How chef Michael Caines caught the wine bug

Lympstone Manor is Britain’s only Michelin-starred hotel-restaurant with its own vineyard - and the vision for its wines came from its chef-patron. With the first still Chardonnay set for release, Tomé Morrissy-Swan meets Michael Caines to hear the full story

Words by Tomé Morrissy-Swan

Michael Caines in Lympstone Manor vineyard
After 19 years at Gidleigh Park, Lympstone Manor was the challenge chef Michael Caines was searching for

Chef Michael Caines makes his decision to hunt for the site of Lympstone Manor sound like the reaction of a jilted lover. ‘After 19 years at Gidleigh Park, I needed to either get more involved in the business – as in have shares or some stake in it – or do something [else]. I had a conversation… it was a bit like I asked Gidleigh to marry me and it said no.’

This rejection, from the place at which Caines had worked for almost two decades, precipitated a chat with a local friend and investor, who encouraged Caines to go it alone. The Exeter-born chef considers East Devon ‘a golden area’ and began looking for properties in the region where he could realise a dream to create something for himself. Eventually, he found the grand house now known as Lympstone Manor, called Courtlands Mansion at the time. He says he ‘knew instantly’ he’d found the right place.

Lympstone manor hotel
Lympstone Manor hotel's location overlooking the Exe estuary helped convince Michael Caines to buy the property in 2015

After raising the money required, Caines bought the hotel in 2015. ‘I always remember my time at the Quat’Saisons very fondly. Looking at what Raymond Blanc achieved, that inspired me really. I don’t think I would’ve had the desire to do a country house hotel if I hadn’t worked there.’ The site, with stunning views across the Exe estuary, not far from where he grew up, was irresistible. With woodlands and a long, sloping lawn, The Times once named it ‘romantic hotel of the year’. It’s hard to disagree.

I don’t think I would’ve had the desire to do a country house hotel if I hadn’t worked at Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons

A year after first making an offer, Caines finally got the keys. At that point, it was a ‘run-down’ wedding and conference venue. The Michelin-starred chef recognised its potential, which from day one included wine. ‘The location is breathtaking; there isn’t another location like it,’ says Caines as we wander through its 28 acres of rolling hills and woodland.

‘When I came, I thought: we’re south-facing and I know there’s a microclimate in Exmouth because I’ve lived here all my life. I said “I’m going to plant a vineyard” and that was it.’ As a result, Lympstone Manor was billed as a hotel, restaurant and vineyard from the outset but there was an issue early on: visitors kept asking where the vineyard was. Caines would point to an empty, green sloping field. ‘We cut the grass for the last time in 2017, then we ploughed it, added lime and planted in the following year, in 2018.’

Lympstone Manor Chardonnay
Maintaining a single-vineyard approach means there are just 559 bottles of the 2022 Lympstone Manor Chardonnay

Today, there are 11 acres of vines. The wine is made in conjunction with Lyme Bay Winery, who confirmed to Caines during an early visit that the southwest-facing slopes, early springs and later summers made it one of the best wine-producing plots in the country. Just two metres above sea level at its lowest, there’s very little frost and the surrounding woodland provides shelter. Caines points to Galicia, where vineyards are often planted next to the coast, as an inspiration.

But the main influence has always been Champagne. The vineyard is 50 per cent Pinot Noir, 30 per cent Chardonnay and 20 per cent Pinot Meunier. Before my dinner in the hotel’s grand dining room the previous night, Lympstone Manor Estate Classic Cuvée was served, a wine released late last year after three years on lees. It was beautifully crisp, gently fizzy, with hints of green apple and brioche.

The sloping vineyard of Lympstone Manor
The vineyard's southwest-facing slopes and proximity to the estuary help to make it 'one of the best wine-producing plots in the country'

Caines’s love of French wine is clear. The rosé is reminiscent of Provence, after Caines decided on Whispering Angel as the benchmark; the sparkling wine made in the Champagne style; the Pinot Noir comparable to fine French versions. But the latter wasn’t always part of the plan. During Lympstone’s first harvest, the winemaker was shocked to learn the grapes weren’t from Sussex. The ripeness and sugar levels were deemed too high for sparkling, so a still red seemed the obvious alternative. ‘Best accident we ever had,’ says Caines.

That was the 2020 vintage and Lympstone hasn’t made a still Pinot Noir since because the grapes never achieved the same ripeness in any of the years that followed. ‘We can only make [still] Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on a brilliant year. That classification is important, because you stick by your principles, that is, we won’t try and make red wine just for the sake of it. We’ll make it only in the good years.’

Lympstone Manor hotel dining room
The main restaurant is for the full fine-dining experience and is complemented by a second space added to cater for more casual meals

This spring, Lympstone Manor is releasing a still Chardonnay from the 2022 vintage and, according to Caines, a French master sommelier given a taste couldn’t believe it wasn’t premier cru Burgundy. The scale is relatively small – just 2,200 bottles were produced of the 2020 pinot noir and only 559 of the forthcoming Chardonnay. On an average year, they can make 21,000 bottles, most of which are sold either at the restaurant or through their own website.

Integrity is really important in English wine

The scale, Caines explains, is crucial, allowing them to produce single vineyard wines of high quality. ‘We could buy grapes in from Sussex and call it Lympstone Manor Estate, [but] we want to keep the integrity of a single vineyard. That integrity is really important in English wine.’ As a chef, it’s also about a sense of place, pairing local wines (though the restaurant also has an extensive cellar), with the best local produce, from Lyme Bay mussels to lamb from Powderham Estate across the estuary.

While he might not have had much winemaking knowledge before opening Lympstone Manor, Michael Caines is now well-versed on the many facets of wine production

A growing number of top British chefs have turned to producing food, including Simon Rogan in Cumbria and Tommy Banks in Yorkshire. Caines returns to a figure who is clearly one of his biggest inspirations: ‘Raymond Blanc started the whole kitchen-garden thing. It provides a point of difference but it also provides provenance, and it’s also a direct line between where you get your product from and where that product is showcased.’ Wine, however, is less common; Lympstone Manor is Britain’s only Michelin-starred hotel-restaurant with its own vineyard. ‘I never felt the need to grow acres and acres of vegetables because I thought planting a vineyard was more unique and had never been done, and also, that’s the future.’ Despite knowing little about wine production a decade ago, Caines can now talk for hours about clones and grafting, rootstocks and single guyots.

‘I’m quite excited about English wine generally,’ says Caines. ‘I think you’re going to see more still wine as people get more confident with that. We’ve got a little microclimate here on a par with Nyetimber in Sussex.’ Devon, though behind counties further east, is quickly catching up. ‘This is my home county and I want to champion that. It’s beautiful, this location is extraordinary, and on sunny days it’s as good as anywhere.’ The same can be said for the wine.