Raising a glass with Nick Gay from Oxford Chelt Wine School

From championing Chinese wine to debunking bottle labels, Nick Gay, founder of Oxford Chelt Wine School, chats to SoGlos about becoming an expert in the field, while offering a healthy dose of advice on choosing the right drink for you.

Hi Nick, can you tell SoGlos readers a bit about yourself?

I’m Nick Gay, I’m 55 and I’m the founder of Oxford Chelt Wine School.

Have you always lived in Gloucestershire?

No, I spent much of my youth living abroad in Australia, Pakistan, Malaysia and Singapore thanks to my father’s job with a pharmaceuticals company. I suppose that must have given me a taste for adventures because twenty five years ago, shortly after my wife and I married, we moved to Berlin.

We ended up living in the German capital for over 20 years where we set up and ran a tourism business offering serious historic tours and had our two boys. We returned to the UK and settled in Cheltenham a couple of years ago and feel we have finally come home.

What is your background?

I studied history and economics at Cambridge and then went on to become a chartered surveyor – but my heart wasn’t really in it. My great passions in life have always been history and wine and Germany was a fantastic place for pursuing both! I am just unbelievably lucky to have been able to work in fields that I am completely fascinated by.

What made you decide to set up Oxford Chelt Wine School?

When we returned from Germany in 2011, the UK economy was still in the post-recession doldrums. It was clear I was going to have to run my own business again, so I just had to come up with a great idea!

It was while I was researching the food and drinks world that I stumbled across the Local Wine School Network. I discovered there are over 20 schools across the UK, all run by wine professionals dedicated to helping people explore the wonderful world of wine.

It took me about two minutes to decide this was for me and when I worked out that the Oxford and Cheltenham franchises hadn’t yet been snapped up, I knew it was time to act! The school was formally launched late 2014.

How would you describe what you offer at the school?

It’s a local independent wine education company offering tasting courses to learn about wine in completely unstuffy, unpretentious surroundings. Our tagline is ‘wine tasting for everyone’ and we make clear that no previous experience is necessary. We want people to have a good time and meet other like-minded people.

What type of courses do you run?

We run eight-week World of Wine courses (one night a week over eight weeks); four-week courses such as on European wines or New World wines (again, a night a week), one-off evening events; and Saturday extravaganzas – a full day’s wine tasting with a two-course lunch.

We also cater for private groups of all types and we run more formal, structured courses with exams under the auspices of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET).

What can participants expect to learn?

Typically, we taste six or seven wines of an evening along various themes and there’s a detailed presentation from me, although I encourage people to join in with their opinions.

Using ISO wine tasting glasses we learn how to taste wine like a professional and find out where to obtain best-value-for-money wines locally. Food and wine matching advice is given, people learn how to spot common wine faults and how to store and serve it.

Are the courses geared at all different levels?

Quite often we have a mix of people on our courses – some know lots about wine while others are just beginning their journey of discovery.
Everyone seems to discover something new and worthwhile on the courses – whether it’s wine they haven’t tasted before or information from our detailed presentations.

What’s the biggest misconception about wine?

These days, we don’t go around lambasting people for not doing or thinking the right thing with wine. You are entitled to like what you like – but experimenting with new wines and drinking less but better quality is something I definitely champion.

That said, I think there is still some nervousness out there about wine tasting – many people are afraid to speak their minds about what aromas they are picking up and some people think you need to know how to spit wine into a spittoon at six feet! That’s all rubbish.

Can you educate our readers with how to read a wine label?

If you’re not sure whether a wine is sweet or dry, take a closer look at the label. If the alcohol content is below 11 per cent it may well be on the sweet side. The higher the alcohol content – as in 12.5 or more – the more likely it is to be a dry wine.

And, if a label states the wine is elegant, and they often do, it is because the copywriter couldn’t think of anything else more interesting to say about it!

How important is food and wine matching?

There are principles you can apply which we explain on the tasting events; matching is important in that the wrong choice can drown out the wine or vice versa.

Where there is sweetness, acidity or saltiness in the food, then you can come up with rules that work with most people. But with the bitterness quotient in either wine or food, it is much more subjective as to whether or not the combinations work.

Do you have a favourite food and wine combination?

We love dessert wines in our household and a wickedly good treat is a good bottle of Monbazillac (a French dessert wine) with a local blue cheese.

What are the best wines to start drinking if you’re a complete novice?

If they like bitter food and drink like strong coffee without sugar, try tannic reds such as Cabernet Sauvignon or Malbec. If they are more into sweet things, go for an off-dry white wine like a Vouvray or a low tannin, juicy red like a Chilean Pinot Noir.

In your opinion, what’s the best wine under £10?

My own personal recent favourite was a little bit more at £10.29; it was a Cabernet Sauvignon from Western Australia, called Breathing Space from Majestic.

And, what if you want to blow the budget for a special occasion?

Pol Roger’s vintage Champagne from 2004.

Which wine do you tend to reach for at home?

Whatever I’ve had during the week on a tasting that was particularly special – I’ll go and buy another for the weekend. So there’s no one particular wine I always go for. Life’s too short not to try out as many different wonderful wines as possible!

What’s your drink of choice apart from wine?

After all those years in Germany, I developed a real liking for wheat beer but I also enjoy the odd gin and tonic.

Is there a country that’s producing wines that you predict will be popular?

Give China a few years and we may see their wines doing well. So many new vineyards have been planted, and they will certainly be looking for markets abroad in the future.

What are your top tips for choosing a bottle of wine?

Don’t choose a wine on the basis of it being heavily discounted, unless you have enjoyed it before! Make use of independent stores because their staff are well-trained and can give you helpful advice which reduces the chances of buying a wine that doesn’t work for you.

What’s the best thing about your job and why?

Meeting lots of new wine lovers, discovering new wines from unexpected places and opening people’s eyes to the wines they would otherwise never have considered.

For more information call the Oxford Chelt Wine School on (01865) 238042.

© SoGlos
Monday 26 October 2015

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