Wine List Confidential: The Botanical Rooms at The Newt
“The Newt is exceptional,” wrote Fiona Duncan in The Telegraph, accurately. The 1,000-acre estate, negotiable by green, governed golf buggies, or better given the detail of your surroundings, on foot if you make the time, is a celebration of things that grow, for beauty and for consumption. Attractions include an arrestingly complete recreation of a large Roman villa echoing the footprint of the original, accessibly displayed ruins running adjacent, as well as a Roman-oriented winery and elevated vineyard, a particularly moving temple to the bee called the “Beezantium” which will pop up in smaller form at RHS Chelsea Flower Show, the interactive Story of Gardening found off a seemingly floating walkway, a very high-tech cyder plant housed in a traditional barn, multiple eateries celebrating local and often homegrown produce, and characterful accommodation in a farmyard, gatehouse and historic mansion whose gardens were rooted a year before sister estate Babylonstoren was created. That is in addition to today’s formal garden “rooms”, kitchen gardens and iconic “parabola” of apple and crab apple trees laid out by Franco-Italian, Patrice Taravella, as well as a druid tree, deer park and original of layout avenue, and – coming soon – a four seasons garden. There is also a seashell grotto presided over by a fire-breathing dragon which, alas, appeared to have caught a cold during our visit…
The notably high-quality mega-project is brought to you by South African power couple, Koos Bekker and Karen Roos whose Babylonstoren, which was founded as a wine and wheat farm in 1692 in a then-fledgling Franschhoek, is even more substantial than the Somerset sequel. They acquired the land in Bruton in 2013, a year after the nearby Hauser & Wirth art gallery was established, opening it as a garden resort six years on. A former editor of Elle Decoration, Roos has created welcoming interiors, including that of the River Café-esque Garden Café ideal for very affordable cyder flights, the cosy Farmyard brasserie, and the smartest restaurant, The Botanical Rooms, set in the original Grade II mansion, Hapsden House, its bar overlooking the croquet lawn. Open fires, open kitchens, and seamless connections made with local stone run throughout.
The Botanical Rooms comprises the cosy oak room in the original house, lending itself to winter and more intimate dining, and features a dramatic emerald green marble service station, while the glass-roofed terrace feels more summery – and could be good for stargazers.
Wines and spirits have been overseen by the waxy Semillon- adoring, loather of shrill Sauvignon Blanc, Dorset-born, Louise Gordon. First working as a “Tesco checkout girl”, Gordon discovered her love for wine at a Calais cash-and-carry where she vended 69 pence bottles of dry, medium or sweet “La Mancha” to couples on a mission to fuel their wedding celebrations as cheaply and amply as possible. She subsequently rose to the highs of Clos Maggiore, The Westbury and The Rib Room at Jumeirah Tower in London, then Lime Wood in the New Forest and recently, Heckfield Place in Hampshire. The seemingly simple, “tweezer and foam-free” cooking as Gordon puts it at both the latter properties is clearly evident at The Newt, too, where ingredients, not ego are celebrated. Gordon’s protégé and successor is the inquisitive Stella Silvente, who takes a key role in hosting cellar tastings for guests at the substantial table formed from one long length of a storm-felled tree. Silvente is assisted by James Dillon, the beverage team leader who spans both spirits and wine.
Given the common ownership, emphasis is placed on the wines of Babylonstoren from Sprankel Cap Classique to back vintages of Bordeaux style blend, Nebukadnesar as well as occasional parcels of very limited release Pinot Noir. There are also the organic wines of Tuscany’s Vignamaggio, the alleged birthplace of the Mona Lisa herself, honoured in one of the wines. As with the Parabola at The Newt, the property has benefited from the eye of designer, Patrice Taravella. Gordon has, in her tenure, built up the Champagne selection which ranges from cheap and cheerful Gratiot-Pillière NV to Billecart-Salmon’s Cuvée Elisabeth Salmon Rosé – and work is afoot to bring in more English sparkling wines, perhaps with a Somerset link in terms of ownership, and with an eye on a potential guest experience with the local Wraxall vineyard. It is worth noting that The Newt’s own premium, traditional method sparkling cyder, The Winston, bottled in an imperial pint bottle in honour of a certain Prime Minister, also makes a very good starting pistol drink.
Under Gordon’s care, the wine list at The Botanical Rooms, previously laid out under wearisome descriptors such as “Full & Smooth” and “Medium & Marvellous” dramatically improved over the past year, with world reaching bins more than doubling, with strong work at the top end, for example, the vintages of Cos d’Estournel 1982, Latour 2005, Domaine de Trévallon 2007, Domaine de la Grange des Pères 2019, Luciano Sandrone Cannubi Boschis 2008, Ovid Hexameter 2017, Leeuwin Art Series Chardonnay 2010 and Château Grillet 2018 are all new additions.
Meanwhile, spirits in the bar incline towards sustainability, including seasonally accented cocktails such as the very effective asparagus oil heightened Black Cow vodka martini.
In collaboration with The Newt’s certified organic and biodynamic grower and head of productive growing and market gardens, David Rowley, Alan Stewart, head of food, coordinates all produce sold under The Newt’s label from the farm shop, while having the final say on dishes which draw on estate beef, lamb, venison, baked goods and fruits and vegetables, including the supply of pickles from the house cellars. He also establishes working relationships with local suppliers, ranging from Poole landed fish to all-English cheeses.
A particular highlight at dinner at The Botanical Rooms was favourite of Brett Graham of The Ledbury, hen of the woods mushrooms, here grown on-site in coffee sacks at the humidified mushroom house, then smoked over cherry wood, interspersed with candied walnuts, walnut vinaigrette, topped with grated cured egg yolk, served with Weinbach Gewürztraminer. For an indulgent finale, try the deep-fried “apple pie” enhanced with spices, made into a nest of flaked pastry, with an apple cyder caramel sauce and buffalo milk gelato, accompanied by preferably the 2020 incarnation of The Newt’s Ice Cyder.
We overheard a pair of fellow guests who had arrived late the previous evening express concern that there might not be enough for them to do over a two-night stay at The Newt. They need fear not, this being a location which rewards discovery, and, given the pace at which planting and new experiences are added, should they return in a year, there will be even more wonders to behold, and also the first resin, fragrant leaves and spice-laden cuvées of the homegrown Romanesque wine by Roman winemaker, Dominic Gover, to provide them ‘a step back in wine’…
-Cyder made on-site and the wines of sister property, Babylonstoren
-Roman winery, vineyard and villa
-Unpretentious dishes showcasing ingredients from the estate and local producers
Value: 94, Size: 90, Range: 94, Originality: 95, Experience: 95, Total: 93.6