Happy 40th birthday, Hambleton Hall! We propose a toast!
But which of the 10,000 bottles in its wine cellar should you choose?
A 40th birthday demands a celebration, but the pandemic has scuppered party plans for many of us this year, including Hambleton Hall near Oakham. Special events might be on ice but guests can still enjoy the Michelin-starred restaurant, the boutique rooms and the magnificent surroundings overlooking Rutland Water.
The current situation has challenged many restaurants and hotels – Hambleton Hall has risen to the challenge and prospered. The kitchens produced takeaway meals during lockdown, but is now open for business, with the expected changes to allow social distancing. When we visited in July, the restaurant was fully booked for every service for the next three months and there were no signs of that slowing. But why would it? After 40 years in the business, they are experts in hospitality.
The Michelin star is the longest retained single star in the UK because the food and wine are exceptional. The rooms are highly sought after because the location on the Hambleton peninsula, surrounded by Rutland Water, is stunning. But the hotel offers more than a meal fit for a gourmand and a room fit for royalty. It is run by a team of highly professional, approachable and passionate experts who love what they do, and that is what adds the magic. The core team have 125 years of service to Hambleton between them, including restaurant director Graeme (36 years), chef Aaron (28 years), sommelier Dominique Baduel (21 years), general manager Chris Hurst (17 years), marketing manager Carolyn Turner (17 years) and housekeeper Ewa Biolonos (six years), so they know what they are doing!
Much has been written about the food and the setting of Hambleton Hall, but on our visit we were particularly interested in the wine.
Compiling a restaurant wine list requires a number of skills. Your wine knowledge and palate must be exceptional, that much is obvious. But you must also be a fortune teller – knowing what is going to be in demand in future years, so you can buy young wines and mature them in the cellar to ensure availability. Your organisation skills must be exemplary, to manage the stock levels, rotations and maturation dates. You need a capacious memory, not only for the contents of the cellar and the whereabouts of the individual wines but also for each wine on the list (and each vintage of each wine) which needs to be described and matched with an array of ever-changing dishes. And you must be a mind reader and detective, able to translate the unspoken word into a wine choice that perfectly matches the customers’ taste and budget.
At Hambleton Hall, sommelier Dominique Baduel and owner Tim Hart manage everything vinous, sharing the wine buying between them but with Dominique leading the way in the restaurant. He has an exceptional knowledge of, and passion for, wine – which guests are advised to tap into if they want to get the most out of the extensive wine list.
There are recognised wine names on the list, but Tim and Dominique seek out smaller, less well-known producers, so many will be unfamiliar. That can make it tempting to stick to what you know – but you will be missing out. Our advice is to ask Dominique for recommendations, whatever your own level of knowledge, because no-one knows the wines like him.
We diners can be reticent about asking for the sommelier’s help, fearful that we will be pushed to spend more than we want, or sneered at if we choose one of the lower-cost wines. While sommeliers in the grand restaurants in France are often on commission and so will steer diners to more expensive wines, Dominique is not. His only interest is to provide the most appropriate wine for each diner and for them to love what they drink.
He is happy to find wines at a specific price point – and he assured us that specifying your budget is both acceptable and helpful. But if you don’t want to share that information in front of your guests, he can work out what is suitable for you. Or you can use the coded language they share on the website – “we usually drink Beaujolais” or “I was thinking of something along these lines” while pointing firmly to the right-hand column!
Although the cellar is carefully curated and managed with a long-term view now, that wasn’t how it began. Tim Hart inherited his father’s wine cellar and the contents became the inaugural Hambleton Hall wine list on the opening day in 1980. It makes fascinating reading. Unsurprisingly Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone dominated the list. Everything was sold by the bottle, and the list started with House red, House white burgundy and “Our other House White from St. Pourcain” – all at around £6 a bottle. If you were celebrating a 40th birthday on the opening night in July 1980, you might have splashed out on a 1975 Bollinger for £21, followed by 1949 Lafite Rothschild at £100 and rounded the meal off with a bottle (!) of 1945 Constantino or 1963 Fonseca. These wines are now long gone, but the list has developed and grown over the years and today there are over 300 wines listed and 10,000 bottles in the cellars, from 1st Growth Bordeaux to English White.
Dominique leads the list with ‘Wines of the Moment’, a selection of wines which are currently drinking well and worthy of diners’ attention. The use of a Coravin (which extracts a glass of wine and replaces it with argon gas to prevent any change to the maturation process) allows Dominique to offer a number of wines by the glass, giving diners the opportunity to try exceptional wines without being tied to a whole bottle.
The list is categorised by price, so is easy to navigate within your budget, but the sheer number and diversity of wines means Dominique’s expert opinion is highly recommended for most people.
On our visit he served a 2012 Rheingau Riesling from August Kesseler – not a wine we would have naturally chosen, but a perfect accompaniment to the dishes we ate.
Hambleton Hall is a very special place, used to hosting celebrations on behalf of its guests. This year it reached its own 40th birthday and deserves a party of its own. While it may not be possible at the moment, we have no doubt that it will see many more birthdays. Until then, we raise our glass to Hambleton Hall… and could Dominique please recommend something appropriate to fill it?