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Castles and comfort in Cong

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Ashford Castle’s winemakers’ dinners offer a taste of elegance

Ciara Moynihan

Throughout a mundane week, visions of gliding under the arches of Ashford Castle’s gatehouse, over its six-arched limestone bridge, between twin turreted towers and on into the castle grounds had kept me sustained. Soon I’d be swapping laundry for luxury.   
My sat nav, however, had less lofty notions.
Apparently determining that I was not worthy of such grandeur, it insisted on bringing me on a more ‘offbeat’ route, marked out by boggy backroad and yawning pothole, and disconcertingly untroubled by signs of life. Oh I still got there, eventually, but through the slightly less-glamorous, distinctly turretless side entrance.  
Exasperated expletives immediately gave way to relief and a mounting sense of awe as the castle’s exterior rose up before me. Re-mustering my inner princess, I dismounted by stubborn steed and prepared to present myself for the evening in prospect.

Opulence distilled
I was attending one of the castle’s exclusive winemakers’ dinners. Billed as ‘a spectacular dining experience in the glorious surroundings of one of the most luxurious properties in the world’, these evenings see an intimate gathering of 40 guests join the hotel’s head sommelier Philip Dunne and a world-renowned winemaker for a bespoke seven-course tasting menu prepared by executive chef Philippe Farineau.
That evening it would be the turn of Tarek Sakr, chief winemaker at the ‘cult-classic’ Lebanese winery Chateau Musar, and he would regale the guests with tales of the winery’s fascinating history and share insights into its produce.
But first I was shown around the hotel and to my room for the night by the main desk’s wonderfully capable Tristan, who I think very much enjoyed my wide-eyed, slack-jawed appreciation when he opened the door onto what turned out to be one of the hotel’s beautifully appointed staterooms.
Located in the oldest part of the castle, dating back to the 13th century (if you think old means draughty, think again!), the huge, high-ceilinged room boasted an exquisite four-poster bed, an original fireplace, antique furniture, a massive marble bathroom – complete with canopied bath – and breathtaking views over Lough Corrib that would have had Paul Henry reaching for his palette.
If it wasn’t for the sumptuous feast that awaited, frankly I might never have left.
After a while spent lounging about my brocaded boudoir, I headed to the hotel’s wine cellars, where guests were assembling for a pre-dinner tipple. For hundreds of years, Ashford Castle has housed some of the world’s most exceptional vintages, with an extensive list of over 750 wines. During its recent restoration, completed in April 2015, the castle’s 16th-century coal tunnels were repurposed and transformed into these impressive cellars. A perfect new home for the precious bottles, and an atmospheric treat for guests.

Fine dining  
Then it was time for the main event, and we chattered and clinked our way to the magnificent Connaught Room. This enchanting space is dominated by a spectacular Donegal Crystal chandelier, and warmed by ambient oak-panelled walls and a hand-carved fireplace.
Tarek Sakr introduced the diners to numerous examples of his winery’s offerings, from the crisp and fruity Musar Jeune Blanc 2014 to the aromatic and smooth Hochar Pére et Fils 2013 to the intense and spicy Musar Rouge 2004. Each wine was thoughtfully paired with dishes that included langoustine with vanilla and cardamom; lamb tongue with potato and pied blue mushroom; duck with coffee, orange and Nepal pepper; and baked goats cheese with sourdough and beet jam.  While one might not immediately associate the Lebanon with vineyards, this tiny Middle Eastern country has been producing wine for over 6,000 years.
Founded by Gaston Hochar in the 1930s, Musar was run by Gaston’s son Serge from the late 1950s until the 2000s. As sommelier Philip Dunne explains, the winery’s history is ‘an incredible tale of romance, terror, passion and love’:
“When the first shots of the Lebanese Civil War were fired in 1975, Serge started to lose 90 percent of the domestic market. To survive, he would have to sell the wine abroad, something that was out of the ordinary for Lebanese winemakers in those days.
“In 1979, Hochar exhibited his 1967 vintage wine at the Bristol Wine Fair, and it turned out to be the pick of the day among journalists and connoisseurs. The rest is history for this iconic winery, which has accumulated countless awards and secured resting places in some of the most famous cellars in the world – including our own in Ashford Castle.”
The winery has also branched out to produce something much more associated with the Levant: Arak. Accordingly, us Ashford Castle guests were treated to a taste of this anise-flavored traditional digestif at the end of the night, before many headed to the drawing room for a night cap.    
The mention of resting places had me thinking of that opulent bedroom that awaited, however, and soon enough I pottered off to while away what was left of the evening in elegant comfort, and to get a good night’s sleep ahead of a morning in the hotel’s spa, just recently named Ireland’s Best Hotel Spa for the second year running. Well, when in Rome…

Valentine calling?
The next winemakers’ dinner takes place at Ashford Castle on St Valentine’s Eve, Tuesday next, February 13. It will be hosted by Lilian Barton-Sartorius of Châteaux Léoville-Barton.
Located in the Saint-Julien appellation of the Bordeaux region of France, Châteaux Léoville-Barton and its sister property, Château Langoa Barton, have been owned by the Barton family (of Irish decent) since 1826, boasting the longest continuous duration of ownership by the same family of any of the other current proprietors in Bordeaux.
As with the Chateau Musar evening, proceedings will begin at 6.30pm with an aperitif in the Wine Cellar at 6.30pm. A specially curated seven-course tasting menu will then be served in the Connaught Room from 7pm, alongside the following wine pairings: La Croix de Barton Blanc, Mauvesin Barton 2012, Langoa Barton 2007, Leoville Barton 2004 and Leoville Barton 1999.

The February 13 Winemakers Dinner at Ashford Castle package is priced from €585 per night, based on two people sharing. It includes accommodation, dinner in the Connaught Room, and breakfast. The exclusive dining experience can also be enjoyed by non-residents of the hotel, priced at €195 per person.

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