When the invitation arrived to spend a weekend and attend a wine tasting at the Luton Hoo Hotel in Bedfordshire, I was thrilled. Even more so because I was going to meet the winemaker Milena Pepe, CEO of Tenuta Cavalier Pepe, who flew in for the evening from her Italian estate in Sant’ Angelo all’Esca, near Napoli, to present the beautiful wines she produces to a wonderful crowd of wine connoisseurs, entrepreneurs, and fine wine investment professionals.
It is not often that one gets a chance to meet the new and talented generation of wine makers from Italy. I would not miss this opportunity, so moved appointments and made sure to arrive before the tasting to tour the property and its lake, and enjoy my fabulous suite with sweeping views.
What really fascinated me too was that Milena has a truly international background and outlook, being of Belgian and Italian ancestry. She studied marketing and business in Holland, and oenology in France.
Her family was already in the wine business for decades, growing the most desirable grapes for the top wine makers in the region. Milena saw that there was a huge opportunity to own the vertical and created a range of fifteen wines that are currently distributed in the Asian markets, in Germany, the UK (luck for us), and the US.
We started with Irpinia Coda di Volpi DOC, Bianco di Bellona 2014, a fresh zingy white that was versatile both as an apéritif with canapés or sumptuous macadamia nuts. It is made with 100% Coda di Volpe, and its aromas of pineapple and apricot make it the perfect apéritif wine, with its full round structure that lingers in ones’ palate.
Mrs. Pepe, who walked us through the stories and history of the region and her wines with unparalleled warmth, wit, and charm, told us that the name Bellona is a reference to a beautiful goddess of war who was known for being ruthless in battle and sweet and yielding at rest. Sounds right. After a bite of the delicious canapes served with the Bianco di Bellona 2014 one takes a sip and an explosion of flavours follows. Wait a bit, take another sip, and let your tongue dream. This is your wine of choice for a wedding reception’s aperitif.
For the starter we had Greco di Tufo DOCG, Nestor 2014, and it was the perfect pair to Mr. Hughes soft crab tortellini, that was presented surrounded by a light celeriac purée, adorned by thin strips of crispy pork belly, and delicately dotted with an apple dressing. It was as if one were taking a bite of a white fluffy cloud, in its soft textures contrasting with the crispness of the pork belly, as if tasting the sea and the earth, which enhanced the forward fruit of the Greco di Tufo.
For the main course we had Fillet de Buccleuch, Scottish grass fed beef. Buccleuch cattle development is carefully monitored. It is then aged for 21 days to bring its flavours out. The first thing I noticed was the vibrant colour of the flesh. The fillet was accompanied by a parsley and artichoke risotto where a garlic glazed beef cheek sat on elegantly. It made everyone happy, as we could hear the cadence of ahs, and ohs, spread throughout the room.
Then the Taurasi Riserva DOCG, La Loggia del Cavaliere 2008, made its entrance and the whispers of delight continued. It was just one of those perfect evenings when the conversation flows, the crowd is worldly, well-travelled, and the sensorial experience is enhanced by the good company and the lavish surroundings of a building steeped in Great Britain’s history.
The Taurasi Riserva DOCG 2008 is a perfectly balanced wine with a deep ruby red colour with a hint of sienna, strong bodied, with smooth tannins, opulent as our surroundings were that evening. Black berries, black cherries eau de vie aromas, an intense and persistent palate that marries perfectly well with complex sauces, red meats, and mature cheeses. This is my wine of choice for the drippy red meat roasts that Fall and Winter command.
To close the evening a deliciously dangerous dessert wine, Cerri Merry, paired with a warm chocolate brownie, chocolates in various stages of perfection, a cherry compote that sided nicely with a creamy apple sorbet, and made the evening and our taste buds much sweeter.
Cerri Merry, as its name indicates, is pure cherry bliss. I can easily picture it dripping slowly, slightly warm, over a Madagascar Vanilla and Devonshire cream ice cream. It is the kind of wine that is mandatory to have a few bottles in the cupboard, for impromptu visitors with a sweet tooth, and if you had no time to think about dessert as it will also complement a lemon sorbet with dexterity.
The conversation turned then to the marvellous and mysterious history of Luton Hoo Mansion and its magnificent estate. The word Hoo is a Saxon word that means the spur of a hill, as the Mansion, the main property in the estate sits on its highest elevation. Romans occupied the land once, as coins and artefacts were found in the property.
