For our Bentley Flying Spur luxury tour of English vineyards we were staying at the 5 star Lainston House Hotel in Winchester. Part of the Exclusive Group of hotels, which includes Penny Hill Park and South Lodge amongst others.
The drive up to Lainston House is quintessentially British, starting with the cast iron gate entrance. Once past that the lane curves sinuously to the right and then back to the left on a gentle incline that slopes directly up the the main house and dependents. The Bentley Flying Spur V8S purred past the ornate pots, hahas and lime trees as the orange light began to fall on this glorious and well tended garden. We circled the outbuildings and arrived at the final ornate gates to the main house. These were set in a surrounding flint wall, over a tiny bridge, leading to a large turning area and the cloisters that announce the main house. We were greeted by the hotel staff who directed us the park the sizeable Bentley to the side, by the entrance to our suite, and our luggage was whisked to our room whilst we completed the registration formalities. The atmosphere of the hotel is relaxed and informal with a very friendly welcome so we were looking forward to a relaxing evening. Not that we hadn’t been pampered all day by the massage seats in the Bentley, but hey.
Lainston House is an imposing red brick building, built by the celebrated Christopher Wren for Charles II in 1683. It has a long and varied history including playing host to the marriage of Elizabeth Chudleigh, niece of John Merril MP, and Augustus Hervey, a naval officer who later became 3rd Earl of Bristol. The marriage took place in secret as Elizabeth was a Maid of Honour to the Princess of Wales so she was not allowed to get hitched. The marriage did not last and Elizabeth subsequently went on to marry the 2nd Duke of Kingston-upon-Hull, inheriting his vast wealth on his death. She was subsequently sued by the Duke’s niece for bigamy as she never divorced. She was found guilty, running off to live in Russia and Paris with a sizeable chunk of the money. This was quite a scandal in the day and the Georgian press devoted many pages to her social life. She apparently once appeared at a masquerade wearing closely fitted flesh coloured silk, giving all the impression of being in her birthday suit. She was quite clearly a very modern celebrity! So like many of the finest hotels in England, Lainston has a whiff of scandal to accompany its immaculate grounds and gardens.
We were staying in the Chapel Suite located on the ground floor in the South Loggia overlooking the ruin of the 12th Century chapel. The suite was decorated in a modernised old English style, with a comfortable sitting room, plush sofa, broad fireplace, desk and large doors providing access to an outside seating area and gardens. The bedroom was well thought out with full length mirrors that a lady could actually use before stepping out, a large screen tv that rises out of the bed itself, and a lovely bathroom with twin sinks and large jacuzzi bath, complete with coloured lights and its own TV. Also the room key has your suite clearly marked on it, which after a long journey or flight is very handy indeed, specially if you are as forgetful as I am.
We changed for dinner and made our way to the Cedar bar for a bottle of bubbly, much welcomed as I had been driving on the tour, so it had been all tasting and no drinking for me up to that point. The hotel Champagne is Tattinger, a perfect house choice, which made an ideal counterpoint to the day. Allowing us to compare the centuries of French expertise with our pleasurable experience of relatively young English wines. After a few glasses we were politely informed that our dining table was ready.
The Avenue Restaurant has been awarded 3 AA rosettes, and the dishes carefully combine the finest local ingredients with produce from their very own kitchen garden. These home grown ingredients are fresh, succulent and well prepared. The head chef is Olly Rouse and we had ordered the tasting menu in advance as this is always the very best way to be introduced to a master chef for the first time. We had also ordered the wine paring to accompany the meal and I was very much looking forward to seeing how each course was balanced with each wine for taste, body, aroma, spices and contrast.
Alberto the sommelier at The Avenue is excellent, he has a world spanning grasp of different wines of various countries, regions, body and fruit. Your sommelier is the key to a good experience, his knowledge of the food and the wines to pair each course with is invaluable. As the expert guide or presenter for the evening it is vital that he is charming, scholarly and possesses the ability to accurately divine the best wines to suit your tastes and experience. Alberto combined all these essentials, so we were in good hands. The restaurant itself is oak panelled in the old English style with tall windows looking out on the lime trees, with a quiet hum of conversation and soft music - enough to fill silence but not enough to overpower or interrupt. A very relaxing atmosphere in which to properly enjoy the food.
