January is a tough month. After the excess of the holiday season, January is marked by temperance, fasting and long, dark nights. One cure for such malaise is having the opportunity to partake in a wine dinner at Annabel’s nightclub in London featuring vintages by Château d’Yquem and Château Cheval Blanc.
Annabel’s nightclub on Berkeley Square always been synonymous with glamour and sophistication and the new owner Richard Caring is committed to keeping those aspects of the club in place.
But it hasn’t been an easy feat. London’s chattering classes were outraged a few years ago when Caring decided once and for all to shut the doors of Mark Birley’s famous basement.
The old Annabel’s, named after Birley’s then-wife, Lady Annabel Vane Tempest-Stewart, was opened in 1963 in the basement of the Claremont Casino. Mark Birley, son of society portrait painter Sir Oswald Birley and brother of style icon Maxine de la Falaise, required exacting standards of service in his club as well as possessing indisputably sophisticated taste.
The club was legendary for its style, ambiance and for being an emblem of upper class England. Everyone from Mick Jagger to the Queen went to Annabel’s. Princess Diana, Frank Sinatra, Michael Bloomberg and Elle MacPherson were all regulars. It was a place where aristocrats and well-connected people from every part of the planet would mingle with good food and wine, and enjoy a little sophisticated hedonism. Everyone had to obey the rules of the strictly enforced formal dress code and being well-mannered to the staff. (With one or two exceptions — Sir Mick Jagger was given special dispensation not to have to wear a tie.)
But that was a long time ago. When Richard Caring bought the Birley Club group in 2005, for a reported 90 million pounds, he was made to feel that he had to keep Annabel’s frozen in amber in order to keep Mark Birley’s legacy alive. But time had marched on and the vibe of yesteryear was simply impossible to maintain.
Caring tried to jazz it up in its original form. There were dinners with Kate Moss and Harry Styles, Mark Ronson was invited to spin. Lady Gaga appeared one evening. Overall, the space just couldn’t catch up to contemporary culture. There was too much history to overcome.
According to an interview with the FT, the moment of truth finally arrived Caring when decided to pop down to the club for a drink after dinner and the first thing he saw was an elderly couple asleep at a table near the entrance.
Caring wondered what Mark Birley would have made of that. He decided that the time for change had come. Caring is not a man to do anything by halves, the next few years were spent buying and renovating one of the buildings next to Annabel’s. The estimated and reported cost for his new multi-storied Annabel’s was a cool ￡65 million. And if you include the art (including a ￡20 million Picasso called The Girl With a Red Beret And Pompom, which Caring bought and renamed Annabel) a lot more.
The membership was revised, but those who were the original founding members of Annabel’s, were kept on for the same rate of 5 pounds a year.
Cleverly, Caring employed younger people to build and maintain membership, Astrid Harbord, a well-connected young woman about town, is membership director. Ali Spencer-Churchill, descendent of the Dukes of Marlborough, runs the Legacy membership program (a special tier level costing ￡250,000).
The club was launched with a slew of parties, (Lady Claudia Rothermere threw her husband Jonathan, owner of the Daily Mail Group, a party there in December) and the place has been humming with activity ever since.
I had been to Annabel’s once before in the summer. As a member living in New York, I don’t have much opportunity to visit the club as I’d like, so it was with great excitement, I accepted the invitation for the mid-week black tie wine dinner.
Astrid Harbord, said it was the second wine dinner the club had hosted. “We love creating special experiences for our members thought that it was the perfect way for people to end their dry January,” she said with a laugh.
Entering Annabel’s is like walking into a basket of flowers. There is not one inch of the club which isn’t electrified with color. All of the staff have jackets covered in floral patterns continuing the feeling of being in a greenhouse. It is a very Baroque experience.
The evening started in the rose bar, so named because it is one giant slab of rose quartz lit up from behind.
As Annabel’s is a club, the privacy of their members is paramount but it was a good-looking international crew – diverse and attractive. Perhaps to counter the winter blues, all the women wore jewel tone dresses and against the backdrop of the rose bar, they seemed like pieces of brightly colored candy.
Astrid showed me to the garden room where we were dining — with obvious pride. It is arguably the most beautiful aspect of Annabel’s. In summer, it’s an open air space with a retractable roof (useful, given London’s notoriously changeable weather). In winter, it’s transformed into a magnificent orangery and floral array giving any grand wedding some stiff competition.
Guests wandered in, stopping to say hi to this friend or that and found their seats easily. One familiar face was Lord Harry Dalmeny, Chairman of Sotheby’s UK, as known for his art world knowledge as his cracking wit, “Lovely to be here, but as one grand old gentleman once noted to me, having a party on Wednesday spoils both weekends.”
That may be the case for some, but in my book, there is nothing wrong with being spoiled mid-week and we certainly were.
Our first wine was a Château d’Yquem 2016, full-bodied and rich accompanying a wild sea bass carpaccio and watercress starter. The dollop of caviar added brought out the fullness of taste. My dinner partner was the Director of Fine Wines and Private Clients, Guillem Kerambrun, who oversees the wine lists for all of Caring’s iconic venues. He was a wine wunderkind, looked almost too young to drink, let alone be running one of the most important cellars in London. Guillem is one of those lucky people who found his passion early and pursued it determinedly. He spent 13 years with Alain Ducasse, a few years at Caprice Holdings before Caring lured him to Annabel’s.
Guillem took to the stage to introduce the wine. The Château d’Yquem wine was very young, 2016, they only make 10,000 bottles of it. Guillem explained,“The wine had just a touch of Noble Rot” — which is caused by overripe grapes and produces a sweeter taste associated with sauternes.
For the next act, we were given three Château Cheval Saint-Emilion 1er Grand Cru Classé A wines. We started with a 2004 vintage, moved onto a 2006 and ended up with a 1995 bottle. The experience of the first two was obviously delicious and they were paired perfectly with blue lobster in a red wine & curry sauce. But sipping the 1995 brought a whole new layer of taste. It slid down like silk with the accompanying beef wellington and black truffles. The richness of the experience is not by accident.
As Cheval Blanc’s technical director, Pierre Olivier Clouet, commented,”We believe that the diversity of the vineyard builds the complexity of our wines. And the complexity comes from diversity of our soil, the diversity of grapes and the diversity of age.”
Lastly, we had a class of Château d’Yquem, 1er Cru Superieur 1999, served in a magnum with an array of passion fruit and raspberry tartlets, blackcurrant mont blanc, and yuzo & miso puffs. Normally, I always decline dessert wine because the sweetness is too great at the end of a meal. Not this time. There is a reason why the world goes nuts for Château d’Yquem wines, it’s like drinking liquid honey, full, nutty and so rich.
Full and sated, everyone peeled off into the cold January night – knowing if there was ever a good reason to start drinking after a month off, the Annabel’s wine dinner was probably the most civilized and certainly the most delicious way to take up the habit again.