Despite not being born with Einstein’s IQ or Gisele’s legs, I was lucky enough to have been handed down a few enviable qualities… unfortunately, will power wasn’t one of them. I can’t resist a good gossip, I devour fancy chocolates like they’re going out of fashion and I only have to step foot on King’s Road and my bank is calling to check if my card has been stolen.
With this in mind I couldn’t believe what I was attempting as we wound our way through the Berkshire countryside and towards the crème de la crème of wine meccas, The Vineyard at Stockcross. The hotel is a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux collection and is owned by entrepreneur, Sir Peter Michael. An engineer by trade, this colourful Croydon character founded Classic FM and owns an award-winning Californian wine estate. You see this is no normal hotel, housing 30,000 bottles of wine and offering 100 by the glass, this hotel is the ultimate destination for wine lovers.
And, I am no normal wine lover… I am 6 months pregnant. And, with hot flushes galore, cankles for ankles and the energy levels of a limpet, a glass of cold, crisp white was the stuff dreams were made of – literally. I was going to need some serious will power here. Luckily for me I would be enjoying their marvellous wines vicariously, through my very excited other half, Sam, a man who surrounds himself with the France’s finest; as I sip my sparkling water he taunts me with his buttery Meursaults and elaborately swirls his pungent Pomerols. Yes, this was his ideal weekend break, and it was our anniversary after all. As we approached the pristine check-in, I disliked him a little bit already.
Any visit to this hotel is a gastronomic adventure, in fact to call it a hotel would do dishonour to its restaurant, it is more of a ‘restaurant with rooms’… and suites and a spa – a heady blend indeed. However, this was no normal visit, we were here to experience the hotel’s much talked about ‘Judgement of Paris’ inspired tasting menu. Wine aficionados will be familiar with the historic blind tasting event of 1979. The wonderfully controversial affair rocked the wine world, when 12 acclaimed French judges, unknowingly crowned a selection of Californian wines over France’s most highly regarded, putting Californian wines well and truly at the top of every oenophilia’s wine fridge.
In honour of this new world order, The Vineyard’s Judgement of Paris tasting menu expertly pairs two competing glasses of wine with each course; one French and one Californian. Brave diners blind taste each and attempt to identify the wine and pick their favourite. Two of the wines are served in black glasses for the ultimate blind tasting experience. In short, this meant that I would have to watch Sam consume not one, not two… but 12 glasses of delicious wine in front of me – my dislike of this tannin-loving tyrant was quickly escalating.
Luckily, my repugnancy subsided once we were led to our room. Each room is named after a different wine, and it seemed like fate when we saw ‘Chateau Montelena’ awaiting us, this was not any old plonk – but the Judgement’s winning Californian Chardonnay no less. The light and airy suite was elegant and spacious and no sooner had I kicked off my pumps (well you try wearing Choos with cankles!!) had a charming suited and booted waiter arrived at our door with a chilled glass of white for Sam, a freshly made mocktail for moi and a homemade cherry cake… well, I presumed that was all for me, I am eating for two after all.
Having sipped my fruity concoction in the decadently deep bubbly bath and doused my earlier scorn, it was time to adorn the glad rags and head to dinner… all seven courses of it. After twenty minutes of trying on maternity tents and asking a scared looking Sam “do I look fat in this?” I eventually found a winner, forced my feet in to some heels and excitedly headed to the restaurant. The hotel has a dramatic illuminated glass wine vault displaying some of its bottles, which range from a £21 Spanish Garnatxa Blanca to an eye watering £20,000 double magnum of 1982 Petrus. Now that would test anyone’s will power. Proudly displayed at the end of the vault is a specially commissioned painting paying homage to The Judgement of Paris, named ‘after the upset’ its drama and theatrical nature set the scene for the evening ahead.
As soon as the staff saw my bump they confidently adapted the menu for my new needs and excitedly told me that they had arranged a special pregnancy friendly pairing for me. Proceedings began with a delicious mushroom amuse bouche quickly followed by a tartare of Longhorn beef with sorrel granita and sea rosemary for Sam and a butternut squash soup with chilli jam and parmesan for me and the bump. As Sam swooned over his first pairing, the waitress promptly brought me a chilled Brazilian Cranberry mojito which stemmed my ebbing jealousy and was frankly rather delicious. My spirits were lifted further when I saw Sam, along with almost everybody else in the restaurant, fail at the first hurdle incorrectly identifying both wines and looking rather surprised having picked Sir Peter Michael’s own Californian Sauvignon over his much adored Loire Pouilly-Fume, oooh maybe this would be fun after all.
A couple of dishes later and as Sam tucked in to a succulent foie gras with hazelnut verjus, I stared at my Cornish lobster with watermelon, black curry and basil shoots deciding if it was too pretty to eat – before devouring the whole thing with another virgin cocktail. At one point I had to check if they were definitely virgins (ironic, I know) as I felt rather pickled as I giggled away, then about four full size mocktails in as the baby somersaulted around my internal organs I realised I was probably high on sugar and politely asked the mocktail maker to hold fire. Sam on the other hand looked far more sincere as he negotiated his way between one of Michael’s Californian Pinot Noirs and a classic Burgundy.
As the plates continued to flow I realised that losing half of my stomach space to an ever inflating womb was a serious setback when it came to tasting menus. Needless to say after five mocktails I could have done with some extra bladder allowance too but hey ho. Undefeated I soldiered on through a delicious course of perfectly moist Devonshire cod with cauliflower, curry and coconut and on to a beautifully presented dish of Cumbrian pork tenderloin, cannelloni, asparagus and wild garlic.
The sommelier made her way over, wondering if we could guess the wine correctly, just once. As Sam ummed and ahhed, I jokingly shouted out “Merlot” as I rode my sugary wave, only to be congratulated by her and given a confused and somewhat cross glance from Sam. It is a well-known fact that during pregnancy women’s sense of smell is heightened, well finally it had a use. Up until now it had just made commuting on sweaty tubes and sitting close to tobacco-infused strangers impossible but by gum, it was the ultimate gift at this temple to Californian wine.
The next morning, back at the scene of the crime, Sam nursed a sore head and a battered ego over his morning coffee whilst I devoured my perfectly cooked full English and jauntily repeated once more time “I can’t believe I got that one right… and I didn’t even taste it! Amazing, don’t you think?”
Sensing a sore topic I repeated it a few more times and then skipped past ‘after the upset’ and to the spa for a blissful foot treatment – goodbye cankles!
With the roof down and the wind in our hair, we wound our way back through the Berkshire countryside as I gave myself a virtual tap on the back, I may have the energy levels of a limpet but I have the nasal capabilities of a bloodhound and the will power of a saint! As Sam navigated us back to reality, I eagerly flicked through the Relais & Chateaux brochure seeking out our next wine tasting adventure, well who would have known virtual wine tasting could be so fun.
Rooms at The Vineyard start from £175.50 on a bed & breakfast basis. For more information on The Vineyard or other gastronomic or spa hotels within the Relais & Chateaux collection, visit www.relaischateaux.com.