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Celebrating Sixty

At the end of last year I hit a bit of a milestone. It was the Big 3 0 for me, and so far I’m thoroughly enjoying the way my fourth decade has started. I think I’ve packed a fair amount into my thirty years thus far. I can’t imagine what I’ll cram into the next thirty, though looking at my Dad could be a good indicator. Recently he doubled my record – he turned sixty.

Now I’m not suggesting that my Dad has any delusions of grandeur (much) but the man has decided he is entitled to not one, nor two, but three birthday parties. Better than the Queen eh? He’s obviously got too many friends and has to divide them up into manageable groups – it must be hard being so popular. Work friends at one do, family and old friends at the second and a big outdoors knees up in the summer to round off the celebrations. That’s the way to do it!

Obviously wine is an integral part of celebrating any occasion, well that’s certainly the case in my family. So I was charged with the task of choosing the right bottles for the job. Picking a crowd pleasing wine is always tough, everyone has their own tastes and favourites. My family tend to go for big bold reds and full rich whites, but many a party goer may be overwhelmed by an early afternoon session of Malbecs and 14% ABV Chardonnays. So, for the white, I fall back on the old favourite – Sauvignon Blanc. Don Cayetano Sauvignon is a classic New World example from the Central Valley in Chile. It delivers everything you want from an easy drinking party wine, and goes well with the canapes and the herby salmon main course. I know my Dad’s a big fan of Spanish wine so I pander to his tastes for the red and choose something I know he loves – Posada del Rey from Laithwaites. Rich and intense enough to meet his needs but smooth and fruity enough to drink on it’s own.

“Nearly got it nailed” I boast to myself, but the final challenge is a tricky one. I want a sparkling wine with a good amount of character, and enough quality to be worthy of such a momentous occasion! Champagne is all well and good but we need a LOT of it so perhaps funds would be better directed elsewhere. The south of England is producing some unbelievably tasty fizz, Nyetimber attracting the most column inches after it outperformed many top Champagnes in a blind tasting, (though my personal favourites are the wines produced by Ridgeview in Sussex). Unfortunately English wines carry pretty hefty price tags and while I’d love to support our home grown industry, price dictates I look further afield. I’ve tasted some fantastic sparklers from down under recently, in particular the excellent Jansz (both the 2003 and the non-vintage) from Tasmania which easily rival many Champagne houses’ efforts. New Zealand is also the home of one very Big Name – Cloudy Bay. Their Sauvignon is lauded as some of the best in the world (though I think it’s more than a little over rated at the price). They also produce a fizz called Pelorus, using two of the three classic Champagne varieties: Chardonnay & Pinot Noir. So I opt for this to toast Dad’s descent into OAP status. And a lovely wine it is too! Rich and creamy, with a pleasant baked apple flavour. It also had definite marzipan on the palate, which went perfectly with the rich fruit birthday cake.

Happy Birthday Dad! Bus pass application forms are in the post…..


Let’s Get Out of Here!

I’ve spotted the first green shoots fighting their way through the thawing ground, the clocks are going forward this weekend and there’s been a definite rise in the level of tweetiness of our garden birds. This can mean only one thing – Spring has sprung! Well, it’s certainly in the process of doing so anyway. About time too, after the record breakingly freezing winter we’ve endured I think the nation is in dire need of a blast of sunshine. Living on this northerly wind battered island, however, we all know we can’t count on it – no matter how many experts tell us ‘this is definitely going to be the hottest summer on record, no really it is, I know I said that last year but I mean it this time, I’ve got a graph to prove it, look!’ So we must take matters into our own hands, which means leaving these shores and heading for warmer climes. Time to book the summer holiday!

