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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…


Another wine blog…..?


Hold on, don’t go! I’ll crack open a nice bottle and we can talk about this – I’ve even got beer if you prefer! Hello? Hello…….? Anyone?

Phew, thanks, I appreciate you staying, I’ll do my best to make it worth your while. I’d like to set a few things straight first, if I may. Yes, I am starting (yet another) wine blog, and yes, there are already a lot of them out there. It’s just that many of them are pretty dull and ultimately inaccessible for the average wine drinker. Do you want to know the exact soil composition of a small plot of land in rural Portugal?  I know I don’t. I do, however, love a good glass of wine, and sometimes I like to chat about what makes it a good glass of wine. Other times I like to just drink the wine and think about other cool stuff like owls or monsters. I’m going to share with you some things that I’ll do and some thoughts that I’ll have, and I’ll mention any wines that might be involved. If you want to read a bit more about any of them just click on them and you should find yourself a little review. If you’d rather just read what I’ve been up to then don’t click. Simple as that. I might also chuck in a few cartoons, quizzes and doodles for good measure, because wine isn’t the only thing I’m into.

I’m still in my 20s (just about), I’ve got an awful lot to learn about fermented grape juice, but I think there are a lot of people out there who’d like to know a bit more and I’m hoping some of you will want to learn with me. Climb aboard and let’s get on the fast train to Wineville! Woowoo!

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May 2020