It has been one 30th birthday, one engagement, two house moves and approximately one million bottles of wine since I visited Rockliffe Hall last year – plus a global pandemic – which is why I wanted to wait for the right time to publish this piece.
As the pages in my monthly lockdown calendar turned, I kept thinking back to my stay at this wonderfully welcoming estate near Darlington. Like wine, the more time that passed, the more delectable and precious the memories became.
I was there to visit the spa, which at that time had just undergone a big refurb. The hall itself is steeped in history, all mullion windows and red-brick exteriors, with origins dating back to the 1800s, but the wellness area, set in a modern extension with the most beautiful original stained-glass windows, is quite different.
You have the usuals and then some. A generously sized hydro pool to ease out any niggling knots is surrounded by all the ‘ariums’: a tepidarium (warm beds), tropicarium (moist heat) and caldarium (aromatic steam room) plus igloo room, Roman sauna with dry heat and foot spa, and an outdoor hot tub.
But most exciting was the new Spa Garden where for £30 extra you can rest tired muscles in a private relaxation area with tepidarium beds, glass-fronted sauna and monsoon showers overlooking a lovely warm infinity pool. Groups of up to 14 people can have it all to themselves for two hours (£65 per person), although at the time of writing, social distancing regulations and the rule of six is still in place.
I was to indulge in the spa’s signature ‘vinotherapy’, a term that refers to a clever way of using leftovers created in the wine-making process (skins and seeds etc) by incorporating it into a beauty product. This is the concept behind French skincare brand Caudalie.
As the story goes, Professor Joseph Vercauteren, who was researching retinol and polyphenols, visited French Château Smith Haut Lafitte during a harvest in the early 1990s and was astonished by the goodness that was being thrown away.
Vercauteren called it treasure. He discovered that the skins, stalks and saps are full of nutrition, and that the most powerful antioxidants in the world can be found in grape seeds. Since then he and the skin brand owners Mathilde and Bertrand Thomas have worked together, researching, developing and patenting new products. Even the name Caudalie refers to the length of time the flavour stays on the palette.
Rockliffe Hall has been using Caudalie for more than four years, and the spa’s signature treatments include Vineyard Treasures created by Caudalie in conjunction with the creative holistic team.
Vineyard Treasures is what I opted for and was treated to a 60-minute massage (the Wine Makers’ Massage) using cabernet grape seeds and a bamboo rod that resembles the tool used to stir the wine, before a facial that left my skin feeling silkier than a Leon Bridges record on a Sunday afternoon.
The vinotherapy didn’t end there. I spent the next couple of hours in the company of head sommelier Daniel Jonberger, a truly gregarious wine connoisseur whose 29 years’ worth of expertise, including stints at the Samling and Holbeck Ghyll, was truly hypnotic. He took me on a tasting journey in the cosy wine cellar that featured minerally, translucent Japanese wines to thick, tannin-filled reds that cost more than a car.
Feeling slightly (hic) tipsier than before, I rounded the evening off with an incredible meal in The Orangery (four AA Rosettes), where executive chef Richard Allen’s tasting menu presented stand-out dishes such as chalk stream trout rolled up next to a mousse macaron with dashi jelly and fluffy mussel veloute (Allen loves fishing); whipped beetroot foam with smoky goat’s curd inspired by the sandwiches he grew up eating; and beautifully cooked Scottish venison with barbecue celeriac puree and tart goji berries.
Each plate was as exquisitely presented as the last, and paired – of course – with an excellent wine flight. Desserts were also a highlight: a chocolate orange ball that opens to a mousse with pistachio crumb and elements of blood orange, and an impressive cheese selection.
It’s fair to say that the whole day was an experience; a gluttunous, educational and extremely satisfying time well spent. And the cherry on the top is the price, which offers good value for such a lovely setting and service. Rather like a good wine, an ageing process can enhance the already decadent flavours before harvest, and my post-lockdown longing for a dose of vinotherapy is still lingering on the palette.
Rooms from £210; six-course tasting menu £65, with wine pairing £45 extra; wine tasting from £45 per person; Vineyard Treasures £120. Rockliffe Hall is located in the borough of Darlington, which is in Tier 3 as of December 2, and thus temporaily closed; check directly with the hotel before booking or travelling.
Read the full review: Rockliffe Hall, County Durham