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Inside the Oxford wine world: The Bacchus termly dinner

Dressing up in black tie on a Tuesday isn’t too alien to an Oxford student. But, even to the Editor of Oxford’s best newspaper, a Bacchus dinner is rather daunting. So is the £80 price tag. At the same time, had I bought the wines by the glass in a wine bar, I’d easily be looking at triple digits. So, how was my experience at the Trinity Term Bacchus Dinner at the Cherwell Boathouse?

The wine list, accompanied by five courses, was as follows: Cedro do Noval (2023), Lions de Suduiraut (2023), Les Griffons de Pichon Baron (2020), Château Pichon Baron (2011), Château Suduiraut Sauternes (2015), Disznókö Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos (2013), and Colheita Tawny Port [Quinta do Noval] (2007).

Although it was a wine-tasting dinner, I had still expected the food to be better than it was. The highlight of the show was the starter, an interesting combination of octopus carpaccio with oranges and chili. The courses thereafter were small and largely unimaginative. Whilst nothing was too offensive, the Cotswold chicken was uninspiring, and the two dessert courses left much to be desired (and to be eaten – the portions were extremely small). The braised lamb neck was, however, well cooked, and the 2011 Château Pichon Baron was the perfect pairing.

The Cherwell Boathouse is a great location, tucked away in the suburbs of North Oxford, providing a peephole to the beautiful Oxfordshire countryside. The dinner took place in the marquee overlooking the eponymous River Cherwell. Whilst heavy rain soaked some, others – having arrived on time – were greeted by a lovely sommelier with the first wine, the apéritif. A harpist reaffirmed the ancient Greek tropes of Bacchus (the society being named after the Roman god of agriculture, wine, and fertility), and the marquee itself was well-ventilated and beautifully lit. 

The wine, provided by the vineyards of AXA Millésimes, was brilliant. CEO Christian Seely presented his wines with a great deal of wit and, importantly, detail. My personal favourites were the 2011 Château Pichon Baron and the 2013 Tokaji. The former is the pinnacle of a sophisticated red; the vineyard’s website describes it as “show[ing] great elegance, intensity and exceptional length on the palate.” The Tokaji, on the other hand, was great fun. A sweeter, more interesting wine, Tokaji is a Hungarian dessert wine; it has strong notes of tropical fruits yet still sits with good weight on the palate. I think I’ll be buying a bottle of this for my parents. If you’re not much into wine yourself, you’ll have likely never tried a Tokaji – it was also my first time. The Oxford Wine Café carries one Tokaji – a slightly drier one, but nonetheless also worth trying.

The Oxford University Wine Society (i.e., Bacchus) is soon to head into its 25th year of existence. There is certainly much more work to be done in making it more accessible to a wider audience – but I was positively impressed by both the committee members and regular Bacchus-goers. Having expected undiplomatic, tweed-sporting public schoolers, I was surprised by the welcoming and self-aware cohort which found itself drinking expensive vintage port on a wet Tuesday evening in May.

To those that teeter on the edge of not wanting to seem too pretentious, yet love a good glass of red, I say: go for it. To Bacchus, I say: work on making yourself more beginner-friendly. You have a great, light-hearted air about yourselves, which isn’t self-evident or necessarily axiomatic for an Oxford society in this field. Whilst the food wasn’t particularly memorable, the wine was excellent, and I certainly had a great evening.

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