From Chalet to Chateauneuf: Butlins Fine But Fun wine list

POSTED ON 14/06/2010

I have to confess that I don’t know a great deal about Butlins, never having been on a Butlins holiday, or whatever you go to Butlins for. Of course if you’re more used to foreign travel, it’s easy to be snobby about Butlins but my ex-neighbours used to take the family there and by all accounts had a great time. The fact that 1.5 million people pass through Butlins every year shows that there’s more interest here than you might have realised, if, like me, you’re ignorant of what goes on at its Bognor Regis, Skegness and Minehead resorts.

The Far Pavilions of ButlinsThe Far Pavilions of Butlins

So successful in fact does Butlins appear to be that it’s just spent £20 million doing up the ‘bright and contemporary’ Ocean Hotel in ‘glittering’ Bognor Regis, and, since 55% of customers are new and wine sales up by 34% over the past year, Butlins has decided to re-vamp the wine list. That’s how it came to pass that I received a ‘From Chalet to Chablis’ invitation to try out the 18 wines in Butlins first ever fine wine list, called the ‘Fine But Fun Wine List’. I was a little taken aback at first but if Heston Blumenthal can change the menu at Little Chef, why shouldn’t Butlins do the same for wine?

I had no idea what to expect. Would I be greeted at the door by Butlins redcoats? Would there be an Abba Sing-a-Long to accompany the tasting? Would there be a ride on the Little Magic Train perhaps or a spot of Superslam wrestling? Sadly, the tasting was not in Skegness or Bognor Regis but the boring old City of London. As for the wines, first glance showed a very respectable line-up indeed of good wines, even if it was a celebrity roll-call of the usual suspects: Charles Heidsieck, de Ladoucette, Louis Jadot, Beaucastel, Paul Jaboulet Aîné, Ravenswood and Wynns. Nothing wrong with safe-but-strong brands though (look at Delsey for instance) if the wines do what they say on the label. So how did they fare?

Well, the champagne we kicked off with was a cracker: Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve, £50, a truly deliciously toasty mouthful of palate-coating bubbles with lots of flavour. A Krug Grande Cuvée, £120, was on the list but not open, and although a bottle was actually there apparently, the organisers had thought better of opening it on the grounds that we, the press, were probably familiar with it anyway. No matter, it was on to the whites and a couple of characterful Italians in the incisively crisp, apple and lemony 2008 La Toledana Gavi di Gavi, £24, and a refreshingly apple and pear-flavoured 2009 Pinot Grigio, Vigneti Sant’ Helena, Fantinel, £24, from the Collio district of Friuli.

Al Fresco Butlins-styleAl Fresco Butlins-style

There was an excellent chablis from Gilbert Pic, a crisp, minerally, bone dry 2007 Premier Cru, £32, and for me the green bean and gooseberryish 2006 Cape Mentelle Sauvignon Blanc Semillon, £27, with its lively citrus-zesty fruitiness shaded the 2007 de Ladoucette Pouily Fumé, £32, although that too showed the nettle and gooseberryish pedigree of sauvignon blanc from a superior terroir. The 2007 Louis Jadot Meursault , £70, was typically rich and buttery, with a complex lees-derived nuttiness and toasty oak to boot, more enjoyable albeit pricier than the pineappley 2007 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay, £30, or the classic turkish delight qualities of the 2007 Trimbach Gewurztraminer, £29.

Now you might think that in introducing their fine wine list, Butlins would accompany it with the flavour of the fare served in their restaurants, but it was not to be. Not a sniff, not a whiff, not even a menu. Churlish perhaps to mention it given that they did produce fine wine-infused beef and chicken pies created specially for the tasting by Dunkley’s Pies ( with such melt-in-the-mouth shortcrust pasty that they redefined the word pie. They are so good in fact that apparently they’re supplied to Heston Blumenthal’s pub The Crown in Bray. They did however send me one, a menu that is, not a pie, so here’s a copy.

Kaleidoscope Restaurant menuKaleidoscope Restaurant menu

And so to red. The list kicked off with a perfumed, concentratedly cherry-sweet 2007 Vidal Reserve Pinot Noir, £27, from Central Otago, a more adventurous choice than many a red burgundy at a similar price. The choice of a 2001 Château Musar, £34, was brave because the quirky Musar is not everyone’s cup of tea and you rather wonder what Butlins’ diners will make of its spicy, sweet dark cherry fruit with its either compelling or troubling balsamic character depending on your point of view. I suppose if the worst comes to the worst you can always sprinkle it on your giant beer battered cod fillet served with hand cut chips and minted pea purée.

The best of the reds for me was a stylish 2004 Château Talbot, £65, classic cedary claret showing its pedigree with a really succulent cassisy core of fruit suffused with a light dusting of vanillin oak and just about ready to drink now. I liked the 2002 Côte Rôtie, Les Jumelles, from Paul Jaboulet Aîné, £43, with its characteristic leather and peppery edge, even if was a tad on the lean side. It was infinitely preferable to the 1999 Château de Beaucastel, Châteauneuf-du-Pape, £83, whose animal meatiness had a powerfully rustic Old MacDonald’s farm odour that might go with, well, er, McDonalds.

In contrast the raspberry jam and liquoricey 2007 Ravenswood Lodi County Old Vine Zinfandel, £24, and the minty, blackcurranty 2005 Wynns Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon, £27, were models of their kind. It just remained to taste two sweet wines, a rather workmanlike, toffee apple and barley sugar 2007 Sigalas-Rabaud, Sauternes, £43, and a superior sweetie in Hungary’s St. Stephan’s Crown Tokaji Aszú 5 Puttonyos, £29,with its clean, refreshing marmaladey zestiness and honeyed undertones.

Fine wine at ButlinsFine wine at Butlins

As far as I could tell, the wines are all supplied by Matthew Clark, which is I believe the biggest wine supplier of hotels and restaurants in the UK. The list comprised a good mix of younger and more mature vintages but what surprised me more was the reasonable mark-ups. Best value among the whites were the Chablis 1er cru and the Pinot Grigio and Gavi. I would be very happy supping on the Ravenswood Lodi Zin, the Wynns Cabernet or Vidal Pinot at their respective prices. Even the Krug Grande Cuvée, although it sounds a lot at £120, is not actually that expensive given that it’s not a lot less than that retail and £230 at Gordon Ramsay. In reply to his physician, who told an ailing King George V on his deathbed that he would soon be well enough to visit Bognor, the monarch is believed to have retorted ‘Bugger Bognor’. How differently it might all have turned out if he’d had Butlins Fine but Fun wine list to contemplate.

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