Robinson College Reunion 2020 Dinner: Wines



Dear Robinsonians,

To complement Gary’s exquisite menu for your celebratory Reunion Dinner, I have chosen the following wines to go with the starter, main course and dessert. I hope you enjoy my choice.


Dr Jossy Sayir is a Director of Studies for Engineering at Robinson College. He is an affiliated lecturer at the Department of Engineering where he teaches courses and labs in information and coding theory, cryptography, data transmission, probability theory and microprocessor programming. He supervises Robinson engineering students in maths, linear systems, signal processing, communications and information theory. He has also been the Fellows’ Wine Steward at Robinson College since 2016.

* * *  Starter ***

Pouilly Fumé, Maison Lispaul, 2019

When I started as a wine steward I was slightly confused by the number of wines called Pouilly: there is Pouilly-Fuissé, Pouily-Vinzelles and Pouilly-Fumé to name just a few.

I imagined that there must be a place called Pouilly that made different styles of wines, In fact, there are countless villages called “Pouilly” in France. The name is possibly thought to be derived from the latin “Paulus” and would have featured in Asterix the Gaul as a Roman fortification “Paularum”. Another canonical hypothesis is that it derives from the Celtic word “pol” which means swamp. My own theory is that it is one of several derivatives of “puit”, or “well" in French, so essentially akin to English localities like Wells, Tunbridge Wells and many others.

Pouilly-Fuissé and Pouily-Vinzelles are wine appellations in the Maconnais region of Burgundy.

They are Chardonnay-based and similar in character to classic Côte de Beaune white but lighter, paler and typically with more oak. The Pouilly-Fumé that we are pairing with your first course is a Sauvignon-Blanc based wine from the Loire Region. It has the typical green apple aromas of this grape varietal, with added flinty notes that lead to its name “fumé” (smoked).

 Confit is a cooking technique that consists in gently heating ingredients in warm oil at temperatures well below boiling. A confit of salmon is the continental homage to the wonderful texture of raw salmon, made by chefs who do not quite have the courage to serve it completely raw like the Japanese Itamae do. Your first dish requires a sharp fruity wine to balance the luxurious mouthfeel of confit salmon and quail egg and aromatic flavours of dill cucumber and watercress. This Pouilly-Fumé has just what it takes to do this.


* * * Main course ***

Rustenberg, John X Merriman, Stellenbosch, 2018 

Our College cellar contained a few bottles of this wine bought by my predecessor when I took over in 2016. I approached South-African wines with some apprehension, having visited the Stellenbosch region and loved many of their wines in 1998, then returned to find that the wines I had brought back home didn’t quite taste as good when consumed far from the charming wineries. The wines tended to a little bit too rustic, with disturbing notes of rot and ammonia that we hadn’t noticed when we drank them locally but were unmistakable when we got home. However, as I found out when I tasted this wine, two decades have made an enormous difference to South African wine-making.

The wine is a Bordeaux-style blend (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and a few other varietals) that won my heart over on the first encounter with its clean juicy plum and ripe black cherry notes, reminiscent of dark chocolate but with much more vividness than a traditional aged Bordeaux. This wine has been a favourite of college dining and I think I may have served it almost every time we had chargrilled beef on the menu, because its fruity character marries perfectly with juicy meat. It has just enough tannins to stand up to  the meat without overpowering your palate. John X Merriman was a politician and the last prime minister of the British Cape Colony in 1908-10.
He was a controversial figure during his lifetime, whose opinions evolved from racist conservative to somewhat enlightened liberal (I imagine that his name would not feature on a wine label if he had gone the other way…) He also owned and lived on the farm that eventually became the Rustenberg Winery.


* * * Dessert ***

Moscato Frizzante, Volpi, Piemonte, NV

Search online for  “what to drink with a chocolate dessert” and you’ll see mostly recommendations for strong nutty fortified wines such as port, sherry or Madeira, heavy red wines such as Barolo or Bordeaux, or very rich and sweet full-bodied dessert wines. Personally, I find chocolate desserts quite overpowering. What my palate needs with a chocolate dessert is something light and refreshing. This slightly sweet and bubbly wine from Piedmont has the character of a clear mountain stream flowing from the Italian Alps down into the valley to refresh your “bicerin” (a strong warm chocolate drink served in an espresso cup that is common in Turin, the capital of Piedmont.) I’d be curious to hear if any of our alumni try this against a tawny port and tell me which one goes better with chocolate in their opinion. 

In cooperation with Cambridge Wine Merchants, we have created a special Reunion College Alumni Case - September 2020, which can be viewed and purchased here.

Robinson College Reunion Dinner 2020 Wine Book (for your reference)

Q&A with the College Steward

Wine steward sounds like a perfect job. How does one become Wine steward?

Frankly, I thought the same and approached the Warden with much trepidation to tell him I was interested in being the wine steward. I was very surprised when he offered it to me on the spot. It was only later that I realised how much work is involved. Still, I love the task and don’t regret asking for it at all.