And it just so happens I have a recommendation for you. So let us assess our needs. As a wine lover (you are one, right?) you will want somewhere where you can enjoy the local tipple at reasonable prices, where the sun is considerably more shiny than at home, where there are plenty of cool things to keep you occupied and the people are freindly, welcoming and a good laugh. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Tunisia! I have just returned from a fortnight in this brilliant country (apologies for the lack of tattling whilst I was away) and was bowled over by the place. If you like old things (and I mean reeeally old) you’ve got fantastically well preserved Roman remains coming out of your ears. Beaches? Oh yes, plenty of them, all white sand and blue seas. Mountains? Yep, got a ton of them too, jutting up all over the place. Like spending money? Oh the stall holders in the medinas will gladly help you out with that. Not mentioning any names but somebody I was with checked in two bags on the way out and four on the way home. Rugs, ceramics, tagines, brass trays, teapots, Star Wars robes. You can really sate your thirst for spending in this place.

And what about the food? Barbecued seafood, tuna (by the lorryload), huge delicious charcoal grilled steaks for less than a tenner, cous cous filled with spiced veg and the most tender slow cooked lamb. They like food and they do it well. At first we made the mistake of ordering starters – we soon realised there was no need. The Tunisians have a sort of pre-meal meal. Where we might have a basket of bread and a piddly little bowl of olives before the major chow down commences, they bring to the table dish after dish of spiced, fried, grilled, pureed, toasted, marinated, brined, baked, gratinated, skewered….oh you name it they make it into a tasty little morsel and serve it up. A less polite diner could easily gorge themselves on a feast from these little bites then leave without ordering a thing off the menu. Of course the thought never crossed my mind.

And who knew Tunisia made such excellent wine? Certainly not me. I’ve seen the odd bottle on a few online retailers’ lists but never heard anything about it. As a country with a largely Muslim population you’d be forgiven for thinking wine was pretty low on the list of priorities, but you’d be wrong. (There’s some interesting info about alcohol in Tunisia here.) But then again, with all those Romans lounging about drunk in their villas way back when, I guess it makes sense that the winemaking craft has survived to this day. We certainly saw a fair few mosaics illustrating the long heritage of the vine in the country.

If you lean towards the richer, spicier reds, with elegant oak in perfect balance with the fruit – this is the stuff for you. We drank Tunisian wine every night and were not disappointed by a single bottle. Vieux Magonwas our star choice (and I now have a couple of bottles stashed away under the stairs for later). Smooth, velvety red with lovely cocoa and vanilla oak. (As always, click on the wine to find out more.) We also tried a couple of whites, which tend to be made from Ugni Blanc. Whilst I didn’t think the quality was quite as high as the fantastic reds, they were aromatic, refreshing and perfect with seafood. What more could you want from a holiday wine? It’s always fun to seek out some of the local booze and so I enthusiastically ordered a Boukha Gold. It’s a fig brandy, quite similar to Hungarian Palinka though a lot smoother and with more flavour from the fruit. After my second glass I decided I really quite liked it. Like alcoholic fig rolls, though that makes it sound utterly disgusting. We also tried a nifty little aperitif – Muscat de Carthage. We’d visited Carthage (or what’s left of it) a few days earlier so it was quite a nice touch to find this little tipple. A really dark raisiny wine, with lovely gingerbread and cooked pineapple notes. A most pleasant way to start the evening, before embarking on the epic pre-dinner feast.

What can I say? I can’t recommend the place highly enough. It’s appeal is extremely wide and it’d make the perfect destination for pretty much anyone as far as I can see. Particularly (and unexpectedly) for wine lovers. So if you’re bored of Bordeaux, tired of Tuscany and really over Rioja (that one doesn’t work so well) then give Tunisia a try. Plus, riding through the Sahara on a temperamental camel is a pretty good way to get to the pub.

If you’re not convinced yet, I have an ace up my sleeve. Did I mention large parts of Star Wars were filmed in Tunisia? Yes, you can visit the locations, recite the lines and make swishy light sabre noises to your heart’s content. And let me tell you I did……

Behold tippletattle herself in the very same underground house that Luke Skywalker’s aunt & uncle lived in on Tatooine! (or Tataouine if you want t be Tunisian about it)  Swishhh swooosshhh, zzzzzappp…..


