Wine travel off the beaten track involves more investigation than simply landing in Bordeaux or jetting to Napa Valley. For this trip, the track runs from London’s King’s Cross rail station to Cambridge, an hour north. And with a little investigating before arrival, it’s possible to pit your palate against some of the brainiest blind tasters on the planet.
At Cambridge University, wine tasting is (almost) a varsity sport. Students here devote a month of arm-and tongue aerobics—training six days week—to prepare for the annual Cambridge- Oxford Varsity Blind Wine Tasting. It’s still the wine traveler’s opportunity to taste with the university’s top tasters. At the discretion of Cambridge’s college wine societies, you can book into one of the many school term tastings. On occasion, it may be first-growth Bordeaux, Champagne or English sparkling wines, single-quinta Port or Australian and Lebanese wines. Cambridge Wine Merchants (cambridgewine.com) holds regular tastings. The city also hosts England’s longest running beer festival the third week of May with a focus on local brews.
Treat each college as its own universe with its own wine society, own schedule, and own campus tour fees . Be aware that during May exams most colleges are closed to the public.
The first scholars arrived in Cambridge in 1209, so after 800 years, the real taste of Cambridge and its 31 colleges is found in the atmosphere of the grand (Harry Potter-style) dining halls, libraries, chapels and museums. No matter what your passion, there is a museum or niche in a college that inspires an historical goose-bump moment. One might visit Christ’s College and search for the origin of the "spirits of wine" Charles Darwin used to preserve specimens or track the 200 years of Rothschild family studies at Trinity College that continue today.
For all its history and status, Cambridge remains a college town. Many restaurants in the heart of the city reflect this fact. d’Arrys Cookhouse is usually my choice for its friendly atmosphere, good steaks and tasty "small dishes." An option for early diners is the $16 twocourse dinner or its wine and "bun" bar across the street. It serves only d’Arenburg Australian wine and Bruno Paillard Champagnes.
Higher up the dining scale is Hotel du Vin with special wine dinners throughout the year and a serious assortment of wines by the glass and bottle in the Bistro du Vin restaurant. Armando Tommaso’s tiny 22 Chesterton Road, with a setprice dinner menu that changes monthly , has a good selection of reasonably priced white wines from the Loire, Burgundy and New Zealand and an interesting Bordeaux range of reds. There are only 26 seats, so book in advance. The Hotel Felix’s Graffiti restaurant has a reasonable by-the-glass range and well-presented modern Mediterranean cuisine. It has a particularly nice winter fireplace.
For lodging, consider the convenient Cambridge Crown Plaza business hotel, a 20 minute walk from the city (a car in Cambridge is an aggravation, to put it mildly; taxis are another option). The Hotel du Vin (one of 14 in the UK) is a nicely upgraded cluster of townhouses-turned-boutique-hotel in the city centre. Each room is unique (ask about the stairs). Outside the center, the Hotel Felix is more upscale than international hotels near Cambridge research and industrial parks but taxi fees are high for multiple trips to the center. There are also B&Bs of all types and some colleges offer Dickens-style accommodations to non-alumnae. Pubs, bars and restaurants fill at the usual times and songfests can go on well into the wee hours of the morning, so if you choose a B&B, ask for a room away from the street.
With so much to see and taste, can Cambridge be a day trip? Certainly, but here’s one last bit of information: Cambridge Wine Society tastings start at 9 p.m. The last train back to King’s Cross leaves at 11:15 p.m.