For years, French wines have been revered as the best, exemplifying what each grape variety has to offer. Californian wines, however, have had a reputation for low-quality and over-oaking. So when you invite some of France’s top wine critics to a blind-tasting dinner to compare French and Californian wines, you’d expect the French to win by a country mile. Well, when Steven Spurrier did just that in his 1976 ‘Judgement of Paris’ dinner, the result shocked everyone, with a Californian wine topping each category, turning the wine world on it’s head, and causing several judges to demand their ballot papers back or even to resign from their positions. The whole saga even inspired the 2008 film Bottleshock. Now you can be the judge.
The Vineyard hotel, surrounded by Berkshire countryside, just a short drive from Newbury, feels very English. In fact, The Vineyard specialises in Californian wine, with a cellar currently holding over 800 Californian bottles among a list of 30,000 bins. Using such specialised knowledge, the hotel has recreated a Judgement of Paris dinner package; anyone booking in can test their preconceptions. Each course of the seven-strong Judgement dinner is paired with two wines – one Californian, one French – and there are a couple of completely blind tastings thrown in too, served in black glasses to allow you really to test your knowledge (no spoilers ahead).
On our visit, dinner starts with an aperitif of crisp Austrian white, before moving on to a first course of foie gras with a light, sweet onion velouté and sharp pickled red onion. Paired with a crisp, acidic sancerre and lightly oaked sauvignon blanc from The Vineyard’s owner, Peter Michael’s, winery in Knight Valley it’s a fantastic choice to kick-off with, as the two wines show just how different expressions of the same grape can be.
Pressed rabbit terrine served with heritage carrot, hot mustard and sweet apricot brings the first opportunity for a blind tasting. Next, firm, flakey Cornish cod, fresh summer peas and broad beans, crisp pancetta and salty-sweet pecorino fondue is served with two chardonnay varietals: a crisp chablis and a rich, smooth Sonoma chardonnay which, although they both have notes of apple and pear, deliver them very differently.
A second fish course of halibut, tomato, shallots and aïoli provides the opportunity for what is perhaps a more unusual pairing with pinot noir; a rich, well aged burgundy, and an exceptional 2010 Talley Vineyard pinot noir with deep, spicy notes of cherry and red berries along with light herbal flavours and an earthy foundation – the stand-out wine of the evening. A final, savoury dish – saddle of Cornish marsh lamb, carrot, mangetout and asparagus – is paired with cabernet sauvignon, one of which is a 1998 Cos d’Estournel, a classic smooth, woody Bordeaux with smooth tannins and notes of cassis and black fruits.
The first sweet course, raspberry ‘milkshake’, provides a second blind tasting and a proud moment; we get it spot on, and the reward is a truly remarkable wine with finely balanced sugar and acidity, and notes of green fruits and a hint of ginger. Wonderfully rich, deeply flavoursome chocolate, salted caramel and cacao nibs served with tangy fromage blanc sorbet is a deliciously indulgent way to finish the meal, and is served with two alternatives to port, Obstuse from Justin Vineyard, full of big ripe black cherry and blackberry jam flavours, and Maury, Mas Amiel from the Languedoc-Roussillon, with similar bramble fruit flavours and a hint of black pepper to balance the sweetness.
Afterwards, we peek in at the hotel’s impressive glass wine cellar on our way up to one of The Vineyard’s 48 bedrooms (each named after an international wine). Ours is luxurious with muted blues and creams, marshmallow-soft king size beds, walk-in wardrobes, marble bathrooms, and a mini-bar stocked with premium brands.
After breakfast the following morning, we counter the previous night’s over-indulgence with a visit to the hotel spa, where treatments include a red grape body mask and massage. The tranquility is a good opportunity to mull over the previous night’s dinner. For us, there was no clear winner between the French and Californian pairings, but that is the beauty of this package; it showcases the best that each country has to offer, and takes you out of your comfort zone, allowing you to try a variety of different grapes and styles that otherwise might go undiscovered.
Seven-course Judgement of Paris dinners cost £184pp including wine. Rooms start from £247 inc. breakfast (the-vineyard.co.uk).
By Sarah Kingsbury