Halfway through our meal at The Vineyard hotel and spa, Newbury, I was beginning to wonder if I knew as much about wine as I thought I did. Not only could I not guess what grape variety I was drinking or what country it came from, I couldn’t even work out what colour it was, this particular wine being served in a black glass which made the wine inside completely invisible. Was it rosé…? Or maybe it was red? No, it was definitely rosé.
The answer was white. This was worrying. If my judgement was all over the place now, what on earth would it be like after I’d tried all 14 wines scheduled for the evening? Thankfully by the end of the meal I was so replete and content that my success or otherwise in identifying the wines no longer seemed important – the evening had been so interesting and memorable that my lack of wine knowledge could be safely overlooked.
The Vineyard – which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary – is a hotel serious about its wine. Privately owned by the Michael family, which also owns the highly-regarded Peter Michael Winery in California – it has an award-winning cellar (with a mere 30,000 bottles), offer 100 wines by the glass in its restaurant, hosts wine-tastings and wine courses and even wine-themed treatments at its spa (including its Red Grape pampering body wrap).
However it really stands out for its epic ‘Judgement of Paris’ wine-tasting dinner which aims to replicate the notorious (for wine buffs) event in 1974 when Californian wines went up against French wines in a blind tasting. To the shock of the French, and indeed much of the wine world, the Californian wines won the day, and oenophile Sir Peter Michael has recreated the experience at his hotel.
Just to get us in the mood before the wine-tasting, we had a glass of sparkling wine from Wiston, West Sussex at the bar and then, once seated in the light and airy split-level restaurant we were given a wine appetiser, a lovely Grüner Veltliner from Austria.
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From then on it was two wines with almost every course with the idea being to work out the French from the Californian. Our table soon filled up with glasses: Sancerre from the Loire Valley, Cabernet Sauvignon from Sonoma, Montrachet from Burgundy and, with the dessert….no, that would be a spoiler. But it was delicious. And even allowing for the fact that my wine knowledge was shown to be lacking, it was great fun swirling and sniffing and slurping all the different wines while trying to guess what they were and where they were from.
The food was excellent too, as you’d expect from a restaurant previously headed by Daniel Galmiche and now by Robby Jenks, formerly of Amberley Castle. Each course was perfectly laid out on beautiful plates and served with extremely knowledgeable and efficient staff: the rump of Cornish lamb and the line-caught turbot with shallots were stand-out items but the whole evening was a gastronomic and oenologic (if that is actually a real word) delight. For those who prefer something lighter, the restaurant offers four and five-course menus too and with 100 wines by the glass, you can set up a tasting of your own.
The next day we were too full for breakfast – a first – so I went off to have a Darphin hydrating facial treatment. The therapist tutted at my lack of skin-care regime ‘You mean you don’t exfoliate?’ and dry skin (‘I had 14 glasses of wine last night’ I bleat pathetically) but she proceeded to plump and hydrate my skin so thoroughly that the following day my colleagues noticed immediately. Any trace of a hangover evaporated away in the hotel spa, which has a circular swimming pool, sauna, steam room and loungers by the pool or outside, and where I tucked into a smoked salmon wrap, having finally rediscovered my appetite.
Before leaving, I was given a tour of the cellars, which are partly underground, and partly up on the third floor in a vast temperature-controlled room. I could well believe the 30,000 capacity, but, I asked my tour guide and sommelier, Oliver, what is the most expensive?
Oliver hauled down a dusty double magnum of a 1982 Petrus. ‘This one,’ he said. ‘It costs £20,000.’ And he wisely kept tight hold of it.
Hotel information and to book The Vineyard
The Vineyard, Stockcross, Newbury, Berkshire RG20 8JU
01635 897 617
My summer Tasting Menu at The Vineyard, Newbury
Sweet onion velouté, foie gras, pickled red onion
Pressed rabbit and parsley terrine, Heritage carrot, apricot, mustard
Cornish cod, peas, broad beans, pancetta, pecorino fondue
Line-caught halibut, tomato, shallots, aioli
Saddle of Cornish marsh lamb, carrot, mangetout, asparagus
Confit apple, bergamot sorbet, arlette
Chocolate, salted caramel, cacao nibs, fromage blanc sorbet
Seven courses £89, eight courses (with cheese) £99
Judgement of Paris wine pairing: £95 extra
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2015 but has been edited and updated for accuracy and relevance
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