Cambridge: an education in wine

A weekend in Cambridge reminds Nina Caplan of her past days as a student but the town's latest drinking spots showcase the compelling wines on offer there in the present

Words by Nina Caplan

A bridge over the River Cam during autumn in Cambridge

November is the unkindest month, sky the colour of old ash, unending drizzle, wind sharp as a reproach. Yet on a recent weekend in Cambridge, the nasty weather was a great excuse for long dinners and lazy indoor afternoons, and those moments when the sun did appear, reaching briefly across the spikes of King’s College chapel and glittering between the punters on the Cam, were more glorious for the contrast.

Between meals, I walked and read, and appropriately, given that I was walking down memory lane (I was an undergraduate here), the book was an old favourite. Between Meals by AJ Liebling, which has just been reissued as a Penguin Classic, is itself a look back at Paris, from Liebling’s first visit as a boy in short trousers persecuted by a succession of formidable fräuleins while his parents waltzed off to restaurants, to the mid-century, when he was the one doing the waltzing. (‘The fatal trap of abstinence’ – by which he meant skipping the second bottle of wine on odd Wednesdays – did not close its teeth on him: he died in 1963, aged 59, at least in part of over-indulgence.)

This book, like this university town, has had an influence on my life. I still mutter about having nothing between the insulting and the superlative when I realise that we have drunk all our reasonably priced wines and are left, on an ordinary weeknight, only with treasures; and while rosé has come a very long way since Liebling was slighting every pink wine except Tavel, I do agree with him on Tavel – the best ones, at any rate, which are deep pink but dry, ‘like an enthusiasm held under restraint,’ writes Liebling, with ‘a tantalising suspicion of bitterness when the wine hits the top of the palate’.

University Arms Hotel Cambridge
Morning sunshine streams into the dining room at the University Arms Hotel (Photo: William Craig Moyes)

Tavel is in the Rhône, next door to Lirac, which makes excellent, reasonably priced reds, and just across the river from Châteauneuf du Pape, where the reds are finer but also a lot dearer. Liebling’s theory that, to become a good feeder, it is necessary to begin your education with just enough money – that is, with enough to last you a few good meals and the expectation, but not the certainty, of more – still makes perfect sense to me. A well-heeled diner would find it easy to pair her red meat with the more famous wine and never allow her eyes to stray up the list to the Liracs. She would therefore be, gastronomically speaking, poorer than someone whose budget demanded a little more experimentation.

When I lived in Paris on my university year abroad, I was too poor even for those kinds of experiments, although I do remember with perverse affection a sleazy older man who took me for an expensive lunch where I tried my first Sauternes. (He paid our lunch bill; I’m sure he considered, as I made my escape, that I had not paid mine.) And Cambridge, then, had nowhere to experiment. Now, curiosity and a healthier bank balance sent me out into the prematurely darkened streets, looking for something interesting to drink.

The nasty weather was a great excuse for long dinners and lazy indoor afternoons

Downstairs at The Wine Rooms there are upholstered chairs and energetic waiters who descend at speed to take orders for plump Gordal olives and wine. Sharing boards of charcuterie or cheese are available, as are a few small plates including tinned sardines on toast, which put me in mind of Liebling’s comment that he would not pair any good wine with sardines since it would only make the wine taste like more sardines. He then gets in an extra dig at the pink wines he despises: ‘Beer might be a better idea, or in its default, rosé, and I offer, without charge, the advertising slogan “Rosé, the perfect companion for fish oil.”’ Ouch. Despite him, I ordered Saffron Grange, sparkling rosé from nearby Saffron Walden, and it was good, although I did wish I had time for the flight of 2018 Bordeaux from Jean-Pierre Moueix, owner of Chateau Pétrus; Hochar Père et Fils, the second wine of Lebanon’s Chateau Musar (also 2018); and a 2017 Le Difese by Tenuta San Guido, producer of Sassicaia. If that wasn’t a trio to gladden Liebling’s congested heart, I don’t know what would be.

Cambridge Wine Merchants, opposite King’s (there are several other branches dotted around town), offered wines by the glass in a small room lined with bottles; it was charming but the extraordinary aspect was the view across the street. Far more unusual was Amphora, a small shop and bar run by Cong Cong Bo, who only became interested in wine in 2018 but has since made up for lost time. Bo, who is in her thirties, is clearly not someone to do things by halves. She asked me a few careful questions about my preferences, then suggested Gaia’s Wild Ferment Assyrtiko, which was so bang on the money that I reluctantly demurred, having drunk it several times recently.

The room at the hotel boasted a spectacular bathroom (Photo: William Craig Moyes)

Her second choice was new to me: Cabeças do Reguengo Equinocio 2020, a field blend of white varieties from Alentejo, Portugal, with the delicate creaminess of almonds and a citrus depth charge as saliva-provoking as lemon sherbet. A rosé spumante by Giannitessari from the Veneto, made from Pinot Noir and an obscure local grape called Durella, had an elegant floral perfume and the texture that comes from 36 months on lees. Almost more enjoyable was the people-watching: the grown son of an astrophysicist professor propping up the bar, the cheery group of ladies ordering bottles of razor-sharp Billecart-Salmon No.3 with a voluble enthusiasm that made clear this early-evening tipple was far from the day’s first drink.

And between these expeditions, it was bliss to lounge on the chaise longue in my lovely room at the University Arms Hotel, with a view over Parker’s Piece, an ivory bathroom in a tower, decanters of complimentary port and sherry and one of my favourite books. Their bistro-style restaurant, Parker’s Tavern, is large but warm, the walls cluttered with drawings and the bar peopled by makers of mean Martinis.

A bin-end bottle of 2001 Mondot was a perfect match for venison (Photo: William Craig Moyes)

Our charming waiter, spurning an excellent wine list, offered us a choice of bin-end bottles that Liebling would surely have approved: a 2015 Condrieu, an old-vine Morey-Saint-Denis or a Mondot, the second wine of Saint-Émilion’s Troplong Mondot estate. In 2001, when this wine was made, the Valette family were still proprietors, proudly making a rich, tannic, fruit-forward style that had won praise from Robert Parker. These days, the wines are more restrained and a lot more perfumed – current CEO Aymeric de Gironde has a passion for Cabernet Franc – but 22 years had pared this back to a nutty, woody treat ideal for venison. It needed drinking and, in my mind’s ear, I heard the voice of an American gourmand who died before I was born: well in that case, drink it. And so, thankfully avoiding the fatal trap for one more day, I did.

Nina Caplan
By Nina Caplan

Nina Caplan is the Lifestyle and Travel columnist for Club Oenologique online and wine columnist for The New Statesman and The Times’s Luxx magazine. Her award-winning book, The Wandering Vine: Wine, The Romans and Me, came out in 2018.