Peter de Bolla, who has ‘the wonderful job of being the Wine Steward’ at King’s College, tells the story of a unique university collection that has been a source of exceptional wines since 1446
Deep inside a labyrinth of dark, cold vaults beneath King’s College — one of the most historic of the 31 constituent colleges that make up the University of Cambridge — lies a legendary wine collection.
It is said to contain more than 50,000 bottles and has existed since 1446, after the college’s founder King Henry VI granted its students an annuity of one tun of French wine, the equivalent of 256 gallons.
Ever since, it’s been the job of the college’s Wine Steward to grow and safeguard the collection, and to select wines from the cellar that might be consumed by future archbishops and academics, prime ministers and presidents.
Since the early 20th century, only four people have held the prestigious position of King’s College Wine Steward. Today, the role is filled by Peter de Bolla, who is also Professor of Cultural History and Aesthetics at the college.
‘Having a single person run a cellar means that you can give a kind of shape to the cellar, which I’ve been lucky enough to do for nearly 30 years now,’ de Bolla says in the short film above.
Wine plays an important role in the customs of the college — where students enrol for life, not just the duration of their studies — and a highlight of the academic year for many is de Bolla’s wine-tasting event for incoming undergraduates.
It offers an opportunity for students to see and sample a variety of the wines in the cellar, many of which are available for them to purchase from the college pantry via its butler.
In fact, it was while a student at King’s College that a young Hugh Johnson — now the world’s best-selling wine author — had what he calls his ‘Damascene moment’ after being offered two Burgundies to taste blind.
Johnson now acts as one of the judges in the annual Varsity Blind Wine Tasting Match between the Cambridge University Wine Society, which was founded in 1792, and its rivals from the University of Oxford. At stake, for the winners, is a trip to Epernay in France to compete against a top French university, plus a bottle of vintage champagne each. Every member of the losing team receives a non-vintage champagne from the same producer.
On 8 June, Christie’s will offer 45 lots of Burgundy from the storied cellar of King’s College, all from the legendary vineyards of Henri Jayer and his nephew Emmanuel Rouget.
Personally selected by de Bolla, they are, he says, among the most extraordinary bottles he has collected during his tenure as Wine Steward. Highlights include wines from two of Jayer and Rouget’s finest vineyards, Echézeaux and Vosne-Romanée Cros Parantoux.
‘Henri Jayer’s Pinot Noirs have become the stuff of legend,’ explains Noah May, head of Wine and Spirits at Christie’s in London. ‘He began producing wine after the Second World War from a smallholding in Vosne-Romanée that used to be an artichoke farm. The land’s poor soil was dismissed by others, but from it Jayer started to produce incredible wines — although for a long time they flew under the radar.
‘He pioneered techniques such as de-stemming his grapes and ageing his wine in 100-per-cent new oak barrels. He also opposed the use of chemical pesticides. In 1996 he retired and the vineyard passed to his nephew Emmanuel, who still runs it today.’
The wines were purchased by de Bolla, on their release from the vineyards, through the exclusive British importer Richards Walford. Upon delivery, de Bolla sealed them away in the King’s College cellars, where they have remained ever since.
‘Wine should be exposed to fluctuating conditions as little as possible,’ says May. ‘Inside the cellar at King’s College, these Burgundies will have gently matured from notes of red fruits — such as strawberry and cherry — to take on secondary, more savoury and complex characteristics of smoked meats and mushrooms; then, as they reach full maturity, hints of black tea and truffle.
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‘Collectors also love great provenance, and the heritage of this cellar is hard to top,’ May adds. ‘Only Peter de Bolla and the butler have access to its vaults, and they scarcely invite anyone down there, so this is certainly a rare opportunity to acquire a piece of history.’