressively detailed whistle-stop tour of viticultural history and practice. Did you know, for instance, that the first person to describe the production of bubbles in Champagne was English? (scientist Christopher Merret in 1662) Or that vines are planted on steep slopes so that the grapes get the maximum amount of sunlight? I certainly didn’t. I’ve been to a number of tastings and lectures before, but always found them rather esoteric and (dare I say it) a wee bit pretentious. James and Neel, on the other hand, wear their considerable expertise lightly, and have a lovely sense of mischief. ‘Never buy a bottle of wine,’ they advise. ‘Always buy a case.’

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This summer, they’ll be running a week-long wine-tasting summer school in the same idyllic surroundings. Attendees will spend the mornings enjoying everything Oxford has to offer, from boating on the river to the Ashmolean Museum, before settling in for an afternoon of talks and tastings. The highlight of the programme is the Blind Tasting Competition, providing an opportunity to put newly acquired skills to the test. There are still places available, but with all the excitement that The Oxford Wine Academy is generating among those in the know, you’ll have to get a move on if you’d like to secure a place…  

The Oxford Wine Academy Summer School (
Dates: Saturday, August 11 to Friday, August 17, 2012
Venue: Morris Room, Exeter College, Turl Street, Oxford OX1 3DP
Fees: £1,490 residential, £680 non-residential
Accommodation: Saturday night to Friday morning in Exeter College