Calorie Conscious Cuvees

As February whizzes past, Christmas Day seems a distant memory, but my pinching waistband is here to remind me of the overindulgence of the festive period. January is generally when people make some half hearted attempt to shift some weight and tone up for the year ahead. Personally I find January depressing enough in itself, and certainly wouldn’t want to upset myself further with any serious deprivation. Now February has arrived and the whole world seems ever so slightly better for it, so now is the time for me to sort myself out. I’m doing a stint on the exercise bike every morning, making an effort to eat sensibly and watching how much I drink. Mind you ‘watching’ doesn’t necessarily lead to ‘reducing’, but it’s a start.

And it seems I’m not the only one. Drinkaware appear to have decided on a new strategy for their campaign, and I think it could be a winner. Harping on about heart disease, liver problems, cancer etc etc has become almost pointless – we all know the facts, but still we choose to indulge. Until my liver actually falls out I will still choose to go for that extra glass of wine. If they really want to stop us drinking too much, they must appeal to our vanity. Drink booze, get fat. Simple. The very handy and well designed unit calculator on the Drinkaware website not only provides you with all the info on how much alcohol you’re consuming but also how many calories are in that alcohol. While I believe it’s extremely unhealthy to obsess over calories and count everything, I sometimes frighten myself with food equivalents to what I’ve had to drink. “You drank 6 pints last night? Well would you have eaten 6 Mars Bars in one sitting? No? You might as well have done! AND then you had a kebab on the way home, tut tut tut…..” None of us like being lectured about how we should live, but as a gentle reminder and awareness raiser I think Drinkaware have provided a pretty useful little tool.

Andrew over at Spittoon recently posted about Pizza Express‘s efforts to bring some healthier options to their menu. Low calorie pizzas accompanied by low alcohol (and lower calorie) wines. It doesn’t surprise me at all that the pizzas have been popular and I’ve no doubt the wines will be too. It’s definitely a growing market, with M&S introducing low alcohol wines a couple of years ago and many other retailers following suit. There’s an abundance of online low alcohol specialists to meet this increasing demand. I’m certainly not going to be rushing out to swap all my favourite tipples for low alcohol alternatives, but it’s now an option – which has got to be a good thing. Despite the media’s attempts to fan the flames of ‘Broken Britain’ and our ‘binge drinking yoof’, statistics actually show a significant fall in alcohol consumption in recent years. Sounds like we’re all being very grown up and sensible, I think we all deserve a pat on the back and a nice glass of wine.


Kami no Shizuku

Ever heard decanting wine described as “magnificent and jaw-dropping” or “delicate and courageous”? The brilliant series of Japanese comic strips based on the life of Shizuku (Droplets) gives the often staid and boring world of wine a Manga style overhaul. Once you get used to reading the translated panels and speech bubbles from right to left, the beautifully illustrated stories are compulsive page-turners. I started TippleTattle with the intention to make wine more accessible to my generation and cut out the snobbery which often surrounds it. I don’t think you can do much better than putting it in a comic book! The series’ authors Shin and Yuko Kibayashi were listed in Decanter Magazine‘s Power List 2009, and have been influencing the wine drinking hoards all around the globe. Kami no Shizuku (The Drops of God) has even been made into a TV series for Nippon Television – I reckon the sooner we get a translated version over here the better.


Fondue Friday

For a little while last year a group of us had a sort of regular evening meet-up going, where the main emphasis was on cheese. Cheese of the molten variety, accompanied by all manner of dippable delights and several bottles of easily gluggable wine. As it happened, it often took place on a Tuesday, and was thus known as Fon-Tuesday™. For various reasons (the extreme scarcity of fondue lighting gel in shops these days being one) this regular dipfest eventually fizzled out. So last week, thanks to our host Corinne, we were delighted to hail the glorious return of the cast iron pot of cheese (albeit it on a Friday this time, but we won’t get picky). It really is the most sociable way to eat, all of us clambering over each other, spearing the contents of various pots and bowls, dribbling lava-hot cheese over each other’s wrists. Joy! Now I don’t mean to brag, but I think we’d given slightly more thought and attention to our raw materials than most fondue attendees. We had the usual suspects – bread, broccoli, cauliflower – but then some tasty alternatives such as spicy Peppadew peppers, pork meatballs, chorizo, cornichons, salami, pineapple chunks (for that retro feel) and grapes. I discovered that a hot pepper stuffed with a grape and wrapped in chorizo made a particularly tasty cheese magnet.

