January is a tough month. After the excess of the holidays, January is marked by temperance, fasting, and long, dark nights. This year, one cure for such malaise was the chance to partake in a wine dinner in London at Annabel’s, featuring vintages by Château d’Yquem and Château Cheval Blanc.
Annabel’s nightclub on Berkeley Square has 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 Maxime 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 and 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 could be spotted there. 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, 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, and 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 when Caring 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, and 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 Red Beret and Pompom, which Caring bought and renamed Annabel), a lot more.
The membership was revised, but those who were original founding members were kept on for the same rate of £5 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, a descendent of the Duke 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 the new Annabel’s once before. 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 that I accepted the invitation for the mid-week black-tie wine dinner this winter.
Astrid Harbord said it was the second wine dinner the club had hosted. “We love creating special experiences for our members and 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 that 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 Room, so named because it is one giant slab of rose quartz lit up from behind. As Annabel’s is a club, the privacy of its 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 Room, they seemed like pieces of brightly colored candy.
Waiters circled with hors d’oeuvres of slices of foie gras with small violet flowers on top and pouring the first wine of the night, Krug Grande Cuvée.
Astrid showed me, with obvious pride, to the Garden Courtyard, where we would be eating dinner. 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 added caviar 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 is a wine wunderkind and looks 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, and then 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 was very young, 2016, and 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 Blanc Saint-Émilion 1er Grand Cru Classé A wines. We started with a 2004 vintage, moved on to 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–and–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 Supérieur 1999, served in a magnum with an array of passion fruit and raspberry tartlets, blackcurrant Mont Blanc, and yuzu-and-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.
Sufficiently sated, everyone peeled off into the cold January night knowing that, 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.