All posts by Nina Whaltey

The Bettane + Desseauve Wine Experience London

It should come as no surprise that the Birkbeck Wine Society knows good wine and, more importantly, where to find it. Under the enterprise of the outgoing president, the first event of the term set the bar high for the rest of the year with an exclusive wine tasting event featuring over 200 offerings from premier international producers. In a joint event with the Economics and Finance Society, the Wine Society stepped out last weekend to attend the treat that was the Bettane + Desseauve Wine Experience London.

Created by respected wine critics Michael Bettane and Thierry Desseauve, the gentlemen behind the Bettane Desseauve wine buyer’s guide, the event sees hand-picked producers offering their products and expertise to a select audience of trade and public oenophiles. Our venue for the third Bettane + Desseauve Wine Experience London was the Saatchi Gallery, Chelsea. A nightmare to get to, courtesy of the traditional weekend rail ‘improvement’ works knocking out all trains on the north bank, but a very suitable venue for the event.

Entering through the foyer we exchanged our e-tickets for compact but dauntingly thick ‘Tasting Notes’ books and our entry cards; to be used to gain access to the two ground floor galleries set aside for the tasting. The 31 different exhibitors were arranged between the two galleries, numerically ordered to correspond to their pages in the ‘Tasting Notes’ books, with simple black and white clothed tables, backed by black felt boards (each displaying a fine landscape photograph or map of their product’s natural habitat), forming a neat contrast to the stark white walls and floors of the minimalist rooms.

Birkbeck Wine Society

Unsurprisingly given the focus of the event’s originators, French wine predominated the exhibits. Bordeaux, in particular, featuring heavily. However there were a good selection of regional offerings from traditional producers such as Italy, in addition to some more unusual picks from countries such as Lebanon and Greece. On personal preference I felt the lack of German wine keenly, but the vast selection available at the event already surpassed the potential endurance of the average taste buds.

The session we attended ran from 12:00pm until 07:00pm that night, so a considered and paced plan of attack was key. Admitting from the outset that sampling all available wares would be an impossibility, we took a targeted approach; many of the group taking a moment to analyse the list of exhibitors for countries, brands and specific types of wine they have been on the lookout for  in the past (and there were some pleasant surprises for most in that regard).

‘Tasting Notes’ in hand, pens poised, we dove in to begin our exploration.

Attempts were made to keep to traditional wisdom with regards to sampling white, rosé and sparkling in the first instance, keeping wine of the red and desert variety towards the end, but personal preference and a proliferation of tempting ‘red’ offerings soon saw the system break down. Thankfully for the first few hours there were sufficient crackers and water to go round to enable a semblance of pallet cleansing in between samplings.

There were some clear winners, in particular in the Bordeaux category. The Saint Emilion Grand Cru, Château Villemaurine 2010 was a full bodied, yet still wonderfully fresh and vibrant experience. The accompanying Les Angelots de Villemaurine 2010 was also noted as excellent. At the Le Macchiole stand the ICT Toscana, Messorio 2010 Merlot was a smooth and devilishly drinkable hit. From the Greek Ktima Gerovassiliou, the PGI Epanomi, Malagousia 2013 white was an unusual treat of herbal notes in addition to a fresh peach and lemon flavour. Smoothest, and most revisited, of the Cavas was Augustí Torelló’s flavouresome Mata Brut Reserva 2010. The Champagne Ruinart stand, in addition to winning the prize for the most attractive ice bucket, delighted in the Blanc de Blancs. Château Gassier provided a crisp and enjoyable rosé in Le Pas du Moine 2013. In the desert wine category, the group were very pleasantly taken by the Tuscan Fattoria di Petreto, a beautiful amber coloured beverage that has that dangerous ‘not alcohol’ feel that can easily lead to excessive consumption.

Charles - Birkbeck Wine Society

Naturally there was the odd ‘miss’. Excessive sediment made a taste of the dregs of the lauded Les Angelots de Villemaurine 2010 a less than pleasant experience for several members of the Wine Society. Personal preference and sense memory impeded enjoyment of wines such as the Pessac-Léognan, Château Bouscaut 2011 white (which put one individual in mind of an unpleasant garlic-snails dish) and the Barolo DOCG Torriglione 2010 (an oddly dark red which had a member of the group recalling distinctive wine encountered while functioning as an altar boy). The Domaine Terra Vecchia Corse, Clos Poggiale 2012, was noted as having an astonishingly overpowering aftertaste for a rosé. And the Champagne Paul Goerg had a very individualistic taste by comparison to more ubiquitous mass-produced Champagnes and consequently did not appeal to all. It should be emphasised that finding complaint that goes beyond personal preference is hard given the high calibre of the offerings selected by Bettane + Desseauve.

Lucky for the group that we arrived at the slightly over-keen time of 12:00pm, as the exhibit opened, as by half way through the event there was a distinct lack of crackers, not to mention floor-space, to contend with as the numbers admitted increased. Several exhibitors, having evidently concluded their trade pitches for the day, left well before the close of the event; kindly leaving their products but depriving visitors of their expertise.

There were some absolutely outstanding exhibits in terms of hospitality and presentation. Honourable mentions go to Ktima Gerovassiliou, Château Ksara, Champagne Tattinger, Château Gassier, Le Macchiole and Champagne Ruinart for their fascinating expositions and the well thought out order in which they guided us through their products. The engraved pebbles brought in by Château Gassier, to illustrate local soil conditions, and the functional glass-work art on display at the Château Ksara table were a nice touch and an appreciated extra.