And what to drink? The big red vs white debate was had, and on this occasion we plumped for the latter. So, on a rare visit to Tesco, we picked up a few bottles including some lovely and very classic Marlborough Sauvignon which had the acidity to cut through the cheese gloop perfectly, and Tesco Finest Tingleup Riesling which was a stunner. Not only did it have the necessary limey acidity, but also a beautiful minerality and the rubbery petrol like aromas normally found in far pricier examples of the variety. It was absolutely delicious and an excellent match for the fondue. At £7.99 a bottle, I find it hard to believe you could find a better Riesling. Normally my instincts tell me to veer away from ‘Finest’ or ‘Taste the Difference’ or ‘The Best’ type products, but perhaps I need to review my reaction. After all, it’s the same as those infuriating people who will never order the house wine – if it’s so bad, the restaurant wouldn’t put their name to it. I guess I don’t like feeling I’m being told what to buy – I already KNOW what is the best, you don’t have to TELL me! I have a guilty suspicion this attitude is magnified when I enter the drinks aisle. Supermarkets are funny places though, their selection is often so toweringly enormous you really can’t rely on prior research and knowledge to tell you what each and every single bottle will taste like. I like Chilean Cabernet, well my local supermarket has fifteen of them! So which is going to be the one that knocks my socks off? A bit of subtle guidance should be gratefully received. So raise your glasses, here’s to the ‘Finest’ things in life!


The Art of the Train Picnic

Merry 2010 one and all! A rather belated sentiment, but heartfelt nevertheless. Twothousandandten – it sounds so futuristic. Makes me want to paint everything silver and add ‘hover’ as a prefix to all modes of transport.

Anyway, I must apologise for the absence of new posts recently. I can only put this down to my super exciting jetsetting celebrity lifestyle, but I am now back in my twirly office chair and raring to get stuck in. Since the start of the year I’ve been on a few mini-adventures. To Blackburn for a superb cocktail party in the snow (the highlights being the Lychee & Rose Martinis and the Brandy, Lime & Gingers). To Worthing for a brilliant evening of food, fizz and fancy dress. And last weekend, to Manchester where I filled my belly with steak and Malbec and discovered an amazing pub called the Britons Protection. The place may look a little on the shabby side from the street, but once you step through the door it’s a maze of corridors with snugs and lounges spraying off in different directions. The star of the show has to be the single malt collection. Hundreds! And staff who really know their stuff yet don’t intimidate you with their knowledge. After a couple of Royal Lochnagars I was feeling really rather at home.

With all this travelling about the place, I took it upon my self to indulge in one of my all-time favourite activities: the train picnic. I love trains – steam, diesel, electric – they all get a big tick in my book. What better way to travel than relaxing at a table with a selection of nibbly things and a nice bottle of wine? Mr TippleTattle and I look forward to this simple treat enormously, and appreciate and savour every last morsel of it. On our way up to Manchester we selected a veritable feast: a chorizo tortilla, tikka chicken pieces, cherry tomatoes, Tickler Extra Mature Cheddar, Leerdammer and a bottle of Tsantali Organic Cabernet Sauvignon from Greece. Yes Greece. To accompany our picnic it made perfect sense to me to go for a wine from a nation of picnickers. All those stuffed vine leaves, tzatziki, kebabs, Greek salads and olives scream out to be wrapped up and taken on an outbound eating adventure. I mean what is mezé if it’s not a picnic? The wine was delicious, one of the best reds I’ve had in a long time. It was an excellent match to the pick n mix food (click on the wine name above for more info). As I watched the countryside flying past, and was amazed by the magical tilting train, I couldn’t understand why anyone would want to drive.

