A secret world where Chateau d'Yquem flows like water

It was more than I got from my alma mater. A call to Christ Church, my old college in Oxford, was met with a stony - albeit finely chiselled - silence, while All Souls sniffily closed the cellar door in my face. My journalistic colleague, Charles Metcalfe, who was also at Christ Church, fared little better. After being sent an uninspiring wine list for the undergraduates when he was invited to talk to the Christ Church Association, he was told "we do have better wines available on top table, you must come and dine some time".

He can recall in his student days being served two different vintages of Château d'Yquem at a private dinner. I remember myself, as a student of Baudelaire, going to the buttery and calling up the soulfully named Château Chasse-Spleen from vintages I now know to have been great. Only the dean of New College was generous enough to show me the contents of its voluminous cellar, which contained thousands of bottles, mainly clarets and ports, typically bought cheaply "en primeur" for the delectation of the top table.

One of the proudest Oxbridge cellars today is King's College, Cambridge, which in 1939 was offering its fellowship hock, sherry, port, champagne and claret, including the 1925 Château Latour at six shillings (30p) and half-bottles of 1928 Louis Roederer Champagne at seven and sixpence (37.5p).

Champagne was expensive in those days. In 1970, its holding stood at 710 cases of port, 577 cases of claret and 22 of champagne. Today, King's regards its cellar "as an educational resource" and, in line with modern trends, stocks wines from New Zealand, Australia, California and Argentina.

Changing tastes and buying patterns and the high price of buying young wines today deter many of the institutional cellars from buying as extensively, or expensively, as in the past. Derek Smedley, a master of wine who looks after several college, club and livery company cellars as well as those at the Guildhall and Mansion House in London, confirms that most institutional cellars contain a broader cross-section of wines from around the world at the expense of classics like claret and port. And he has to be much more careful about "buying to drinking need".

According to Mr Smedley: "The prices today's cellars are prepared to pay depends how rich they are and how much they are prepared to commit to entertaining, but while first growths [like Château Latour and Lafite] are beyond all but the richest, the top companies feel they should show wines of real standing. Even for state banquets there is an upper limit though." Never mind, they can always serve English wine instead.

Anthony Rose is The Independent's wine critic