The Vineyard at Stockcross – ‘Judgement of Paris’ Tasting Menu

Sir Peter Michael, owner of 5 star vinous hotel experience The Vineyard, was directly inspired by the 1976 Judgement of Paris; the famous play-off between the traditional wines of France and the upcoming wines of California.

It’s therefore fitting that they offer a tasting menu which pays tribute to the original event, accompanied only by French and Californian wines.

Comprised of 7 courses, each dish allows you to decide which wine works best with the food, and if you prefer the French or US offering.  Opting for the full sensory experience I decided to taste my wines blind, replicating the conditions of the original event.

(Note: The individual dishes change seasonally as do the perfectly paired wines.  What follows are my thoughts based on those served on the day).

Course 1 – Beef sirloin tartar, sorrel sorbet, raisins and bone marrow crumb matched with:

  • Peter Micheal Winery (PMW) L’Aprés Midi (Sauvignon/Semillon) 2015, –
  • CaliforniaCháteau Tour des Gendres (Sauvignon/Semillon) 2015, Bergerac Sec, France

The US wine managed to trick me as it was in the lighter style.  The Bergerac boasted a silky texture with melon and tropical yellow fruit, and seemed almost too intense for their climate.  The PMW had a lighter colour and, alongside rich buttery oak, was characterised by a light airy character and peach and tangerine rind.

1/0 to the USA

Course 2 Lobster Raviolo

Course 2 – Lobster ravioli, citrus bisque, grapefruit, pickled ginger, basil matched with:

  • Donelan ‘Nancie’, Chardonnay 2012, Sonoma, California
  • Sophie Cinier (Chardonnay) 2014, Pouilly-Fuissé, France

The intense lime, mineral nose and refreshing acidity made the Poilly-Fuissé easy to pick out against the rich lemon curd style of the Donelan, but it was this weight that made it blend all the better with the Lobster and the Cajun style sauce.

2/0 to the USA

  • Course 3 – Foie gras ganache, pistachios, cherry and brioche ice cream matched with:

Domaine Loew, Les Cormiers Pinot Gris 2014, Alsace, France

Just one wine was to be matched with this course but, served in an opaque black glass we had no identifier as to whether it was white or red, let alone French or American.

The intensity and sweetness of the lemon matched up to the cherry very well, almost to the point of revelation.  A touch of cakey/bready spice in the wine very reminiscent of shortbread, cleansed the palate after the rich foie gras.

By default France wins, but its 2/1 to the USA

Course 4 – Roasted cod, cauliflower, curry and coconut matched with:

  • Peter Michael Winery Le Moulin Rouge (Pinot Noir) 2008, California
  • Domaine Audoin, Cuvée Marie Ragonneau (Pinot Noir) 2010, Marsannay, France

The PMW felt a little artificial, with the acid a touch too high and a mid-palate that didn’t have enough to excite.  It was straightforward compared to the Audoin that delivered a floral vanilla nose and redcurrant fruit.  Soft and delicate it blended well with the curry and the coconut.

France wins, making it all square at 2/2

Course 5 Loin of Lamb

Course 5 – Loin of lamb, turnips, baby gem, girolles and lamb jus matched with:

  • L’Aventure, Cóte á Cóte (Rhone blend) 2007, Paso Robles, California
  • Fortia 2012, Cháteauneuf du Pape, Rhone, France

Both made using the signature Rhone varieties of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvédre, the French offering was lighter in colour and more floral than its counterpart, offering up ripe black cherry fruit.  A mouth-watering acid worked very well with the lamb jus.

The L’Aventure, inky and youthful purple in colour despite its age, was dense, rich, spicy and alcoholic, and a seriously robust wine.  Mistaking this power for the classic hallmarks of Cháteauneuf and the fact that the depth of colour confused me, I guessed this one wrong.

Regardless of the confusion, the Cháteauneuf worked best.

France take the lead 3/2

Course 6 Peach Melba

Course 6 – “Peach Melba”, raspberry sorbet, almonds matched with:

  • Elysium Black Muscat 2014, Andrew Quady, California

Another single wine served in black opaque glassware to further intrigue and confuse, and this one completely outwitted me.

Thick and gloopy in consistency, this was syrupy and full of rich tropical melon and pineapple.  With a lip-smacking acidity it went wonderfully with the raspberry and the overall acidity of the dish, BUT it transpired that this was a sweet red wine!

