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Bottoms up! Wine school is a corker

12 December, 2016 — By Tom Moggach

Cheers! Heidi Cullip of the North London Wine School

WE don’t want any of that pompous nonsense,” declares tutor Heidi Cullip, popping the cork on a bottle of bubbly.

We’re at a wine workshop hosted by her North London Wine School. The venue is a hired room in The London Irish Centre in Camden.

“Christmas Sparkling Wines & Champagne” is the topic this evening, one of many workshops Heidi has scheduled for the months ahead. The Brits, she believes, have a nervous relationship with wine. On the one hand, we slosh it back. Heidi reveals we’re the oddball of Europe for drinking wine outside of mealtimes.

We bought 37 million bottles of Rioja, our favourite red, back in 2014. The flip side is we often lack the courage and knowledge to try new wines. Heidi lays some blame on the supermarkets – by far the biggest retailer.

“It’s difficult to navigate… there’s just so much choice,” she says.

The staff, unlike independent wine shops, are not trained to offer advice – we stick to tried and tested favourites. Can you imagine asking the staff at Sainsbury’s which wine would pair well with your king prawn and lemongrass fish cakes?

Heidi’s courses are cheap, fun and informal. She’s a natural teacher, flinging out tips and recommendations. With a plate of nibbles to hand, we learn which grapes bring out the best in turkey (red Pinot Noir), the best wines under £10 (The Black Stump Durif Shiraz; £8.99; Laithwaites) and sublime food-matching combinations (champagne with fish and chips; Rioja with haggis).

Heidi explains how climate change has some positives for UK wine makers, as longer and drier summers are just what they need: “The world of wine is massively changing.”

Heidi is no wine snob. Tesco’s Finest and Sainsbury’s Taste the Difference ranges are a great way to learn, she says.

“They will be very typical of the grape variety.” She recommends exploring the wines from up and coming producers such as Hungary and Slovakia.

For online suppliers, Heidi recommends Laithwaites and The Wine Society. Our tutor also reminds us that Majestic have abandoned their minimum purchase policy and now sell wines by the individual bottle. Workshops range from evening classes such as “Explore Rioja” (£30) to an eight-week introductory course for £120.

Wine courses like this help to boost your confidence – and also make excellent Christmas presents, if you celebrate the event. You can buy gift vouchers via the website, which are also redeemable in the other 20 venues in the Local Wine School network in the UK.

For glass-swirling wine aficionados, however, you might be best looking for more advanced-level courses.

Wine merchants Berry Brothers, for example, run an extensive educational programme in their wonderful warren of cellars in St James’ Street (

But prices are significantly higher. In the stuffy world of wine, Heidi’s courses are a breath of fresh air.

One last piece of advice: “Don’t keep wines for ‘special’ – life’s too short!”

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