It is with no small amount of pride that I conclude by stating that many of our group were present at the close of the event. With sore feet and slightly light heads, not to mention several essays worth of notes each, we gathered by the steps of the Saatchi Gallery for the obligatory ‘survivors photograph’. Many thanks to the kind security guard who consented to take it for us!

Group shot - Birkbeck Wine Society





Lighting up Leake Street


Leake Street 2

Recently a friend sent me an invitation that included the words ‘spinning fire’.  I was there in a heartbeat.

We met by Waterloo Station, which was just as well since my feet automatically started out in the direction of the South Bank before my guide set me straight and put us on the road to Leake Street.

Down York Road, past the traditional off-licences, souvenir shops, cafes and office blocks — all sporting an eerie blue shine courtesy of the lights of the London Eye — we arrived at our destination.

Turning left onto Leake Street we were confronted with the striking spectacle of undulating lights spinning in the tunnel, beyond a neat queue of dark cars awaiting their turn in the hand car wash at the entrance.

This is Alex Lee’s Full Moon Spin, an event continued in memory of its eponymous founder by an ever shifting team of volunteers, a fixture bringing together performers and enthusiasts for all things fire spinning.

Usually held on the shore of the Thames, hence the choice of the Friday closest to the full moon for tidal reasons, the event had been decamped for October 2014 to Leake Street due to adverse weather predictions. And while the promised rain never materialised, the decision to decamp was a good one.

The tunnel, a designated legal graffiti area, is a visual feast in itself. Layers upon layers of neon, metallic and technicolour marvels, little by little encroaching on the diameter of the tunnel as each new artistic offering is sprayed over the old. Any photo journalist or art students would be well advised to make the Leake Street tunnel a regular pilgrimage spot to study its ever-shifting appearance.

On this particular night, packed with people and dancing flames, the phrase ‘cave of delights’ is fully appropriate. I do concede that the usual moonlit riverbank venue must have a magic all of its own. But the enclosing graffiti artwork around the tunnel walls and fading visibility in the light haze of smoke, accumulated down in the tunnel depths past the spinners, rendered Leake Street a dramatic and atmospheric venue; the perfect creative space for the spinners to demonstrate their skills to a rapt audience.

There was a little something to tantalise everyone, and many items that your humble author was unaware existed so please forgive any lapses in terminology!

The fire poi, weighted balls coated in paraffin on the end of chains, took centre stage, with the more advanced practitioners not only spinning but also wrapping the flaming weights around various appendages before spinning them out again. Fire staffs (think Little John’s stick, but flaming at both ends) were on display later in abundance; mastery in this case being demonstrated by a ‘Look no hands!’ approach that saw well-toned shoulder blades and necks doing for fire staffs what a little children’s fingers do for majorette sticks. Amazing.

For those who fancied a more hypnotic experience there was accomplished fire hula hoop to be had. Or for the more mettlesome minded, several flaming Katanas made appearances throughout the night.

A little further down the tunnel, away from the immediate vicinity of the spectators, the odd dragonesque ball of fire lit up the walls as fire breathers demonstrated their skills. Closer to the crowd, not needing the space required by the aforementioned, those intending to eat the fire instead casually reposed on the ground, heads thrown back ready for their repast.

Apparently, the fire eating side of things is safer and easier to master than the fire breathing aspect. I can neither confirm nor deny this, but both make for a thrilling spectacle!

There were other non-combustible delights on display too. Hula hoops and poi with LED lights or UV glow, bull whips that cracked louder than the sound of a revving bike, and S-shaped devices (also with LEDs) which transformed the user into something reminiscent of a mini fairground ride when spun. Not forgetting a gentleman who kept a clear acrylic ball (akin to the size found in fortune teller’s tents) balanced atop his head for the better part of two hours.

Seasoned veterans have a care for the safety and wellbeing of ‘newbies’ as they take to the fire until the newbies show themselves to be experienced spin-merchants (usually apparent in a matter of seconds) or prove they are able to pursue the necessary learning process cautiously, and well out of tangling distance from the other spinners around them. Those who have brought ‘practice’ poi (which have cords instead of chains, and often sport floaty scarves attached to their weights for effect), non-flaming hoops, whips, or whose staffs and swords had burned out, were happy to offer impromptu lessons to those eager to foray into learning new skills.

Clearly spinning, especially of the fire variety, is not without its dangers. But cautionary tales were surprisingly few and far between. The majority of accounts ended something like ‘So they learned to never do THAT again!’ as the person recounting the tale pointed to the person in question – the latter invariably spinning away, looking like they were born to do it, and a far cry away from the man or woman in the story who had managed to once get a flaming poi stuck round their neck.

Spectators ranged from those with food and drink supplies and blankets, most of whom wouldn’t have looked out of place spinning the poi themselves (and may well have done so earlier that evening), to bewitched locals and commuters (sporting the odd toddler or bike by way of accessory) who were evidently thankful they had chosen this particular night to take a wander down Leake Street. Professional events photographers with their SLRs, as well as sapped businessmen with their iPads waiting for the carwash, stood by recording the moment for posterity.

An unchoreographed extravaganza, the organic coming together of athletes creating a moving spectacle of art, Alex Lee’s Full Moon Spin is an event to be marvelled at, and participated in, in any way you can. For photographs, details on training, equipment and upcoming events, check out the London Fire Spinners facebook page at