Newbury & London

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.


inside the Sheldonian theatre

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.


tasting the best of Italy & Chile, and comparing Bordeaux reds

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.


Sicily and Sardinia

Islands are always a favourite when traveling. Little islands, hot islands, isolated islands, and especially islands full of great food and wine. I’d been avoiding traveling to Sicily and Sardinia for a long time because I thought I’d never leave, but lo and behold here I am in South Africa writing about it.

the beach in Catania under Mount Etna

Sicily is a name that brings a few thoughts to mind – pizza, pasta, seafood, wine, limoncello, Palermo, and of course, the Godfather. It’s so far south in the Mediterranean its actually closer to Africa than most of mainland Europe, but the airports and harbours offering dozens of flights and ferries daily mean it stays closely connected to the rest of Italy.

on the Scala dei Turchi near Agrigento

I was traveling with my older sister, who has traveled a bit but can definitely be defined as more conservative than me. She had her first couchsurfing experience a couple of months ago with me in Ireland, but now we planned to couchsurf for the next 12 days with Italian men. I knew what I was getting us into, but she was surprisingly flexible with their loudness, tardiness, and sometimes cheesy, sleezy behavior. Sicily was especially loud – not just in volume, but smells, sights and culture. We took a break from couchsurfing one night and rented a boat to sleep in on Airbnb.

the grungy, but charming, quarters of Palermo at night

Sardinia felt more like another country. We were no longer just in Italy, we were in a place inhabited by Italians, with Roman/Greek/Arabic/African influences and a history reaching back to prehistoric times. Locals speak Italian, a small part speaks Catalan and many still Sardinian, a different language altogether.

the colourful, quaint town of Bosa

The cities were smaller but cleaner, the houses renewed, the weather cooler, the tourists (and locals) fewer, and the men, less aggressive. They had a local wines and a special berry wine called Mirto, but the familiar pizzas and pastas were still the highlight of most meals.

the s’archittu stone arch on Sardinia’s west coast, near Oristano

After our island hop and a few overnight ferries with Tirrenia, we ended up in Genova to catch a train back to Milan, where a direct flight could take us home to Keflavik. But en route, we of course had to stop in Gavi, Piedmont to wine taste the best Cortese and Nebbiolo Italy has to offer.

Broglia vineyard in Gavi

In Milan I took a 3 day wine course to certify myself as an official wine taster, and now I can finally say I’m on the road to being some kind of sommelier with finally completing my WSET Level 2 training. But that just makes me want to go back to Italy, maybe Tuscany, to get my WSET Level 3… what then?