What does a wine steward do?

All Oxbridge colleges have wine cellars. One of the fellows is conferred the grand title of “wine steward” and tasked with managing these wines. Some colleges have dedicated staff who help the wine steward look after the wines. The Robinson cellar is fairly small in comparison to older colleges and we drink about 1/3 as much, mainly because some of the older colleges hold formal halls more frequently than we do. I run our cellar with part-time help from the very helpful catering staff. Our cellar also holds a stock of wines for our conference and catering business but these are outside my remit. Managing the wine cellar means that I recommend wines for buying and select wines for college dining: high table in formal halls, scholars’ and other feasts, MCR/SCR dinners, matriculation and graduation dinners, etc. The financial side of the cellar management is outside my remit and is done by the bursar.

Do you have to be a wine expert to become wine steward?

It pays if you know a thing or two about wines, but I am by no means an “expert”. I have tasted my way through some wine regions (Alsace, Bourgogne, Languedoc, Chianti, Douro, Burgenland, Weinviertel, Wachau, Steiermark, Galilee, Stellenbosch, Barossa, McLaren Vale, Adelaide Hills, Napa Valley and a few others) but I still have a lot to learn. I enjoy tasting wines and writing down my impressions and I don’t think you have to be an expert to do this. With an international family background, I was lucky to grow up speaking many languages and it pays to be able to speak to winemakers in their own languages. 

How did you get interested in wines?

I must have been about 7 years old: my dad, a mechanics professor at ETH Zurich, organised a trip to Alsace for his lab that included a visit to a winery. During the visit, my parents only let me taste one sip and, seeing that my supply had run out, I started mingling with the PhD students, each one of whom seemed to think that “one little sip of wine is not going to do any harm to the kid!” The sum of all sips must have amounted to a few glasses and I distinctly remember a very happy walk back through the magical streets of Colmar after the tasting. Wines from Alsace still hold a special place in my heart.  

Is wine your main interest?

My main interest is information theory and teaching Robinson and other students. Wine is only one of my hobbies. My other hobbies are cooking and dining, roasting and drinking coffee, playing jazz music on the alto saxophone and singing with my guitar. I have always been a moderate drinker and often go weeks without drinking. Beer tends to send me to sleep so I rarely drink it, but I do like an occasional glass of whisky. Wine is definitely my favourite drink and I enjoy having a few glasses with a meal or nibbles and its freeing effect on the mind when consumed in reasonable amounts. I have never been drunk in my life and don’t see the appeal in it. 

What have you changed since becoming the Wine Steward?

I have a tradition of making notes and comments under each of the wines on the menu for most dinners to explain why I chose the wine and how I think it matches the dish. These are quite light-hearted and by no means deep but they do require some research. They are based on my own tasting notes and descriptions published by wine experts. Writing wine notes on the menu is not an innovation per se because I am told that my predecessor did the same but stopped after one year. I have so far managed to keep it going since 2016. My aim is to help make wine a subject of conversation rather than to educate or lecture about wines: I do not consider myself a wine expert and I am very conscious that tastes are individual and subjective. I take absolutely no offence if fellows or guests disagree with my notes. On the contrary, that’s the whole point of the exercise! 

How do you buy wines?

I regularly attend wine tastings held by wine merchants and importers in Cambridge. These typically involve line-ups of about 60-80 bottles. It may sound like an incredible privilege to have access to such huge quantities of free wine, but the tastings are mostly during lunch between lecturing or meeting research students in the morning, and supervising in the afternoon. Tasting 80 wines in a row leaves your palate burnt and numb and I only manage to get through it by making meticulous use of the spittoon and drinking a glass of water between every 5-10 wines… Still, I really enjoy the tastings!

Has the pandemic changed anything?

It’s changed everything: college dining is on hold and I stopped buying wines for short-term drinking. I have bought a few wines for long term storage as I imagine that future Robinsonians will be particularly interested in drinking the “pandemic vintage” 20 or 40 years down the line. There have been no tastings apart from one tasting organised by Cambridge Wine Merchants who poured samples into perfume-size bottles wearing masks and gloves and hand-delivered them to selected wine stewards in the Cambridge area. I do organise a weekly zoom meeting for fellows who want company, for which I send my usual wine notes and recommendations, and have delivered wines to some fellows who wanted to order bottles from the college cellars. Conversations during these meetings tended to revolve around future arrangements for teaching that generate much anxiety particularly among the older or vulnerable fellows, and having a glass of wine together among colleagues and friends has been very helpful. 

What’s your favourite wine?

I have many! If I had to be stranded on a desert island with a case of wines, I’d probably ask for a mixed case of Tuscan Sangiovese and Australian Shiraz, with perhaps a bottle of two of Austrian Grüner Veltliner and Zweigelt, and one Riesling from Alsace to go with the lobster I’d be hoping to catch. I love Bourgogne but that would not match the scenery on a desert island.