AS Rockliffe Hall near Darlington approaches its tenth year as a luxury hotel, spa, and golf club, Heather Barron drops in to test the delights on offer in the Orangery restaurant

The Northern Echo:

TASTE BUDS: Head Sommelier Daniel Jonberger who added an extra element to the dining experience at Rockliffe

DO you know which wine to order that will bring out the best in the food you are eating? Or, do you have a couple of favourites that you stick to because you know what you like and it doesn’t really matter, as long as you enjoy it?

Step forward Daniel Jonberger, Head Sommelier at Rockliffe Hall in the village of Hurworth, near Darlington, who would like to educate your taste buds so that you get the most out of your meal in their Orangery restaurant.

The derelict, former St John of God hospital underwent a multi-million-pound redevelopment after being bought by Middlesbrough Football Club chairman and owner, Steve Gibson, and opened in 2009 as a five-star, luxury hotel, spa and golf course.

The hotel offers visitors different dining options, including more casual Clubhouse fayre at the golf club, an á la carte menu in the Brasserie within the hotel – popular with spa visitors – and the more formal, 4AA Rosette Orangery restaurant tasting menu.

Our visit began with an introduction to Daniel, who took us down to the cellars where the walls were lined with bottles of white and red. He had prepared five wines for us to taste, no doubt with the hope of persuading us to be more selective with our future wine purchases.

Originally from Sweden, Daniel has nearly 30 years’ experience in the wine trade, and appreciates how lucky he is, saying: “To work with your hobby is a perfect dream.”

He tasted his first wine at the age of seven when visiting an aunt in Paris. It was a watered-down glass of red that sparked a life-long interest that has taken him all over the world.

He selects all the wines for Rockliffe Hall, and oversees regular tasting sessions that can be booked through the website.

There are, it turns out, four steps to enjoying your wine, which begins with looking at it in the glass to evaluate its colour and clarity; then swirl it round to release the aroma, and put your nose in the glass for a good, deep sniff. If it’s a sparkling wine, listen to the sound it makes; and, finally, taste it – but don’t swallow it straight away. Hold it in your mouth and let the flavours develop on your tastebuds.

Daniel’s enthusiasm was infectious, and we looked forward to our wine education.

We started with my favourite – a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc – which, Daniel told us, wakes up about 1,200 taste buds. As expected, sharp, refreshing and a fabulous pear undertone.

However, I had my head turned by the next white – a South African chenin blanc that was so delicate, creamy and more-ish that it might well nudge the sauvignon to one side.

We also tried a couple of delicious reds, including a soft, "jammy" Australian Cabernet Sauvignon, matured in American vanilla oak barrels, that my husband, Pete, particularly enjoyed – but won’t be getting as a present with the £97 price-tag!

Wine tasting over, our next culinary step was up to the Orangery restaurant to sample Executive Chef Richard Allen’s seven-course Tasting Menu, with perfectly paired wines, courtesy of Daniel’s expertise. Being a vegetarian, my selection was called "Root & Branch".

Our palates were prepared by the most gorgeous sourdough bread with a crusty outer and soft inner. Artisan breads are very popular, but not all of them are good. This was so perfect, that, like Oliver, we asked for more.

While Pete tucked into his first plate of goose liver, smoked eel and rhubarb, I enjoyed exquisite, tiny turnips with amaranth and black garlic. Small portions, but enough to whet the appetite for more surprises.

My next course comprised sharp and yet sweet charred carrots, with marigold pesto and hazelnuts, while Pete savoured pork instead of the carrots.

A couple of courses on we both enjoyed the same chick pea dahl, with Egyptian dukka spices, lime and yoghurt – a dish that smelled as good as it tasted.

Pete followed with venison, savoury granola and pickled brambles, while I had flame grilled celeriac risotto with Berkswell cheese.

While everything was delicious, we agreed that the next dish – Harrogate Blue Cheese Ploughmans – was the most tasty and memorable. Everything perfect, from the diced apple and onion, to the temperature of the cheese.

We had a further three courses to go, but it was no hardship. It might not look like a lot on the plate, but the flavours are so extraordinary and intense, and each course so different while still complementary, that you just want to savour each one for its own uniqueness.

The final straight included delicate cubes of plum with sheep's curd and lemon balm, followed by beetroot (a surprise and very tasty dessert ingredient) with berries and cream, and, to finish, fig, Armagnac and puffed rice.

Service from the friendly and knowledgeable staff was just right – not too rushed or too slow – and nothing was too much trouble – even a third helping of that exceptional sourdough bread.

The seven-course Tasting Menu is £80, and with wine pairing an additional £60.


Rockliffe Hall Hotel, Golf & Spa,




Telephone: 01325-729999


Food Quality: 10/10

Ambience: 9/10

Service: 10/10

Value for money: 9/10