Unlike Milk, it’s Okay to Cry Over Spilt Wine…
Wine and hotel connoisseurs will not be disappointed, from the luxurious rooms to the elegant food and accompanying blind wine tastings, there are layers to peel away and enjoy at The Vineyard Hotel
Review and photography by Andy Barnham
As you’d expect from an establishment called The Vineyard, the hotel and spa in Stockcross, just North West of Newbury, it prides itself on all things oenophilic – even if there isn’t actually a vine in sight. A stone’s throw off the M4, the hotel consists of 32 suites and 17 bedrooms all named after iconic wines and has been privately owned by the Michael family since 1996. The family also own the Peter Michael Winery in California, founded in 1983 by Peter Michael of Cosworth Engineering and Classic FM fame. Knighted in 1989, it is no surprise that whilst Sir Peter’s hotel stocks bottles from all corners of the globe, it specialises in Californian and French wines. A cornerstone of the hotel is the 1976 Judgement of Paris when, staged by British wine expert Steven Spurrier, a Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon from California were ranked above some of the most prestigious wines of Burgundy and Bordeaux in a blind tasting. Indeed a painting of the event, commissioned by Sir Peter, reinforces the idea that all novices can become masters of their trade with dedication and hard work (at six metres long and three metres high, the painting is hard to miss). In addition to the painting, The Vineyard is choc- a- bloc with work by the Franco- Russian artist Boris Smirnoff. Well known for his cubist and avant – garde works, the hotel is lined with his portraits, sketches and watercolours; even a trip to the gentlemen’s lavatories has three ladies positioned over the facilities watching the men folk go about their business. Discomforting or titillating? Perhaps your opinion depends on how much wine has been consumed.
Walking through what can feel like a labyrinth of corridors, it’s hard not to notice the various wine stored around the hotel, though you’d be incorrect to believe the wine is for display purposes only. Depending on stock levels, The Vineyard at any given time has between 20 – 30, 000 bottles of wine on the premises, with an approximate value of £2.5 million. The impressively large wine racks opposite the front door that sit above the basement cellar are both for white wine only; the red was long since relegated to the top floor attic space as the hotel quickly outgrew what initial storage space it had and it is no surprise that in their love of the vine, The Vineyard offers wine courses and wine dinners in addition to wine festivals. In keeping that wine can be enjoyed by novice and master alike prices at the restaurant start at £22 a bottle all the way to a £22, 000 (for a magnum of 1982 Petrus).
Like the wine, the layout of the spa has been equally organic with the leisure facilities downstairs and the treatment rooms upstairs. Offering a whole host of treatments, my wife tried the 25 minute Five Elemental Aroma Facial, which, following a consult of her likes and skin type, left her feeling suitably refreshed with baby like soft skin.
The 17 luxury double rooms all offer king sized beds along with a lounge area and an ensuite whilst the suites start with the entry level Atrium Suites offering a split level bedroom and lounge all the way to the Grand Suites which feature four poster beds and writing desks. Described as epic but cosy, the Atrium Suites are a paradox which work (how very New World); indeed it was lovely to have a separate living room area to unwind in and put one’s feet up away from the bed. The only minor point about the room was the temperature and lack of heating control; as such the room was veritably tropical. This may be perfect for some visitors, but for my wife and I it meant we had the balcony doors open all night to try and cool the room down.
In addition to the à la carte, The Vineyard restaurant offers two tasting menus, the Judgement and the Discovery lasting seven and five courses respectively with cheese an optional extra for both. Each tasting menu comes with wine pairings with the Judgement pairing consisting of two wines per course; both a Californian and also a French for diners to judge the different wines side by side. Part of our dinner included a blind tasting of a wine served in a black glass. The experience of not being able to see the colour of a wine is really quite disconcerting; you can tell it’s a wine but having to rely solely on taste without any visual aids is quite the challenge. That said, though much more through luck than judgment, my wife and I were able to guess correctly the colour and the country of origin. And, in a nice touch, all the wines were served with a small tag around the stem of the glass with name and age marked. The Discovery menu, served to both my wife and I, was as follows;
Loch Duart salmon, cucumber, English wasabi and dill
Roasted veal sweetbread, peas, bacon and mint
Fillet of halibut, parsley, mussels and sea herbs
Slow cooked chicken, liver parfait, broccoli and kimchi
Rhubarb parfait, rice pudding, maple syrup
Unlike most other tasting menus where I can certifiably confirm I like every dish, there were several here which I was wary of, but interested to try. For example I’m not a fan of sweetbread, my avoidance of the dish due to the ingredients rather than based on taste (for those amongst you who may be squeamish and don’t know what sweetbreads are, don’t look it up) and my opinion of rhubarb is low after years of overexposure to rather pungent school crumble with artificial custard.
Oddly, looking back at the menu, my overriding memories are of how full of taste the sauces were; quite what that means as my ability of a reviewer, I’m not sure. The English wasabi and dill was strong and full of flavour and the mix of pea, bacon and mint, though a combination I have never considered, worked remarkably well. The halibut was thick and meaty while the slow cooked chicken was surprisingly dense in flavour and quite heavy. Lastly, despite potential misgivings, the rhubarb and rice pudding was absolutely fantastic.
Service is spot on, professional and informative in regards to the dishes and the wine but not at all intrusive. The level of service also extends to the bar staff and their newly found Romanian bartender Paul. Newly arrived from Aberdeen Paul, mixologist and trained sommelier, is in the middle of redesigning The Vineyard’s cocktail list to make it seasonal and was intent on using my wife and I as his guinea pigs. The White Pearl, accompanied by an olive coated in while chocolate, was the starting point, quickly followed by a take on an Old Fashioned with pear vodka and a vodka based cocktail with kiwi fruit, with a Cheesecake Manhattan, made with double cream, whisky and frangelico, to round off the evening. While I normally veer towards bourbon, in this instance it was too hard to judge a winner; I’ll just have to return and try them all again.
The Vineyard feels like the wines it curates; scratch the surface and you’ll find one layer of enjoyment. Dare continue to explore and you’ll find another with different layers and flavours being uncovered the more you delve. Make sure to peruse the accolades adorning the staircase wall; like your stay, you won’t be disappointed.
Enquiries: The Vineyard, Stockcross, Newbury RG20 8JU / 01635 528770 / www.the-vineyard.co.uk/