I must just give a mention to two other highlights of this journey, which, may I add, I would not have had the time, space nor frame of mind to notice had we been driving. First is our Leerdammer container. I draw your attention to it purely for it’s comical cheese shaped appearance. Makes me chuckle whenever I use it. The second was a discovery of far more global significance. Yes. it’s true, I discovered the World’s Longest Cherry Tomato. I think the image speaks for itself.

So, cheese and tomato based observations aside, I hope a few of you might re-think your next train journey. Make the most of it, it’s not often you get a few hours to just sit back and enjoy the ride. Treat yourself to some tasty food and go for a slightly better bottle than you normally would. Trust me, you’ll relish every drop.

Choo choo!


Plan of Action

Wine tasting is a top notch way to spend an evening with friends. At least there’ll be something interesting to throw down your throat while you chat, as opposed to the usual bag dans le box party wine. A friend is planning to run a couple of tastings with friends for charidee, and asked me if I had any pointers. As desperately pressing as all my other engagements may or may not be, I ended up writing a little outline plan of how the evening might go. I thought I might as well post it here in case anyone fancies a look.

Basic Idea:

12 people

Taste 2 wines at a time so you can compare them – this really makes the individual qualities of each stand out.

Wrap each bottle in tissue so everyone is tasting blind (make sure YOU know which one is which!) Print out tasting sheets with space for notes and also tickboxes so guests can guess things like: is it old or new world? What grape variety might it be made from? (give 4 options) How much might it cost? (4 options again).

You’ll need:  24 wine glasses, 12 Champagne flutes, 12 tasting hseets, pens/pencils, water, ice buckets if you can’t fit all the white wine in the fridge.


Everyone arrives and sparkling wine is served with nibbles. Make sure everyone has two empty wine glasses, a tasting sheet and a pen.


Sauvignon Blanc – 1 x French (Touraine can be really good value) and 1 x New Zealand (Marlborough).

Pour everyone a sample of each. Sniff! Talk about aromas. Taste! Discuss flavours. Are they the same as the aromas? Generally, the French should be more refined compared to the pronounced fruit and aromas of the NZ. Both should have gooseberry, grass and green fruit aromas/flavours but the French may be more balanced and will hopefully have some mineral notes (like wet stone). The NZ will probably be more acidic (should make your mouth water more) and limey.

When everyone’s done discussing, uncover the label and tell them where it’s from, what it’s made from, and how much it costs – one point for each correct guess. You could also add a little info about the specific regions/winemakers/winemaking techniques – if you think anyone will be interested!


Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blends – 1 x red Bordeaux and 1 x Australian or Chilean Cab/Merlot blend

Again, the French will probably be more restrained and the aromas/flavours may be more balanced and integrated. The new world wine should be more fruit driven and the fruit may be riper (like jam) partly due to the very hot sun where the grapes are grown. Discuss, guess, then uncover as above.


Shiraz/Syrah – 1 x Rhone or S. France and 1 x Australian (if you didn’t use an Aussie Cab/Merlot above) or South African.

Both should be big and full, with the lovely spice typical of the grape. Once again the French may be subtler and perhaps more complex as opposed to the huge great juicy chunk of wine from the new world. If you choose a South African, it may well be slightly smoky. By this point your guests will probably be pretty good at spotting the old world and the new world wines, so they’ll be feeling pretty chuffed with themselves!


You could either carry on comparing more wines now, or for a bit of variety you could try some food and wine matching. Italian wine is a good bet for this as most of it is highly acidic and tastes a million times better with food. So maybe a Chianti with some Italian meats and cheeses, or a Rioja with some tapas, or an Argentinian Malbec with some pieces of cut up steak. Mmmmmmmmmm…… It might be nice to finish with a dessert wine and something sweet. As we’re approaching that festive time of year, how about mince pies!

You could also prepare a printout with all the wines you’ve tasted – where they’re from, how they’re made, who makes them, and don’t forget to say where you can buy them.

I’ve costed this example up (using widely available wines) choosing bottles for £7-8 each and including nibbles, and food matching, and I reckon you can do it for pretty much spot on £100. One way to bring the cost down is to invite each guest to bring one of the wines on the list so you don’t have to fork out for the lot. It’s just an outline of the sort of thing you could do, very easily adaptable to your own taste. Hope it helps, chin chin!


