The scent of grapes swirls in the air by the steam room. It reminds me of that fluorescent purple bubblegum from the 1980s, except that it lasts for more than 30 seconds. My fingers are wrinkling from doing goldfish laps around the circular pool and still the aroma lingers. I rinse with the sweet grape gel in the showers and spend the evening smelling like wine gums – an apt scent for a wine-oriented hotel.
It reminds me of that fluorescent purple bubblegum from the 1980s, except that it lasts for more than 30 seconds
My friend Andy and I are at The Vineyard Hotel in Berkshire. Glasses of mulled wine were pressed into our yielding hands as soon as we landed in the lobby, which we followed by downing the glasses of wine labelled “Drink me” we found in our suite. Lethargy kicked in, but we were booked in to see the cellars, so we had to get moving.
The cellars here are not a single room with clearly labelled rows: they are far more haphazard. Sure, there are traditional cellars, but it seems every closet, broom cupboard and display case is packed with bottles – the hotel’s 30,000-strong collection fills every nook. The Vineyard is owned by Sir Peter Michael, whose Sonoma County vineyard in California produces wines that achieve cult status. The hotel is a living shrine to the grape, with guests greeted by a wine-lined walkway leading straight to the bar. Our tour kicks off here.
At the end of the corridor is a painting entitled After the Upset. In 1976, in a blind tasting with some of the leading French wine aficionados of the day, Californian wines were chosen over France’s best. Naturellement, this caused no small amount of upset. This theme of the two nations going head-to-head will continue through dinner, but first we’re inducted into a world of terroir, cultivation and fermentation. In a locked room, sommelier Pablo unveils the most expensive vintage – a bottle worth £20,000. I stand back. “That one’s £8,000”, he says, indicating a bottle close to my hand. I tiptoe out of the cellar before I can do any damage.
It’s like eating flowers washed down with perfume
In the restaurant, diners scoff temptations plated by Chef Daniel Galmiche. We’ve selected the Winter Tasting Menu with a Judgement Tasting – seven courses paired with six French and six Californian wines. We fancy ourselves as would-be wine buffs, so our tasting is blind – we’ll perform our own judgment on the wines’ origins. The first tipple “opens the palate” for our starter – pumpkin velouté and Cornish cock crab tortellini. Two wine glasses appear and the serious business begins.
The first white is a complex varietal with deep notes. This is so good it must be French. The second is lighter, with delicate flavours. The tortellini sits well with both. It’s like eating flowers washed down with perfume. We call on Pablo for confirmation of our verdict. We’re wrong and he grins smugly.
Next up is pheasant and partridge terrine with orange segments, Brussels sprout tops, radish and pickled onion. The crisp pickle offsets the strong game flavours, although I’m not sold on the springy sprout tops (too much like rabbit food). Our next wine lesson follows, along with failure number two. I vow to really think about the next varietal. I want Pablo’s approval.
The fillet of cod perched on a hillock of ratte potato with chorizo and anchovy is delicious, but the wine is anyone’s guess. Despairing that my palate is not sophisticated enough to pick out the notes, I change my mind with each sip – but lo and behold, I get this one right. I nod like I knew it all along and cock my head to show Pablo I’m listening. I get the next one – red, accompanying Cornish sea bass served with a Cevennes onion cup and lemongrass jus – right too. I’m not quite tipsy enough to punch the air, which is a good thing. It’s not that kind of place. I think about it though.
Our final savoury course is corn-fed Tidenham duck breast with Cheltenham beetroot and blackberry, accompanied by a duo of red wines. “Try this,” says Paulo, transferring the Napa Valley Cuvee L’Etrier cabernet sauvignon into a larger glass. “It affects where the tannins are tasted,” Paulo explains as we swirl the wine on our tongues like born connoisseurs. He returns with two glasses of bubbles and a lecture on champagne, pointing out that this Schramsberg Crémant Demi-sec is not it. The off-dry dessert-style sparkling wine has a tingling effervescence, so we forgive its American origins.
By now I can barely distinguish the table. I start photographing the cutlery. It’s so shiny
The Granny Smith apple dessert is a puff of lime green that disappears in a few bites. We’re not done yet, though. You’ve got to love a meal with two desserts. The finale is chocolate, salted caramel, cacao nibs and fromage blanc sorbet. Paulo masks his disappointment when we fail to distinguish the source of our dessert wines, but by now I can barely distinguish the table. I start photographing the cutlery. It’s so shiny. We spend the rest of the evening in a wine-fuelled haze, curled up on a sofa by the fireplace.
As Andy leaves for work in the morning, I head, guiltily, to the spa for a Red Grape Pampering Body Wrap. I imagine him sitting at his computer all the while Therapist Holly is scrubbing, rubbing and wrapping me, but when she starts on a tension-releasing head massage, her fingertips pull any semblance of coherent thought from my head. Moistened with red grape skin cream, I drift away detoxed. It’s time to leave The Vineyard, but I’ll exude its scent all day. C
The Vineyard, Stockcross, Newbury, West Berkshire RG20 8JU, United Kingdom
01635 528770; the-vineyard.co.uk