I love a good glass of wine (no comments from those who know me, puh-lease), but I’m no expert. So I always jump at the chance to learn more about the gorgeous grape. An opportunity arose recently when I was invited to spend a night at the five star Vineyard Hotel in Berkshire, just down the road from Highclere Castle (of Downton Abbey fame). I invited Grandma Gallivant – aka my mum – to come along. Funnily enough, she didn’t need much persuading.
I was surprised to find that there is no vineyard at the Vineyard Hotel. However…I realised that they are very serious about their wine when we were offered a glass of wine on check-in. It was nowhere near wine o’clock, being only early afternoon but… it would have been rude to refuse, yes? It also gave us a chance to admire the two storey, glass floored wine vault, which holds over 30,000 bottles – including some from the owner’s own estate in Sonoma Valley, California – and the huge and impressive painting of The Judgement of Paris. More on that later…
The wine relaxed us nicely for the rest of the afternoon – a dip in the pool, a facial in the spa, a bit of time just chilling out in our very lovely room, before getting dolled up for dinner. We were having the ‘Judgement’ menu, a seven course tasting extravaganza, with wines to accompany it.
There’s a story behind The Judgement of Paris, one interesting enough that a film was based on it (Bottle Shock, starring Dennis Quaid). Another film, called Judgement of Paris and written by Robert Kamen (Karate Kid, Taken) is apparently in the offing, too.
In 1976, a British wine merchant, who was a huge fan of French wines, organized a competition in Paris in which esteemed judges would blind taste French and Californian wines side by side. He, and many others, expected that the ‘upstart’ Californians, who didn’t have the history and pedigree of the French behind them would lose, hands down. In fact the opposite happened, much to their horreur! It was seen as one of the most pivotal moments in wine history – when the world started to sit up and really take notice of New World wines.
For our own Judgement of Paris, we were given two unknown wines with each course of our meal. So that’s two wines per course and seven courses. Yup… we were going to get through a lot of the stuff. In each case one of the wines was French, one Californian. We then had the rather pleasant task of deciding which was which. We were also asked to guess what kind of wines they were.
This was a treat. We are talking seriously good wines here. The sommelier would leave us to eat and make our decision. Each glass had a paper collar revealing what the wine was – upside down so that we could wait until the end – although you can, of course, cheat. We didn’t (honest!) and didn’t feel inclined to as our sommelier was delightfully non judgemental – ha ha – about our poor wine knowledge and chatted us through each of the wines as went along. It was all great fun and a brilliant way to really think about what you are tasting.
Did I mention that the food was pretty fine, too? I wasn’t surprised to learn that head chef, Robby Jenks, has worked for the likes of Michael Caines at Gidleigh Park.
From the amuse bouche of liquid peach with cheddar pastry that kicked it off to the salted caramel and chocolate cake with fromage frais ice cream that finished it, via beef tartare with sorrel granite and pickled shallots, crumbed salmon with avocado mousse, foie gras with preserved cherries, cod with cauliflower and a curried coconutty sauce, pork with cabbage, bacon and apple, and a raspberry snap with an olive ice cream filling (at least I think it was that – my writing in my notebook was a little scrawly by this stage which would have been, um, glass numbers 11 and 12)!
A night here with this menu would make a fantastic gift for any oenophiles no matter how amateur – and it would also be a brilliant idea for a group who want to add an extra dimension to a night out.
Double rooms at The Vineyard at Stockcross start from £247 per night, including breakfast. The Judgement Tasting Menu costs £85 for eight courses. Wine pairings are an extra £95 per person. There are lots of other dinner options here, as well as monthly wine schools. Visit www.the-vineyard.co.uk