The Vineyard at Stockcross in Berkshire

Often described as a temple to Californian wine, The Vineyard at Stockcross certainly has an impressive wine list but it’s not limited to Californian ones. Indeed, it has one of the largest international wine cellars in the UK.

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The hotel belongs to the Michael family, and is very much a showcase for Sir Peter Michael’s loves of wine and art.

Both combine in the form of a one-off mural called “After The Upset”, painted this year by artist Gary Myatt as a representation of the story of “The Judgement of Paris”. Back in 1976, Steven Spurrier, an Englishman, owned and ran a successful wine shop in Paris, and had recently founded the first private wine school in the country. Understandably, this became a centre point for American vintners and wine writers visiting France, and through them, Spurrier became exposed to Californian wines. He decided to hold a tasting to compare the best of Californian and French wines, to which he invited the top wine experts of the day. His blind tasting format removed the possibility of prejudice colouring the results and indeed, there was considerable uproar when Californian wines were revealed to be the best red and the best white wines of the event. One of the participants, writer George Taber, wrote an article for Time magazine, which he provocatively titled “The Judgement of Paris”. This really rocked the French wine industry, which had, until then, been considered the undisputed king of the wine making world.

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This story was engagingly narrated by head sommelier Yohann Jousselin, who also showed us around the impressive glass ceilinged cellar in the hotel lobby, the main upstairs cellar, and later, talked us through the wines chosen to accompany our meal that evening.

Sir Peter Michael is an entrepreneur with a technological bent and was the driving force behind a number of high tech companies. He also founded Classic FM, the UK’s first national commercial radio station. He was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1989. Now, his focus is on wine (at his family vineyard in Sonoma County, California), hospitality (at the Vineyard and sister hotel Donnington Valley) and the work of two charitable foundations, one in the US and one in the UK, which fund research on the identification, treatment and management of prostrate cancer.

Although Sir Michael wasn’t present at the original 1976 tasting, he has been included in the mural and was present at some of the subsequent tastings in the following decades.

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A site within the M4 corridor, not far from Newbury, may not sound like the ideal location for a getaway break, but The Vineyard is in a quiet rural spot next door to a golf course. The modern building was recently extended, to add extra bedrooms and conference space and now has 49 bedrooms, each named after a famous wine. The hotel also has a spa, which we didn’t see on this visit.

Our focus was to check out the food and wine offering.

Head chef Daniel Galmiche created a menu to showcase the restaurant’s style, and Yohann matched wines to each course, explaining his choices as they were served.

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To my delight, Yohann didn’t bat an eyelid when I asked, as we sat down to the meal, if he could serve me dessert wines instead, whilst the rest of the table enjoyed his original selections. It was a pleasure to be given a different wine for each course, and see how their characteristics affected the flavours of the food and were affected in return. As someone who doesn’t drink regular wines, and usually misses out on matching drinks, this was a rare treat.

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Confit of duck foie gras, quince and braeburn apple

A large block of foie gras was simply served with apple and quince jellies and an apple chutney. The foie gras itself was excellent in flavour and texture. I appreciated the generous portion and enjoyed the seasonal fruit condiments.

For the regular wine drinkers, Yohann chose Eroica 2010 from Chateau Ste Michelle, Washington. This wine is the result of collaboration between Chateau Ste Michelle and Dr Ernst Loosen of Mosel in Germany. Pete found it a very good match for the foie gras, and described it as full of sharp green fruit, mainly unripe apples.

For me, Yohann served a delicious Eldorado Gold 2007 from Ferraro Carano, Sonoma California. This is a late harvest dessert wine and reminded me of the wines of Sauternes, which I love and are a classic partner to foie gras.

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Diver caught Orkney scallops, cauliflower, walnut

These might just be some of the best scallops I’ve tasted. Not only were they perfectly cooked, with beautiful brown caramelised crusts and yieldingly soft flesh, they had more flavour and natural sweetness than most I’ve had. Served alongside were tiny florets of pickled cauliflower, dollops of cauliflower puree and tiny rounds of sweet apple. No walnut that I could see. This was a simple dish but beautifully executed and one I could eat every day.