Once armed with this information I found tinned raspberry and plum, but this was a good example of tasting with your eyes vs. tasting with your mouth

The US win by default.  All square at 3/3

Course 7 Chocolate Caramel Tonka Bean

Course 7 – Chocolate, caramel, hazelnut and tonka bean matched with:

  • Justin Vineyards, Obtuse (Cabernet Sauvignon) 2012, Paso Robles, California
  • Cháteau Coutet (Semillon) 1998, Barsac, France

The Cháteau Coutet was made in an oxidative style, amber in colour, and offering bruised brown soggy apples, thick honey, and summer cider.  Having said that, the slushy quality went very well with the peanut butter food and caramel notes of the food.

The Obtuse, whilst having an over-the-top (in my opinion) sweetness did actually pair well with the numerous sweeter aspects of this dessert (especially the chocolate), but was quite singular in tone.

A tough call at the final hurdle but:  France wins 4/3

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The Vineyard at Stockcross – Wine hotel and cellar visit

Vineyard Scene set

Living just over a mile away I really have no excuse (except my bank balance) not to visit 5 star hotel The Vineyard more often.  As the name suggests it’s a wine inspired hotel with an extensive list of 3,000 wines available including 100 served by the glass.

Owned by panama-wearing Sir Peter Michael who made his fortune in the tech industry, the link to the USA is strong.  Frustrated that he couldn’t afford vineyard land in Burgundy he was inspired to buy in the US through the 1976 ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting – a landmark playoff between the traditional wines of France and the relatively unknown wines of California.

With the judging panel being almost exclusively French the outcome seemed virtually assured but, as history tells us, the US wines won on the day much to the critic’s chagrin. Purchased in 1982 he now owns the eponymously named Peter Michael Winery in California and roughly 27% of The Vineyard’s wine list hails from the USA, naturally including many bottles from his own vineyards.

A recent significant birthday provided the catalyst I needed and I booked in to the hotel and on to their ‘Judgement of Paris’ tasting menu, pairing up seven specially devised courses with both a French and American wine (more of that in a separate post).

Wine Tunnel

Upon arrival the exposure to wine begins almost immediately with the imposing and impressive tunnel that greets you as you enter reception.  Aiming to contain at least one bottle of everything on the menu (so that bottles can be quickly located when ordered by guests) the low lit and temperature controlled ‘floor to ceiling’ perspex walls house hundreds of bottles of Bordeaux and Burgundy.

What becomes noticeable when you enter the tunnel is that, whilst the central portion of the floor displays the rocky and stony vineyard soils transported from the Peter Michael Winery, the other half of the floor is transparent and looks down to a lower cellar containing bottles from around the rest of the world.

A welcoming glass of wine is provided when checking in (which is surely how every hotel should be!) and can be drunk whilst enjoying the huge ‘Judgement of Paris’ fresco that adorns one whole wall.

Wine Fresco.JPG

Commissioned by Sir Peter and titled ‘After the Upset’, the fateful day is immortalized in the artistic style of Da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’.  Although not present at the original tasting, Sir Peter cheekily sneaks in on the left-hand side to oversee proceedings.

To make the most of the experience I booked myself in for a chat and tour with sommelier Milena.  Hailing from France, and clearly relishing the wider UK availability of bottles from all over the world and the exposure that comes from working at such an esteemed establishment, she was happy to answer any number of questions that I had.  The inevitable question of her favourite bottle was immediately met with “Sassicaia 1990”.

Of the many tour highlights, the first was the visit to their ‘bottle graveyard’, a vast collection of all the wonderful empty vessels enjoyed by numerous diners over the years.  Many classic labels were present and it was awesome to drink in (pun intended) the wonderful memories and nights these bottles had produced.

Wine Graveyard

From these ‘front-of-house’ cellars we worked our way up to the third floor and, with ‘cellar’ being a complete contradiction in term, visited what would qualify as their wine ‘vault’.  Under lock and key the huge ‘floor to ceiling’ wine racks housed the deeper parts of their 30,000 bottle collection, including mostly duplicate bottles as well as those of different size formats.

Wine Vault

It was a real treat to get up close and personal with their older Champagnes, but no tour would have been complete without seeing the jewel of their collection; the most expensive bottle on their wine list.

It was definitely no surprise to find out that it was Pétrus, but this was a double magnum of the lauded 1982 vintage listed at £20,000, which Milena believed had been there since the hotel opened.

