Fine wines matched with an equally sumptuous menu, Christine Austin takes a seat at her own fantasy dinner party.
It was a dinner party with a difference – a collection of some of the finest wines in the world, served alongside sensational food in a magical setting. And the weather was perfect.
Middlethorpe Hall in York, now owned by The National Trust, is renowned for its beautiful 18th-century house, elegant decor and of course, its fine food and wine. All profits from the hotel go directly to the National Trust, so when I was asked whether I would be willing to present an evening of fine wine, accompanied by equally fine food, I was delighted to accept.
Over several months of planning, the line-up of wines was agreed – just the first mention of the three champagnes to be served – Krug, Dom Pérignon and Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill – made me excited.
Numbers around the table were limited to 12 by the size of the venue, the 17th-century dovecote at Middlethorpe which has been transformed into a wine storage cellar, and when the tickets went on sale they were sold out overnight.
We started with a reception on the rose garden lawn and after canapés and sparkling wine we were soon were settled around the table with head chef Nicholas Evans busy in a corner, preparing the food.
It is not often that I can taste three of the most famous champagnes side by side and that is why all three were poured at the same time to demonstrate the style of each of these top cuvées. After an initial taste each was re-poured with a course to show how it matched with the food.
Pol Roger, Cuvée Sir Winston Churchill 1998 (magnum)
Named in homage to Sir Winston Churchill who had a lifetime’s association with Pol Roger, this is made in a style that he favoured – robust and powerful. Churchill loved good champagne and Pol Roger was what he drank – usually daily and always in imperial pints (568ml) which were specially bottled for him. He became such good friends with Odette Pol Roger, wife of the then owner of Pol that he named his favourite racehorse after her. When he died Pol Roger put a black border around the label of their non-vintage champagne and a few years later developed this special cuvée which is Pinot Noir dominated, all sourced from Grand Cru vineyards and aged for around nine years on its lees.
With a powerful, immediate aroma of grilled brioche, layers of ripe pears and spice with a finish that fills out on the palate and persists, with acidity providing balance and tension this is a great champagne. It was perfect with a Pickering watercress and nettle espuma which was surrounded by local foraged leaves.
Krug Grande Cuvée Brut
Krug is still family-run although it was sold out to the major luxury brand company LVMH some years ago. “But they leave us alone,” said Olivier Krug who now heads up the company when I last met him in Reims. Established 200 years ago Krug is different from most other champagne houses as they ferment their wines in oak, not to give an oaky taste to the wine but to allow some transfer of oxygen during fermentation. This gives it more complexity and protects the wine from oxidation later in storage, allowing it to age with fresher flavours.
Certainly the flavours in the Krug Grande Cuvée were vivacious and bright with notes of green fig, lime and apple, backed by clean toastiness and a long harmonious elegance. It accompanied corn-fed chicken ballontine which was sprinkled with just-shaved summer truffle adding fabulous aromatic notes to the dish.
Dom Pérignon 2003
Named after the monk who spent his life working out how to blend the best wines of the region, this particular bottle took a while to open up after it was poured. Reticent at first, it took 10 minutes for the floral and mineral nose to appear, backed by toast and lime with a racy, almost zesty palate and a long, harmonious, refined palate. Served alongside Whitby crab with asparagus, ébene caviar and wild sea vegetables it grew into the partnership, holding on to its flavours and balance all through the dinner.
Château Hosanna 2003, Pomerol
Located in the best part of Pomerol this tiny four hectare property is adjacent to Pétrus, and was created in 1999 from the best vineyards of Ch Certan Giraud. I decanted three bottles of this 2003 vintage to take it off its fine sediment and allowed it to develop for a couple of hours but pretty soon I had to cover the decanters as the aroma started to fill the dovecote. Rich, plump, elegant, full of sweetly spiced fruit with a streak of balancing acidity this was superb with poached loin of Dales lamb.
Chateau Rieussec 1996 Sauternes
Adjacent to d’Yquem and blessed with the same sandy gravel soil and local morning mists which allow ‘noble rot’ to develop, this property produces some of the finest sweet wines in the world. This 1996 vintage was part-fermented in barrel, which adds complexity to the spiced, ripe apricot notes, the fresh, honeyed fruit and the long balanced finish. Heavenly with vanilla cheesecake with strawberries.
This wine is a legend and I was thrilled to open the three wax-sealed bottles and decant it off its crunchy sediment. After three hours it was poured alongside Waterloo cheese and walnut bread and it was heavenly. Resounding with sweet, dark, fleshy damson fruit, it was fabulously integrated and elegant, with soft spice notes carrying the flavour through to a long, generous finish.
This was my kind of fantasy dinner party. Great wines, excellent food and everyone I met was sincerely interested in the wines as well as enjoying the whole experience. My thanks go to head chef Nick Evans, restaurant manager Andrew Ricketts, general manager Lionel Chatard and the whole Middlethorpe team.