Northern Ireland is having a bit of a moment at present, some would say a long overdue moment. Tourism NI have made concerted efforts both at home and abroad to showcase the best food and drink producers and experiences that are waiting to be discovered and with the arrival of Brexit and Sterling being almost pound for pound with the Euro there is probably never been a better time to visit.
Less than two hours from Dublin city, Belfast still remains one of our favourite city breaks. With so many fantastic facilities such as the Titanic Experience, Belfast Zoo and Victoria Shopping Centre as well as an abundance of some of the best bars and restaurants you’re likely to experience it is easy to understand why we often forget that there is some hidden gems just outside the city.
Holywood in particular, pronounced just like its more glamorous namesake in LA, is seen by many as a bit of a Jewel in Co.Down’s crown. Steeped in history and lined with well heeled homes and manicured lawns, Holywood certainly oozes more class than its counter part. It also has enviable views across Belfast Lough and is hard to believe you’re just ten minutes outside the hustle and bustle of the city centre. So when an invitation to a Penfolds wine dinner popped up, in one of Holywood’s Hills finest five star destinations Culloden Estate & Spa we jumped at it.
Previously on most of our visits to Belfast we would tend to stay in the city itself however Culloden offers something quite unique, it has the tranquility and amazing views of many exclusive retreats but the advantage of still being so close to everything should you want to explore a bit further.
We arrived around 3pm on a Thursday and this first thing we noticed was how stunning the grounds were, the house itself was originally built as a palace for the Bishops of Down and many of the original features and antiques such as the stained glass windows still remain. Culloden certainly exudes a unique calmness and not just in their luxury spa and health club. Staff are relaxed and welcoming, attentive but not uptight. The blend of old and new has been seamlessly integrated here, with every mod con any discerning traveller may need and even the standard rooms are exceptionally well kitted out, spacious and inviting.
One thing Culloden really surprised us with is their suites; each one is unique, generously spacious, with unrivalled views of the Lough and high ceilings, all complete with the trademark Hastings duck in every bathroom, as Culloden is part of the family owned Hastings group which operate over seven of the finest hotels in Northern Ireland. We stayed in the “Amethyst suite” which was without doubt was one of the most impressive we have ever encountered, ideal for families or two couples due to its split mezzanine level with two additional beds and separate bathroom. The main room has a huge king sized bed which is dangerously comfortable so a wake up call is strongly advised!
As wine dinners go the layout in Culloden’s spacious and open plan Mitre Restaurant worked perfectly. Penfold’s wines are believed to be some of the finest examples of Australia’s growing repertoire of World class vino and judging by the amount of people who attended there is a huge appreciation for the brand in this neck of the woods and with good reason.
With a seven course tasting menu Head Chef Paul McKnight certainly had his hands full in creating an interesting menu that really showcased the Penfold’s range to the full. We began with a simple dish of long stemmed broccoli with a balsamic reduction and almonds paired with an excellent 2011 Koonunga Hill Chardonnay.
Chardonnays have had a slightly bad rep in recent years with many finding some over oaked examples too much for their palate however we would challenge anyone to grab a bottle of the Koonunga Hill and see how beautifully elegant this grape can be when done right. Just as well we enjoyed it so much as it was paired with the second dish of carrot and yolk, not a dish we have come across before but interestingly this odd combination was an ideal companion for this moderately oaked affordable drop.
Top quality Shiraz is probably what Penfolds are most revered for and every year they are certain exceptional blends that are elevated to their “Bin Collection”. We were treated to a deliciously perfumed 2011 Bin 138 Barossa Valley Grenache Shiraz Mataro; the big flavours of this wine need an equally bold dish to stand up to and the gamey flavours of McNight’s Quail, dressed simply with a sprinkling of cashew nuts and a cauliflower puree were a delightful marriage.
Next up was a Scallop, fennel and seaweed dish with a slight Asian feel to it, Rieslings are renowned for easy pairing with Asian or Thai dishes and the fabulously dry Koonunga Hill Retro Autumn Reisling (quite the mouthful) was one of the biggest crowd pleasers on the night and is currently available from O’Briens nationwide priced at €20.95
There is rarely a better pairing than a glass of full bodied Shiraz and a fine cut of Venison, especially when showcased with a sublime blackberry, beetroot and chocolate creation, although many a Malbec lover may protest that, the stylish mix of oak present in Penfold’s 2010 Bin 150 Marananga Shiraz is guaranteed to win over even the biggest doubters.
No wine dinner is complete without an ideal partner for dessert, as we sipped on our Fathers 10yr Tawny and tucked into the last remaining morsels of our Blue Cheese dessert, we couldn’t help but envy Penfold’s brand ambassador Sam Stephens, who guided us through each course with some fun trivia on each wine. Getting to taste these outstanding wines everyday has got to be a dream job for many.
It is easy to see why Culloden Estate is such a popular destination, the genuine welcome, the pride the staff display in working there, the high calibre of food on offer and the superb facilities in their ESPA spa. Often as a part of a large family run group sometimes the small details can be overlooked but here the family are very much hands on, supporting their managers and encouraging their staff to fly the flag and keep the standards high. We always say it’s the people that make a place memorable and Culloden has some of the best.
This heavenly spot tucked away in the Holywood hills is one of Belfast’s best kept secrets and is available to book from €142pp including a four course dinner.
To book your stay click HERE
For further information on the full Penfold’s range see www.penfolds.com
Culloden Estate & Spa
T: +44 (0) 28 9042 1066
Keith & Jules Mahon are the founders of TheTaste. We want TheTaste to be a culinary kaleidoscope to champion every taste, food, wine, cocktails, whiskey, etc. We are delighted to be part of such a creative and fast moving industry and are very passionate about sharing with you our unique journey around Ireland finding the best culinary hotspots.