Naked Angels

You may have seen a relatively new name in wine retail popping up here and there. Naked Wines was set up last year by Rowan Gormley who thought he had some pretty cool ideas about what the wine world needed. His main aim is to bring to these shores some of the fantastic small producers out there who don’t have the means to promote themselves. The wine world is full of stuffiness, elitism and unnecessary expenditure, and Naked Wines aims to cut all of this out. The motto at Naked Wines is ‘Get Naked. Drink Better. Spend Less’. There’s a neat little video of Rowan himself explaining one way they can help us all to achieve this.

To me, one of the most interesting things about Naked Wines is the lack of wine buyers. The wine sold is all chosen by their very own customers. Fool proof! If you don’t like it, you’ve only got yourself to blame! Seriously though, I find this concept extremely exciting. Many companies out there bleat on about wanting to make wine more accessible to those of us who haven’t grown up with a pair of silver grape scissors in our mouths, but this is solid indisputable proof that Naked are actually doing it.


So how does it work? Well I went along to their South African tasting event to find out. About 60 of us gather in a conference room and are given scoresheets. First off, I quickly realise not every single customer gets a say in what wines are bought, you must be selected. These chosen folk are known as Archangels (you can apply to be one on the website). There are various tables set up, each lined with 25 bottles. We are assigned a table number each – I get number one, Shiraz. It’s noon and I haven’t eaten all day, is it wise to start on the heavy reds? I remember I am supposed to be a professional and commence sipping and spitting like the best of them. My word there are some rather large wines in there! Some fantastic, others less so, but nothing awful. Trying not to be influenced by the shape of the bottle and fanciness of the label I gurgle and shwoosh like a trooper. After 25 slurps of Shiraz I hand my scores to a Naked person so they can be entered into the computer. Then a new sheet and a new table – blends. A few whites to start (don’t really have a chance after all that Shiraz) and then on to more reds. Shwoosh, glurg, spit, shwoosh, glurg, spit….scores in. Phew, I’m an athlete! In my own way.

All our data is put together on the computer which then works out which are the top ten wines from the whole room. In fact, it turns out there are fourteen top wines as a few of them have tied scores. These are then set out for a second tasting where we must indicate what price we would pay for each. My valuations range from £4.99 up to £15.99, though most around the £7-£10 mark. The final stage is the exciting bit. The Naked Wines staff call the makers of these 14 wines and they (in South Africa) take part in a live auction right in front of our eyes. Now I’m not entirely sure of the technicalities of exactly how this works, but basically the winemakers are bidding for a certain share of the Naked Wines budget for South African wine. So they are told what we have decided their wine is worth and they can choose to adjust their selling price accordingly to receive a bigger share of the dosh. I think. What I do know is it’s all very democratic and instant and I thoroughly enjoy the feeling that I’m a part of the process.

I’m extremely impressed by Naked Wines so far. I like what they’re trying to achieve and it’s certainly a refreshing change of attitude in what can be a tiresomely old fashioned industry. After all the scoring I got a chance to taste some of the wines I hadn’t had time to try, and took a bit more time to appreciate them. I hadn’t been assigned to the Pinotage table during the scoring so I felt it was my duty to try a few examples of South Africa’s signature grape before leaving. Pinotage is a Marmite grape, although in my experience more people hate it than love it. I’ve heard people compare the taste to ‘licking an ashtray clean after a party.’ Mmmmm, yummy. Personally I like the smokiness, and the meaty bacon aromas you often get on the nose. The best one by far I tried on this occasion was the Eaglevlei Pinotage 2007 (click for a little review). Also good was the Cape Rock SGMV 2008 though I don’t think either of these made it to the top table so I may have to wait a while until I can try them again.


South African wine has a tough time of it over here. It still has a fair wodge of the UK market but that’s a lot to do with the big brands which are designed for mass market safe tastes. Next time you’re having a steak or a roast, and definitely when you’re planning a barbecue, leave the Bordeaux and the Malbec for once and give the Cape a try.


