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Wine List Confidential: The Clunie Dining Room at The Fife Arms

Tatler appraised The Fife Arms, Braemar as “a magnet for the cerebral set, thanks to Iwan Wirth and Manuela Hauser (owners of the Hauser & Wirth galleries), whose sense of high-voltage elegance still makes this Scotland’s most-talked-about design destination.” The enchanting, genuinely unique, caringly rejuvenated property, being a “fully immersive experience of heritage and art” according to group sommelier, Robert Lorrigan, is run under the mantel of Artfarm, the sister company of the Swiss contemporary and modern art gallery, which has blossomed under the care and guidance of global Chief Executive Officer for Hauser & Wirth and fanatical gastronome, especially when it comes to husbandry and sourcing, Ewan Venters.

Other outlets within the collection comprise the newly opened, brilliantly run Fish Shop in nearby Ballater with double height ceiling and oysters harvested from the frightening sounding Cape Wrath in Scotland’s far northwest, the Durslade Farmhouse and Roth Bar & Grill in Somerset, a county also home to the vineyard for the newly-released Maid of Bruton sparkling rosé, Mayfair’s historic five-storey The Audley pub and Mount St. dining rooms, which is soon to be joined by a delicatessen in the vicinity – delighting customers who lamented the loss of butcher, Allens of Mayfair in 2015, Groucho Club in Soho, kitchens of which are presided over by another art savvy individual, Mark Hix, and further afield, Manuela restaurant in Los Angeles.


Given the nature of the ownership, guests, ranging from hikers to globally renowned artists, filmmakers and film stars, and royalty, are immediately immersed in an art collection running to 16,000 pieces, of which several works honour Scotland. The catalogue includes, in addition to an array of impressive taxidermy, Picasso’s “Femme assise dans un fauteuil (Woman seated in an armchair)” in the library beneath a bespoke malachite-like ceiling, Work No. 1094 featuring an Irish wolfhound and chihuahua by Turner Prize winner, Martin Creed, and, at nearly three metres across, the decadent Circle Of Pieter Brueghel The Younger in The Clunie Dining Room which allows diners to behold Brueghel with their breakfast, illuminated by Murano chandeliers. This space is itself wrapped by “cubistoid” Argentinian artist, Guillermo Kuitca whose subtly inflected mural depicts the River Clunie flowing outside. Arguably the hotel’s most coveted piece is “A Stag Shot by John Brown” painted by Queen Victoria, the property being just nine miles from Balmoral, taking pride of place in reception near a self-playing, deliberately distressed but tuneful Steinway and the impressive collection of watercolours donated by their artist, and regular, King Charles III.


Stemming from the 1969 vintage, “from which Biondi-Santi has a wonderful reputation,” former filmmaker, Robert Lorrigan previously ran the wine programme at Hawksmoor, where he rose to group trainer. He recalls finding an immediate sense of “belonging” upon discovering Aberdeenshire’s “raw beauty” of nature. “We could learn a lot from creative, fluid and evolving Mother Nature,” notes Lorrigan, who himself dreams of locating a sympathetic microclimate in Aberdeenshire in which to plant a vineyard. On the subject of nature, guests are encouraged to explore the wild beauty of the locality, from patches of citrusy sorrel to the sight of fascinating mating mayflies and rising golden eagles with guide, Annie Armstrong, who also hosts wild swims, or a literary tour of the village with her auntie, Shona.

At The Clunie Dining Room, which focuses on the wood fire, the Australian-born Lorrigan has created a wine list which, he says, “takes guests on an adventure.” This should be “as eclectic as possible,” he says, hence the inclusion of the natural litre of Chilean Cinsault/Pais, A Los Vinateros Bravos Pipeno Tinto and magnum of Hungarian Blaufränkisch (Nador) alongside magnificent bottles from Harlan and big guns from Bordeaux, Burgundy, the Rhône and Tuscany.

Over the past year, “cellar verticals” have helped bring the list to circa 450 bins under the tenure of head sommelier, Giorgio Varotto, including flights of Cos d’Estournel to 1982, Domaine de Trevallon to 1994, Barolo Cannubi-Boschis Sandrone to 1996, Biondi-Santi to 1983, and Unico by Vega Sicilia to 1972.

Unsurprisingly, given the Swiss ownership, wines from this country are very much present, including the Bordeaux blend “Grain Noir” from M. T. Chappaz and low intervention sweet Mitis “Amigne”, Mitis de Vertroz. Other sweet wines include Meta Blank Canvas from Marlborough and Château d’Yquem.


Armed with a Coravin, former nanny and avid forager turned sommelier, Laura Martin, was charged with matching wines with dishes by head chef, Adam Maddock on our visit. To start, Bernard Gripa’s oak enriched 2020 St. Péray from four-decade-old Marsanne-Roussanne vines grown in limestone and granite proved complimentary with Orkney scallop in beurre blanc with sea beet and caviar, although one scallop left this reviewer yearning for at least one more. This proved a happier dish and pairing than the edgy 2021 Alpine Jacquere by Domaine Giachino matched with also far from cossetting cold leek and salsify with hazelnut pesto and inactive summer truffle. Things got back on track, however, with the joyous mains. Near cherry red loin of venison from nearby Invercauld Estate beside the River Dee, with roasted onion and broccoli with bite, dovetailed with Timo Mayer’s generous, unapologetically fruit-forward, whole bunch fermented Yarra Valley Cabernet 2021, though the best pairing of the night was the bravest, seeing foot trodden, complex, nutty, slightly hazy, slightly saline 2018 organic Albillo from century old, sometimes pre-phylloxera vines from Castilla y Léon’s Dominio del Águila accompany line caught pollock with mussels, asparagus, curry and lime. “We need to learn to love such wines,” said Martin, rightly of the courageous pairing.

Last Word

Iwan and Manuela Wirth are very present custodians of The Fife Arms, having created a welcoming environment which, under another operator, could appear fearfully hushed and traumatically pretentious. The effect, instead, is akin to Margate’s Walpole Bay Hotel writ larger, with artistic and taxidermy gifts from guests incorporated into the scheme, and art and educational displays occurring wherever space permits. The power couples’ contribution to the local community, including resurrecting a much-loved locals’ pub nearby, as well as supporting infrastructure and events, meanwhile, is gently expressed. Be aware that service from the cohesive, seemingly stress-free team can feel gradual, being something which fraught Londoners cannot fight and must instead accept and adjust to. However, life can be more tranquil at The Fife Arms, where the numerous details in the scheme and the area are magnified when you too learn to take your time…

Best For:

  • Dom Pérignon and Grand-Puy-Lacoste by Coravin
  • The cellar room which includes a lacquered box from Hundred Hills
  • A pre-dinner “Sheepshaggers” golden ale at The Flying Stag pub on-site
  • Or a clarified pear “Ignition” cocktail at the art deco bar, Elsa’s
  • Post-dinner tasting of some 380 world whiskies at Bertie’s Whisky Bar, named in honour of Queen Victoria’s eldest son, perhaps including Strathisla 1957


Value: 90, Size: 93, Range: 93, Originality: 93, Experience: 93, Total: 92.4


The Fife Arms – Mar Rd, Braemar, Ballater, Scotland – AB35 5YN; 01339 720200;;


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