Like the university, a meal in Cambridge is never egalitarian: but one wine list comes close

At a new hotel with an excellent house fizz and a decent southern French Vermentino at £5 a glass, I could almost see my 22-year-old self and my much-missed father both smiling their approval.

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I went to an excellent university, but the wine I consumed there was rarely of comparable quality. Cambridge’s venerable cellars are superb, but few colleges are stupid enough to serve their contents to undergrads, and while you could join wine-tasting societies, I didn’t.

My tutelage came via my father, whose logic was impeccable. I was going to drink cheap wine and, one way or another, he was probably going to pay for it. But with his knowledge, he could spend the same £3 (as it then was) and get something better than I, in my dipsomaniac ignorance, could manage. And so, each term, along with the bedding and the books, I brought up to my rooms a case of wine. It didn’t last long. But, without my realising, it contributed to my instruction.

They say that an Oxbridge education sets you up for working life, and that may well be true; I wouldn’t see that as a problem were that education open to the cleverest, regardless of income bracket. But my time there certainly paved the way for some of my happiest and most productive leisure hours, as I began to understand that even some cut-price bottles were more equal than others.

On a rare return to the city, I found myself happy to take a trip down any memory lane that didn’t involve my gullet. This wasn’t straightforward. Cambridge is no gourmet’s haven: too many university types inured to soggy vegetables, probably.

But a new hotel, the University Arms, does have a pub-style restaurant, Parker’s Tavern, whose chef Tristan Welch won a Michelin star at London’s Launceston Place. The menu is charmingly retro, but the house fizz is the excellent Gusbourne, from Kent, and there’s a decent southern French Vermentino at £5 a glass. I could almost see my 22-year-old self and my much-missed father both smiling their approval.

Of course, my father wouldn’t have drunk the Vermentino, and I didn’t order it, either. (Instead, I had a 2016 Soave by Pieropan: a terrific producer of this frequently lacklustre northern Italian white.) But the ghosts at the table, including the spectral fat cat I might, given my fine education, have become, made me particularly aware of the range of available wines.

A place that wants to please wealthy hotel guests but also attract presentable students has the hardest possible task, and Parker’s manages really well. If you want to try Etienne Sauzet’s amazing Puligny-Montrachet you can, although know that drinking a vintage of this Burgundy as recent as this 2016 is about as sensible a use of £174 as paying your toddler to sit A-levels. But there were four good rosés (only one over £30), as well as Allegrini’s excellent Valpolicella, Beaujolais from the Fleurie co-operative and decent McLaren Vale Grenache (all under £40), plus red Burgundy from Hautes-Côtes de Nuits by the glass. This is the beginnings of an education for someone.

Going out to eat is never a truly egalitarian exercise, any more than attending university is, but there seems to me a glimpse of a better world in a wine selection that rewards curiosity rather than just the fattest purse. I am no longer that young woman who rocked up to Cambridge so long ago, inexperienced and misguided but thirsty and open to persuasion. Her successors are probably finding taste and wisdom as elusive as she did – but there’s a little of both available at the University Arms. 

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

Nina Caplan is the 2018 and 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and the 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman, and the author of The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, published by Bloomsbury. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

 

This article appears in the 14 June 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The closing of the conservative mind