Give in to it, it’s fete…..

COUNTRY2I’m a country girl. Most of my life I’ve lived in a lusciously green, cow-poo smelling, cousin-marrying, typically English village. And I love it. Trouble is, it can be a tad lacking on the ol’ social scene at times. With no Mega-Disco-Multiplex-Fun-Domes nearby, people are forced to stay at home and grow over sized vegetables. Or bake cakes. Or whittle logs into woodland animal shapes. Or adorn themselves with bells and ribbons and wave sticks about. In my mind I can see no other explanation for the country fete – the morris dancing, the WI stall, Big Veg, cheese-knitting, pie-hurling, pig-pruning and Mr Jenkins’ homemade plum wine. The annual coming together of villagers in order to show off the strange fruits of their year’s labour, whilst listening to the vicar making inappropriate jokes. The fete is something that can only truly be borne out of boredom and an excess of soil – two things decidedly lacking in our capital city. There are now many London-based pretenders to the country fete title, though they can never be true articles in my eyes. The main, and obvious reason being that they are not in the country. D’uh. These days there’s an annual truck load of urban fetes. People of London! If you want a country fete, I say move thee to the country! The format seems to have become extremely fashionable in recent years. There are wannabes popping up in London parks every weekend during the summer. From the smallish scale Barnes Village Fair to the more commercial and immense Innocent Village Fete in Regent’s Park. To me these can never be more than enjoyable homages to the real deal. You can have all the rustic hay bale charm and gingham tablecloths in the world, but you’ll never be truly convinced when you feel the rumble of the tube underfoot or watch the number 26 bus to Oxford Circus zooming past every five minutes.

But needs must. Let’s be realistic, and childhood nostalgia aside, these urban replicas can be pretty damn good if your need for larger than average marrows and picture perfect Victoria sponges suddenly becomes too much to bear. And as I do now live in London (albeit Surbiton, which is actually technically in Surrey so still grasping on to a shred of my countryside credentials) I have put my fete puritanism aside and have enjoyed a fair few of them. By far the best is the Lambeth Country Show, mainly because it knows the score and doesn’t pretend to be what it is not. It has a fair whack of the cider fuelled sheep shearing charm of the real deal, but embraces fully the fact that it is ten minutes walk from Brixton tube station. Jerk chicken stalls with booming reggae sound systems sit perfectly alongside the funny shaped vegetable tent. Grab yourself a litre of cider and head to the dub stage.  It’s brilliant and if you haven’t been, you should. The star of the show for me (and perhaps why I have such a fondness for the event) is Chucklehead Cider


A family run outfit, making top notch West Country cider, they are always mobbed at their small stand. It’s a word-of-mouth thing. If you’ve had Chucklehead you’re In The Know and if you haven’t, you ain’t. The lovely stuff comes in dry, medium or sweet (I always plump for medium) and is served the only way true cider should be – in plastic milk containers. An eight-pinter will set you back a mere £12 and will see you and your fellow fair-goers beautifully merry (in every sense) throughout your afternoon. I am compelled to skip, to prance, to sing and to attempt rolly-pollying in a skirt – it’s a great summer’s day bottled for your convenience. Where’s the nearest Maypole? And as I sit on the rolling green slopes of Brockwell Park and sip the beautiful appley wonderfulness, I almost forget about the Heathrow flight path above and the Victoria Line below. Almost.


Back to School

I went back to school last week. It brought back so many memories – I had a little pencil case with my best pens in, and a folder where I put my work, and a text book that I wrote my name neatly in and underlined it with a ruler, and a set of 6 wine glasses and a spittoon…… Unfortunately I never had those last two when I was a kid, though I’d argue a spot of wine appreciation at an early age could be a valuable addition to the National Curriculum. The school I went to last week was a special magical school called the Wine School. Who’d have thought such a place existed? If only I’d lived within the catchment area when I was 11, my memories of school would be far sweeter.