Wine Petrus

Alas I didn’t have a big enough wallet for the Pétrus but I did join in with a tasting of their monthly ‘Icon’ wine.  A good reason for the added extravagance would have been the old saying of ‘when-in-Rome…’, but we were firmly placed in Umbria for the Italian wine Patrizia Lamborghini Campoleone 1999 (£205 per bottle).

Comprised of a 50/50 mix of Merlot and Sangiovese from vines planted in the 1970’s, the very small yields of one kilo of grapes per vine are fermented in new French oak for 12 months followed by blending and another 6 months in the cellar.

Icon Wine Italy 1999

The outstanding wine, blending fig, chocolate, tobacco and truffle was the precursor to an equally outstanding dinner, which you can read about here.

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One night only. No second chances

Leafing through the latest issue of Wine Spectator magazine I happened to notice that their 2015 Wine of the Year was Peter Michael ‘Au Paradis’ 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon.  It’s not a wine that I’ve ever tasted, but it does stir up a lot of memories of what is probably one of my finest wine experiences.

Even now, with winemaking in the southern part of the UK developing all of the time, I’ve often lamented that I don’t live anywhere in the thick of it.  I think how wonderful it would be living in perhaps Italy or Spain and having near access to multiple world famous destinations to tour.  It feels like I would never have a weekend free!

Some years back I was reading an article on a UK wine hotel and had probably already started assuming that it wouldn’t be anywhere near me, when I realised that it was.  It was literally ten minutes away by car and, on a warm day, possibly walkable.

I’m referring to The Vineyard at Stockcross, which has been owned by Sir Peter Michael since 1996.  With over 3000 bins available it was, at the time, a multi Michelin starred establishment (Head Chef John Campbell has since departed) and was somewhere I had no excuse not to visit.  I eagerly booked a room and downloaded the extensive wine list in readiness of tasting some amazing and rare wines.  At the time (and to be fair, to this day) my main wine passion is Champagne (which readers of my blog will know rests heavily on Dom Pérignon), and so that was the focus of the night.

I pre-selected the 1966 Dom Pérignon to be ready and chilling in an ice bucket on arrival in the room, and the 1970 Dom Pérignon to be served with dinner.  These Champagnes certainly still rank amongst the highest value wines I’ve ever drunk, but having checked their current retail prices, what I paid then seems like a bargain!  The whole trip however was a calculated indulgence (I could have taken a cab home, but decided that staying there would top everything off), and these two mature vintages were chosen specifically as they were the current releases when both I and my wife were born.

Vineyard1

Upon arrival at the hotel when giving over my personal details, I’m convinced that there was a confused glance from the receptionist.  Upon checking my details and spotting my home address was only around the corner, I think she was trying to work out why I was staying there at all.  The answer lay in my room, and what greeted me was the glorious sight of the chilled 1966 Dom on the table.  Rather than unpacking, I opened the bottle.  It is still the oldest Champagne I’ve ever tasted, and I can recall its rich herbaceous woodland tones, with baked apple and dark honey very clear on the palate.

I contacted their sommelier with a view to choosing a pre-dinner aperitif, and was suitably impressed when he invited me to look through their locked wine vault which, years later and knowing much more about the subject, I really want to do again.  I was still in the mood for celebratory bubbles so probably didn’t fully absorb their collection of impressive Bordeaux and Burgundy, or perhaps even their focus on Californian Cabernets, showcasing the owners US interests.  I switched back to a fresh vibrant Champagne and selected the 1996 Krug, which was a dream.

And so to dinner which, for a 2-star Michelin restaurant, definitely played second fiddle to the wine.  Not that the food was bad – far from it – but this was when Michelin food was characterised by adding foam to the top of every dish, and it became a little bit much.  Perhaps as a response to the money that I was spending (the exact prices I paid for each of the bottles is etched in to my memory) we were given the top table which was set away from the main dining area and overlooked the other guests.  The 1970 Dom arrived and, although having only slightly less age than the 1966, was showing a much younger profile and went well the fish dishes I’d chosen.  As a closing gesture, my sommelier was happy to gift me two Dom Pérignon branded flutes (boxed ones too, not the ones we had been using!) as a reminder of this one-off evening.  Alas the glasses are long since gone, but the memories remain.

Vineyard2

There was one further bottle of red picked from the wine list to round off dinner, but following the excesses of the Champagne, it went mostly undrunk and I have no recollection of what it was.  I still live just around the corner from The Vineyard and I do often think about going back, however I know that it can never live up to that amazing experience.

I’d love to live that night again, but it truly was a one-off.  No second chances.

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