That last bottle of Sassicaia 1985

What does the word Dartmoor mean to you? If you’re British but don’t know Devon, it may conjure up visions of swirling mists and escapees from its famously isolated prison. If you are rather more familiar with the reality of this beautiful stretch of moorland then it might remind you of vigorous hikes, tors, rocks, gorse, that sort of thing. If you are me however, Dartmoor means (yet more) gorging on top quality food and wine, in circumstances of extreme and almost – almost, I say – embarrassing comfort.

I have been visiting Gidleigh Park Hotel and Restaurant near Chagford since the late 1970s, soon after it was refurbished by Paul Henderson, an American who had worked for McKinsey, and his wife Kay who was initially the cook and won Gidleigh’s first Michelin star in 1981. They had opened only in 1978, his address book presumably compensating somewhat for the two miles of twisting single-track lane to be navigated before incredulous guests reach the mock-Tudor pile. It is not the most beautiful building in the world, but it is in the most beautiful setting, the Teign Valley on the wooded flanks of Dartmoor, so that you can look up from the groaning dining table, or from the log fire beside which you are catching up on all the latest gourmet mags, and enjoy at least the proximity of stunning countryside.  

Since 1994 our family has been trekking down to Gidleigh for a series of wine weekends, and this is one trip the children never object to. Our youngest was only two then, providing the perfect excuse for our not venturing on to the moor to walk off one meal or tasting before the next. It has become a little more difficult each year to excuse our extreme sloth. The 14 year-old we took to Gidleigh last month lacked the genetic make-up to insist on lots of fresh air, but we certainly should have done. 

Instead of which we, as usual, lingered over the table. These Gidleigh wine weekends are determinedly sybaritic rather than ruthlessly educational. Eight couples, paying over £2,000 each, plus the Hendersons and the guest speaker and spouse, enjoy Friday and Saturday night dinners with some of the finest bottles Paul H can find in the Gidleigh cellar, plus a lunch and superlative tasting on the Saturday. Over the years the speakers have included Harry Waugh, Michael Broadbent, Hugh Johnson, Steven Spurrier, Clive Coates, Serena Sutcliffe and David Peppercorn (two guest speakers for the price of one of Gidleigh’s well-upholstered bedrooms) and gastronomically emphatic wine merchant Bill Baker of Reid Wines (who in 1991 deprived Gidleigh of a manager by marrying her).

The themes of my tastings, usually proposed by Paul rather than me, have included a quite delicious vertical of Trimbach’s ethereal Riesling Clos Ste Hune, a look at such stratospherically-priced California Cabernets as Harlan Estate, Araujo and Abreu with Ridge Monte Bello, and a comparison of Châteaux Lafite and Latour from 1978 to 1994.

Last month’s weekend was, like my 1998 wine weekend, centred on some of Italy’s most famous wines with some of California’s finest on the Friday night. Yet again Ridge Monte Bello (1990 and 1991) put up a fine performance alongside the much more expensive Harlan Estate (1994 and 1995). And on Saturday night Gaja’s single vineyard 1988 Barbarescos showed why their maker thinks they are worth nearly £200 a bottle – although Mascarello’s 1971 Barolo was quite extraordinarily lively.

But the most fascinating were the 17 Supertuscans tasted before lunch on Saturday. The great majority of them were the big names, Cabernet-based wines with various links to the Antinori family – Sassicaia, Tignanello, Solaia and Ornellaia – supplemented by some of Italy’s finest all-Sangiovese wines including the classic Pergole Torte, in top vintages from 1985 to 1997.

Few of these wines sell for less than £60 a bottle, many for more than £100, and Sassicaia 1985, a wine I will forever remember being stupid enough not to order from the list at Leiths restaurant for £75, now costs about £750 a bottle if you can find it. We tasted the last bottle in Gidleigh’s cellar (the 1998 tasting having consumed two of them, one corked) and very, very fine it is too – still very dark and full of energy yet seductively velvety. It had a finesse that was lacking from the Solaia 1985 and was much more complex than the Tignanello 1985, but all three were great wines.

Sassicaia 1990 and 1997 were also outstanding, while of the vintages we tasted from Ornellaia, the estate established practically next door to the Sassicaia vineyards on the Tuscan coast by Lodovico Antinori (and for the moment incongruously shared between Antinori’s arch-rivals Frescobaldi and the giant American Constellation group), 1997 and 1995 outclassed the perfectly respectable 1990.

One of the most perfect wines of all however, in a line-up that was pure pleasure, was the 1990 vintage of Le Pergole Torte, one of the great wines in Tuscan history. At a time when when Gidleigh was still a run-down boarding house, and all Chianti had by law to be a blend, the late Sergio Manetti developed this wine to campaign for wines made in the Chianti Classico zone from nothing but Tuscany’s most characteristic grape – nothing to do with Bordeaux – Sangiovese. He argued that it too could be aged in small French oak barrels and develop as slowly and magnificently as a first growth bordeaux. On the basis of this wine, he was right. Unlike some of the other wines we tasted, Le Pergole Torte could only have been made in the Tuscan hills, and many a top Chianti Classico producer has since recognised that all-Sangiovese wines offer the purest expression of Tuscan terroir.

So what sort of people put themselves through this sort of weekend trial by indulgence? In my experience of Gidleigh, guests at wine weekends are obviously well-heeled, but (should that be the conjunction?) extremely affable, and the very few wine nerds I have encountered there hide their obsession skilfully.

Although such events are projected for future years, this last wine weekend felt valedictory. Just a few days beforehand the Hendersons, after 27 years of maintaining this nest of luxury up a country lane, had signed the papers on the sale of Gidleigh Park to Andrew and Christine Brownsword who own the Bath Priory hotel and much else in and around Bath. The Hendersons are still directors of Gidleigh Park and plan to continue to live in the house they built in its grounds, but are finally having their own telephone line installed. Truly the end of an era.

For full tasting notes see Classic Supertuscans in great vintages on purple pages.