It’s Monday morning on the first day of my WSET Advanced Certificate course. I arrive, all excited and apprehensive about what’s to come. A quick scan around the other students reveals a good range of ages, which is a relief as I was half expecting a room full of glamourous housewives of the more mature variety and pompous old gits. There are restaurant managers, wine retailers, sommeliers (though I’m sure they should really know a fair bit about wine already shouldn’t they?) and a few interested parties from outside the wine industry. I’m kind of neither, having just left my job in a major high street wine merchants but not having yet found a replacement. I suddenly feel a bit giggly and excitable, this is going to be fun!

The burning question is “how much do they already know?” We were advised to put in a fair amount of study time before the course started, but I’m secretly hoping that everyone else has neglected to do so. I’ve done a pretty decent amount of reading around the subject but don’t want to launch into any in depth debates about carbonic maceration or guyot vine training until I know my position on the starting grid. I try to act a bit aloof, as if I know old Vitis Vinifera so intimately that my very presence in the room will humiliate the others and show them up as the charlatans they really are. Doubting I will make any friends this way, I soon revert to polite chatter mode, whilst expertly dodging any wine based questioning.


Day one starts with an overview of viticulture and viniculture before starting on the many wine regions of France. First off is Burgundy. Before I know it I’m tasting wines from top villages with price tags equivalent to my entire weekly food’n’booze budget, or that nice pair of Topshop boots I had my eye on. It’s all totally fascinating and a tad overwhelming. Having said that, we later tried a £2.99 bottle of Claret from Sainsbury’s which was unbelievably good for the money. “I shall buy more wine for under £3” I declared inwardly, as I realised I had unwittingly become a bit of a price snob.


The week continues, working our way through the rest of France, Italy, Spain, Portugal, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Greece, Australia, New Zealand, the US, Chile, Argentina, South Africa, not to mention whisky, brandy, gin, Champagne, Sherry and Vintage Ports. I’ve heard the term ‘palate fatigue’ bandied about but I’m not sure I truly appreciated what it meant until Thursday afternoon last week. Faced with a powerful Argentinian Malbec of very high quality I take a sniff and a gulp. My tastebuds are numb, my nose is lined with a thin membrane of various vintages, and as hard as I struggle to pick out individual aromas and flavours my inner voice is screaming “But it just tastes of wine!” I scribble something down about medium-plus tannins and think back fondly to the previous Friday night when I hoovered up a bottle of reduced price red without a second thought to whether the rim was purple, ruby or garnet or which pruning method had been used on the vine. Don’t get me wrong, I find the whole thing fascinating, but a week-long sudden and intense submersion into the intricacies of wine is enough to test anyone’s stamina. There are certainly worse things you can do for a week, mind.


Friday afternoon arrives and the impending exam suddenly becomes a stark reality. I feel a bit giddy and have started to get the giggles again. I think it’s a defence mechanism – a vain attempt to forget about what horror lies ahead. The exam room is set out with our individual desks and a big scary ticky-tocky clock on the wall. The invigilator is already there. The tutors during the week have all been laid back, affable and highly approachable. They’ve obviously kept this last guy saved up as an end-of-week treat for us. Tweed blazer, leather elbow patches, all severe haircut and horn rimmed glasses. “Ladies and gentleman” he booms, “we shall NOT make eye contact with any other student, we shall NOT rustle bags or clothing, we are permitted to leave the room when finished ONLY with my permission and ONLY in a quiet and orderly fashion!” I’m utterly terrified, and the lovely Australian girl at the next desk looks like she might cry.


Two hours later and it’s all over. I don’t know yet how I’ve done, though I surprised myself with how much information had actually embedded itself neatly into the appropriate brain cells during the week. Part of the exam was a blind tasting and I’m pretty sure I nailed that one. It was a Barolo, all cherry like and oaky and lovely. I vote all exams should start with a glass of fine wine, it’d certainly help with the nerves. Perhaps not such a good idea in a driving test. I do feel a sense of achievement, and I definitely have a much firmer basis of wine knowledge. I’m really at the start of something very exciting and I hope you’ll enjoy reading my further Adventures in Wine™. I might even get a theme tune…

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December 2021