I finished my time in Oxford with one day off for sightseeing, and treated myself to a concert in the Sheldonian Theatre. The student orchestra was playing Beethoven’s 7th symphony, and the second movement is amazing live, especially in an English Grade I listed building where the only way to be invited in is for a graduation ceremony. I was on my way to London to study wine, with a slight detour to Newbury.
Newbury is kind of a out-of-the-way place, where few stop, but most have heard of. There’s a surprising little ex-pat community there, and I managed to find one Portugese couchsurfer to host me. I met a wine dealer in Oxford from Majestic cellars in Newbury who was registered in the same wine program; I was going to London to cram years of sommelier knowledge into five days. There would be a two-and-a-half hour exam at the end of the week and I hadn’t started studying, so we planned to share our knowledge and complete a few mock exams.
My Portugese couchsurfer was an excellent partner for drinking wine, and whiskies, and I learned plenty about wine and wine hangovers. Newbury itself was a small, quaint little town on a river, with more second-hand shops than cafes and restaurants combined; you only had to chose if you wanted to support the Red Cross, helicopters for kids, or OXFAM in your shop choice. I noticed more teenage mothers than I’ve noticed anywhere else; most had bad teeth and were slightly overweight, but they all got on very well.
The West London Wine School in Fulham offers WSET Level 1, 2 and 3 courses, and usually the Level 3 is taken over six or twelve weeks of evening courses. They also offer Level 3 in five, eight hour days, if you can commit to forty or sixty hours of pre-course study. They send you a text and work book that would take at least that long to finish – which I only received in time to read the first three chapters – and then a wine specialist speaks at you, reciting textbook knowledge like it was his childhood memories.
Our teacher was Jimmy, a young, VW van traveler, who had personally been to most of Europe’s best wine regions and vineyards. He knew the soil types and wine makers names of each little French appellation, and made all the students feel as unprepared as we were. The exam included two blind tastings, which I think I passed, but the essay-written part of the exam wasn’t even as difficult as the multiple choice questions. One question gave the name Graciano, and asked if it was a Spanish white, Spanish red, or Portugese red or white wine grape – it wasn’t even like you could deduce from process of linguistic elimination (it’s a Spanish red grape FYI).
I stayed with my Lawyer friend Becky, who worked ridiculous hours but managed to wine test in the evenings with me. We had some Picpoul de Pinet white wine, Bordeaux reds, Rioja rose, and sparkling cava, improving our ability to taste and discuss the effects of wine. After forty hours of tasting dozens of wines and learning the minute details of over a hundred of grape varietals, vineyard management, wine making, tasting and food pairing, I wasn’t ever quite sober enough to analyse my own progress… but I hope I passed.