Above and below: views from my windows at Lady Zia Suite
In 1445, when the last family using the name “de Hoo” was recorded, one of the daughters of the Manor’s owner married a Sir Geoffrey Bullen (Boleine or Boleyn) whose son Thomas married the daughter of the Duke of Norfolk, who gave birth to Anne Boleyn, who married Henry VIII, who become mother to Elisabeth I. There are accounts that Mary Queen of the Scots also visited Luton Hoo where she saw the flourishing straw hat cottage industry in the region, and introduced the craft to Scotland upon her return.
I felt like royalty for a day staying at Lady Zia’s suite. The spaciousness, the lovely welcome with a Cremant de Bourgogne, white chocolate covered strawberries, and my favourite toiletries’ brand Molton Brown. These are just some of the reasons why one should book a long stay, a romantic weekend, and a wedding at the Luton Hoo Hotel.
Fast forward to 1903 when Sir Julius Wernher, a very successful diamond merchant that became a keen art collector and philanthropist, bought Luton Hoo to please his wife, London socialite Alice Sedgwick Mankiewicz ,who enjoyed entertaining in grand scale, as Luton Hoo Mansion with its high-ceilings, and 300 rooms deserves. He also bequeathed £250,000 to establish a university in Cape Town, and £100,000 to establish the Imperial College of Science and Technology in London, nearly £30 million in today’s adjusted currency values. It is reported that at the time of his death in London he was one of the richest men in the United Kingdom.
One can see absolutely why Alice Wernher used the mansion for entertaining. As I stepped into my suite, the very same that was once their bedrooms, I felt a ripple, a frisson, through my back – as if I had stepped through a looking glass and had returned to a moment in time in the 19th century. I could only think that the dwellers of this once-upon-a time grand family house would not want anything more than to entertain in a large scale. The sweeping views from the five windows, the canopy bed, the largesse of it all. Yes, it calls for smart cocktail parties, Sunday roasts and garden parties, large family reunions, opulent weddings.
Indeed Luton Hoo has appeared in more films than any other manor in UK’s history. From Bond’s movies, to Stanley Kubrick’s last film, Eyes Wide Shut, to the delicious comedy with Britain’s enfant gate Hugh Grant, Four Weddings and a Funeral, you will have plenty of opportunity to relive your memories of Luton Hoo through Netflix.
But I strongly recommend that you convince the powers that be at your company to rent out Luton Hoo Warren Weir venue and lodges for corporate retreats, to enjoy the rolling hills for power walks and brainstorming, to perfect your game of golf, and to trickle away your worries at the spa and re-energise your team at the wine tastings.
With so much to do, and such spectacular scenery, a rock garden, a lake, a shooting range, and the brilliant food and wine, it is certain it will invigorate the management team. They offer great packages for families, with special room rates if one is booking a wine tasting evening and a spa visit. My first thought was to call my son and my daughter-in-law, my cousins, my niece, and nephews and tell them where we should celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah when in Europe . The adjoining rooms that make the Lady Zia suite, where I stayed, are perfect for family reunions. Minutes away from Luton Airport, the Mansion is the perfect choice for arrival after a long flight from the US.
Its fairy-tale rooms, corridors, tall windows, they are made for inviting your family along, and indeed they have amazing packages that include events such as the tasting we had with the wines from Tenuta Cavalier Pepe. But of course you must not book a long weekend, or your wedding, or any other such celebration for the rooms alone.
The golf course is considered a pretty challenging one and if standing in the sun and breathing in the rolling gentle hills of Bedfordshire is not your thing then you can book yourself fit in the spa, that has a lovely indoor pool, sauna, and treatments to bring your youthful self to the fore.
My suite with its three entertaining spaces, lovely chairs to sit and read by natural light, was fabulous. The welcome treat of a delicious sparkling by Frederic Billet’s family, the Cremant de Bourgogne, Oedoria, and strawberries covered with white chocolate were perfect. Between the sweeping views, the sumptuous surroundings, the perfect tastes of the evening I was charmed forever. I love Luton Hoo in the Summer, in the Autumn, and I know I will love Luton Hoo in the Winter, under the snow, with is gently rolling hills. With a spa, hot tubs, a pool, golf, superb food and selection of wines, I cannot think of a better place to spend the end of year celebrations.
And then the history of the place, picturing the dancing in the ballroom, the people, the laughter, the joy of having space above, around, beyond you. Picturing the illustrious visitors, Churchill, the Queen and Prince Phillip, the gossip, the tales of love lost and found, and of fortunes made and spent. I cannot think of Luton Hoo without thinking of these moments in history, of the opulent and glamorous lifestyle that these walls once witnessed. For their calendar of events and to book the next wine tasting click here.