There can be few things more irksome than being left out while an entire roomful of smug people simultaneously rave about something you’ve never tried (like a super-exclusive wine) or somewhere you’ve never been (like a favourite hotel) – and believe me, at Mr & Mrs Smith, it’s a regular occurrence. It’s like being back in the playground, having missed that vital episode of Dynasty and therefore being condemned to permanent social Coventry. See sample conversation below.
Colleague 1: ‘I was at Chewton Glen for a spa weekend last month, we had such a great time…’
Colleague 2: ‘Oh yes, I love it there! The New Forest is so lovely. And aren’t the rooms great?’
Colleague 3: ‘Yes, we stayed in the Poachers Suite when we went down last year…’
Colleague 2: ‘That’s where we stayed too! The bathroom’s amazing, isn’t it? And what about that two-person shower, eh!’ [repeat ad nauseam with self-congratulatory smiles all round]
Even anonymous members of the public were rubbing it in, voting Chewton Glen on of the top three ‘Best UK hotels‘ in a recent poll in the Sunday Times Travel supplement.
It used to annoy me. But not any more. Because – drum roll please – I am now a fully signed-up member of the official Chewton Glen Fan Club and feel that entitles me to a lengthy gush about a wonderful wine-tasting evening I recently spent at Hampshire’s Most Splendiferous Spa-Enhanced Country-House Hotel.
We’d been invited to a Wine Club gala dinner event hosted by Fells Wine Merchants on behalf of Baron Philippe de Rothschild and – since we knew the wine involved would be pretty special and we’re not exactly known for our self-restraint – we thought it prudent to spend the night there as well.
The drive alone was memorable – ok, maybe not the bit where we drove round Southampton University Campus five times in a bid for freedom and the New Forest, but definitely the bit where we cruised along pretty country lanes flanked by copses of trees and pumpkin-orange bracken. The sun was setting, a vivid red poking between leafless branches, and occasionally a ghostly horse would loom out of a misty field by the roadside. I’d never really thought about the wild New Forest ponies – wonderful thing to see.
After a record-time change into our black-tie finery, we headed down for reception drinks: unusually, rosé was served rather than the more traditional champagne – which was to signify the ‘laid-back, innovative and individualist’ nature of the clan Rothschild, according to Chewton’s chef sommelier, Alan Holmes (pictured left: and no, he’s not abnormally tiny – that’s just a giant bottle of wine).
We then filed into Chewton Glen’s handsome Garden Restaurant (below, as shot by Smith photographer Adrian Houston) for the main event. Before dinner we were treated to an entertaining speech from Rothschild’s man on the ground, who outlined the origins of the château as a ‘mine’s bigger than yours’ purchase by the dandyish Baron Philippe (châteaux being to men in the 1850s what supercar engines are to today’s financially well-endowed gentlemen) – quickly followed by the purchase of the now-legendary Château Lafite on a neighbouring slope of Médoc’s Pauillac region by his father-in-law.
Rothschild became renowned for its innovations: Mouton Cadet was essentially the first wine ‘brand’ and is still pushing the envelope in the arena of ‘modern’ wine-making. (‘Modern’ here means ‘drinkable’ – cue some of the more old-school style of wine connoisseurs wrinkling their scent-sensitive noses – but in fact it’s this sort of stuffy, judgmental thinking that the label is trying to address. Not to the detriment of their own heavyweight classics, of course.)
So, to the wines (and you’ll have forgive me some rather amateurish assessments of what are some fairly serious beverages). We kicked off our tasting with a pair of white Bordeaux; one a crisp and light modern-style Réserve Mouton Cadet Blanc 2004 (to set off a plump Carlingford oyster), the other the more viscous, densely fruity Aile d’Argent 2005 (which sat nicely with a rich velouté of smoked haddock). Then we moved on to the reds: next up, Baron Nathaniel Pauillac 2004: this easy, classic Bordeaux exhibited typical claret characteristics of cigar box and flint that made it a winning combination with our venison carpaccio and semigi mushrooms.
For the main course – a rack of locally-sourced organic lamb with truffle mash and tarragon jus – the pièce de resistance: the Château Mouton-Rothschild 1990. The label of this particular vintage features a dramatic, specially commissioned work by Francis Bacon (other artists to have entered the Rothschild label canon include Dalí, Warhol and Picasso), a drama easily matched by the heady scent and balanced tannins in what is a splendid, classic expression of the AOC. Interestingly, each bottle takes approximately one vine to produce, by comparison with the final wine on our menu – a 1999 Château Coutet Sauternes-Barsac – which takes one vine per glass, delivering an elaborate honeyed dessert wine of extremely high quality with a dry finish that would be perfect with blue cheese or foie gras. Rather excitingly (for me, anyway), this was the first time I had actually ‘smelled’ botrytis – the noble rot that dehydrates the grape as it sits on the vine and creates the distinctive nectar-like quality of dessert wines. This smell is variously described as ‘vinegary’ (wine bods) and ‘like feet’ (unpretentious wine bods). To me, it smelt a little like crushed fresh sage – slightly sour, herby, pungently aromatic.
Needless to say, having eventually retired after a fireside nightcap in the bar, we were a wee bit fuzzy-headed in the morning. Luckily something this Hampshire hangout is adept at sorting out: breakfast in bed, followed by a soak in the spa’s blissfully soothing hydrotherapy pools (Chewton Glen’s are the largest in the UK) and a sea-breezy march through the woods down to the beach – views of the Isle of Wight gratis. CG now ranks top of my list of vintage luxury UK spa hotels.
I can’t wait to go back – and I can’t wait to stand in the kitchen with my colleagues at Smith HQ raving about how great this hotel is. Preferably when someone who hasn’t been there is standing nearby!