The regular wine choice was Quinta do Gaivosa Reserva Pessoal 2004 from Domingos Alves de Sousa in Douro, Portugal. Oddly, Pete detected banana and singed oak on the nose. It was “unsweet without being too dry”, and he muttered about “musty mushroom but in a good way”.

My wine was Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh 2009 from the Producteurs de Plaimont Cuvee Saint-Albert in Plaimont, South West France. A revival of an 18th century wine style, this is another late harvest dessert wine with rich, intense flavours of fruits and molasses.

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Balmoral Estate venison, butternut squash, pearl barley, hazelnut

Rubbed with Chef Galmiche’s own coffee, the venison was, once again, some of the best I’ve had. Not at all gamey, it was virtually indistinguishable from a very tender and well flavoured piece of beef. As well as squash and pearl barley, it was accompanied by delicious turnip leaves and a teeny tiny baby carrot! A beautiful dish indeed.

The regular wine choice was a Freemark Abbey 2010 merlot from Napa Valley, California. Pete loved the big fruit, blackcurrant nose and enjoyed what he likened to deep Burgundy tannins. This was a magnificent and a perfect match to the venison.

For me, Yohann chose a cabernet rose fruit juice by Alain Millat. Made from grapes grown in Gaillac, in France, this is a sweet, light and intense juice drink that is perfect for non drinkers seeking a choice that echoes the flavours in red wine.

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Griottine cherry and cranberry terrine, pistachio parfait

I was less impressed with this dessert than most of the table, as I found it far too sweet. This coming from me, sitting and drinking my dessert wines all evening! I liked the alcohol and fruit bomb griottine the most. I think the terrine had white chocolate mixed into it, certainly that was what I picked up. Neither the cranberry nor the cherries came through clearly in anything other than appearance. Likewise the pistachio terrine didn’t have much of a pistachio kick. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t hate this, but it was definitely the weak point of the menu for me.

Yohann served one wine for all of us, to go with this dish – Roussilliere from Yves Cuilleron in France’s Rhône Valley. Another late harvest dessert wine, made from noble rot syrah, this was enjoyed by most of the table, but I actually found the acidity a little strong for my tastes. For Pete, what came through most were deep fruity aromas of raisins and plums. It was “port-like” in the mouth and not too sweet.

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Seasonal farmhouse cheese platter, quince, fig cake, fennel bread

Tovey, Gruyere and St Nectaire were all tasty cheeses, though I prefer St Nectaire that’s older and harder than the young, soft slice we had here and likewise, for the Gruyere. Tovey was new to me and I liked it; made by Thornby Moor in Wigton, Cumbria it’s a semi-soft goat’s milk cheese with a smooth texture and robust flavour. The crisp breads – which looked to me like Peters Yard, though the waiter I asked never came back with an answer – were excellent. The fig cake was lovely with the Gruyere and the sweet dark grapes best with the Tovey.

Again, a shared wine choice with the cheese. This time Yohann chose a Noble Late Harvest Chenin Blanc 2005 from Eikendal in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Syrupy sweet with lovely dried fruit flavours, this was a classic dessert wine and I really liked it; a great match for the cheese. Pete mentioned a sweet musty nose, like a cheese cave, and found the wine full of red berry fruit, particularly strawberries, and sweet but with an acid edge on the finish.

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Petits fours were served with tea and coffee, in the nearby lounge area.

After dinner, we spent the night in a comfortable Atrium Suite room, in the newest part of the hotel.

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As we left early the next morning, we didn’t make much use of the generous seating in the split level lounge area but we did love the bathroom with large separate shower and an absolutely enormous bathtub! The bed was comfortable and we had a great night’s sleep. My only preference would have been for a larger TV, as I like to watch from the bed on occasion.

Room rates start at just under £200 for a standard “luxury” double and range to over £500 for a Grand Suite. Dinner, bed and breakfast starts at £420. Prices are higher on weekends. It’s worth keeping an eye out for special offers, as a friend told me about one such offer she took advantage of last year which included full use of the spa and an overnight stay for little more than £100.

A five course meal, like the one we were served, is priced at £75 per person, or you can order individual dishes from the a la carte menu. Alternatively, you might enjoy the 7 course Judgement of Paris menu in which each course is matched with two wines, one French and one Californian. With wines, it’s £185 or £99 without.

 

Kavey Eats was a guest of The Vineyard.

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