The first course in the tasting menu arrived with a little fanfare and poetic description from the waitress. This was the roasted cauliflower risotto with pickled walnut and parmesan crisp paired with a glass of Paul Jaboulet Aine Crozes Hermitage Blanc Domaine Mule Blanche 2014. The risotto is a ideal start, light and tasty, with plenty of flavours that all blend perfectly and the wine is excellent, fresh, woody, floral with hawthorne and acacia notes and a clean long lasting finish.
Next came the scallops, with leek, artichoke and basil, and chestnut mushrooms. Possibly the finest scallops I have ever had. They were incredibly soft, with a rich intense flavour, and you could mix a little with the side artichoke and mushrooms to create a new flavour each time, absolutely spot on. This was paired with a Pouilly-Fumé Villa Paulus Masson-Blondelet 2014 that was just right, smoky and dry with lovely strong mineral flavours.
The chicken wing with grelot onion, bacon, white balsamic and chestnut mushrooms was a great follow up, keeping the theme of numerous rich flavours, that could be taken individually or mixed on the fork to create your own explosive taste combinations. This dish is a little forest delight and came with a Sommerberg Reisling Grand Cru Alsace 2013, full of elegant floral notes, fresh, fruity and dry.
We moved on slowly to the goats curd and beetroot, with apple, chervil and red vein sorrel. Looking much like a modern art minimalist installation, it was a zesty cacophony of flavours, all vying for attention, but working well together. Alongside it was an excellent glass of Bacchus 2015 from Chapel Down, fruity with a hint of pineapple, adding further to our list of English wines tasted on this tour.
From the countryside we moved back to the ocean, with sea bass, infused with red pepper, tomato and black olive. This came with a Chablis 1er Cru Vrignaud, Fourchaume 2014. By now my taste buds were running at less than full efficiency, but the sea bass was soft, moist, light and refreshing and cleansed the palate well for the next course, helped by the Chablis, with its delicious aroma of almonds and apricots.
The Presa Iberia, or pork with thyme potato puree, broccoli and pickled apple was tasty, succulent and cooked to perfection, so tender it did indeed melt in the mouth, crowning this tasting menu, the pickled apple lending a welcome hint of spice. The Rioja Gran Reserva Ramon Bilbao 2008 complimented this, adding a further note of spice and cinnamon.
Two desserts, pear with caramel ice cream and liquorice, then raspberry’s, with marshmallow, vanilla, rose and lychee. Both refreshing and invigorating, with the caramel and cream balancing the sharper fruit tastes, whilst sipping the sweet Elysium Black Muscat 2014 Quady, full of fantastic rich velvety fruit and made from the rare Black Muscat Grape.
This is a brilliant tasting menu, the portions are small enough that you can enjoy each course without fearing the next, the quality of the fresh produce is superb, the preparation and thought that have gone into each dish is masterful and you really will experience a rich and varied range of flavours. The wine pairing is so good it may impair your faculties as the evening develops, but sip, relax, take your time and you will enjoy an exceptional culinary experience at The Avenue.
In the morning we walked around the hotel grounds exploring the walled kitchen garden with its abundance of large organically grown herbs and vegetables and admired the fascinating aviary. The owls there were quite the cutest, fluffy birds we had ever seen and you can also book a falconry experience! The mile of lime trees, built as a gentleman’s vista, reminiscent of a fantasy yellow brick road, wandering off into the distance, down a gentle sloping hill, is quite a sight. They also have the Season cookery school, where you can learn cooking from the best in an attractive professional kitchen.
The Lainston is the perfect place to stay if you are on a wine tour of England or indeed any tour, just fancy shopping in Winchester or a quick weekend break. It combines the decor you would expect from an old country house, with beautiful gardens, some great activities and a world class restaurant in The Avenue under the aegis of talented chef Olly Rouse.