Thoughts On: The WSET Diploma Unit 3 exam

So, I have a single exam left ahead of me in order to successfully complete the WSET Diploma, and it’s the big one; Unit 3 – ‘Light Wines of the World’. As the WSET Diploma is broken down into 6 units, what ‘Light Wines of the World’ basically means is everything that wasn’t included in the previous 5. So no sparkling wines, no spirits and no fortified wines. The information learnt in both ‘The Global Business of Wine’ and ‘Production Methods’ will need to be called upon to answer questions in more depth, but essentially this is about white, red, rose and unfortified sweet wines from every major wine producing region in the world.

The major obstacle is the sheer size and scope of the exam. It’s split into two parts, one to be completed in the morning and one to be completed in the afternoon of the 7th January, a little over 6 months from now. This single exam is worth 50% of the marks for the entire of the WSET Diploma and the minimum recommended study time is 300 hours. My experience with the other, considerably smaller units was that the minimum time really was that; the bare minimum, so aiming to exceed that is strongly recommended. The exam itself is split thus:

Part I – A blind tasting of 12 wines to be completed in 2 hours, with full tasting notes as per the WSET lexicon and additional conclusions to be made depending on the flight. This is trickier than it looks but, famous last words, I’m not overly concerned about it. I practice blind tasting on a weekly basis and having written somewhere in the region of 1,500 WSET tasting notes, I’m pretty familiar with writing them in the time frame required. As a result I’ll continue to practice tasting in exam conditions, but the vast majority of my time will be spent on learning the theory part of the unit.

Part II – 5 essay and/or short answer questions to be completed in 3 hours, with one of the questions being mandatory and the other 4 chosen from a group of 5 (Only one can be avoided). This is where 95% of my time is going to be spent, as the amount of information required is enormous and having never done higher education, my essay and exam techniques leave an awful lot to be desired.

So, with the split clear and obvious, the only remaining task is to choose how to best spend 6 months of studying whilst balancing a small business, extra work on the side, a newly born child and hopefully some semblance of a social life. Whilst I will no doubt turn into over-drive come December and double the amount of time spent studying, the size of the task means that consistent studying has to be undertaken now to avoid failure. With that in mind, here is my plan:

June (Or what’s left of it)2 hours per day to be spent reading through the 170 page study guide and re-reading David Bird’s “Understanding Wine Technology”. According to the examiners report, a lot of students completely forget to revisit the basics of viticulture and vinification, and lose obvious marks when asked a question that requires an explanation of something integral to the region; ie. The impact of planting densities in Burgundy, trellising systems in New Zealand, reverse-osmosis in poor vintages in Bordeaux and so on. 10X2 = 20 hours

July and August – 2.5 hours a day. This is the time when I need to really gather information and resources together, slowly start reading through it and highlight key points. Every section of the study guide has the Oxford Companion to Wine references to study, and that either means lugging around the encylopedic tome with me everywhere, or using my membership to JancisRobinson.com to prepare a study guide and print it out. The latter it is. This is going to be a huge but essential task. 62X 2.5 = 155 hours This may seem like quite a lot during the summer, but July and August in Barcelona are so unbearably hot sitting inside studying with a huge fan blowing directly into my face is actually quite an attractive option!

September and October – 2 hours a day. Study time in it’s simplest form; read, re-read and read the material again. The plan here is also to start looking at some of the more recent trends and developments in the individual wine regions, as well as classifying key producers. 61 X 2 = 122 hours

November – 2.5 hours a day. Similar to the previous block, with the exception that now I also have to check statistics. For each country, it’s important to know the Sales in both volume and value, a basic over-view of trends and have an idea of their major export markets. The reason I’m leaving this until November is if I start with it, I’ll lose the will to live by the end of July. By November, that ship’s already sailed anyway. 30X 2.5 = 75 hours

December – 3 hours a day. 3 hours a day over Christmas sounds quite awful and this is why the pass rate for the January exams is so low. Revision, exam questions and more revision. 25X 3 = 75 hours (I know I’m clearly not going to be able to study every day here, so no point including them all)

January – Panic stricken revision – literally anything that can be done in the days before the exam.

So, that’s about the extent of it. 450 hours in total planned and if you reduce 10% of that as a sort of reality check, I’ll have to work hard to get to 400 hours done over the next 6 months. Now that I write it down, it looks quite depressing but also manageable. In the past, I’ve managed the workload by studying as much of it as possible first thing in the morning and that’s what I’ll do again. Needless to say, if you don’t see much of me over the coming months, you’ll know why!

Incidentally, I’m very much looking forward to an exam-free 2018 after January. I’m a big proponent of wine education and I owe a lot of my understanding of wine to the WSET courses I’ve taken. However, I think a full year of slowly absorbing information without any exam pressure will be lovely, useful and well deserved! It’ll also give me a lot more time to focus on other projects as well as more time with my new family. However, there’s a good 400 hours between now and then so let’s get started!

Thoughts on: Judging Quality in Wine with the WSET Lexicon

wine-judging

So, I spent the entire of yesterday learning how to taste and analyse sparkling wines as objectively as possible, in exam conditions. This ranged from cheap and simple Prosecco to incredibly expensive Vintage Champagne, Lambrusco to sparkling Shiraz and a little bit of everything in between from all corners of the globe. As usual, the WSET method of tasting focuses mainly on the students ability to correctly analyse a wine, breaking it down in terms of flavours, aromas and the structure. However, at the Diploma level a great deal more emphasis is then placed on your ability to qualify the quality level of the wine, ranging from ‘poor’ to ‘outstanding’ with a substantial amount of justification needing to be given regardless of your decision.

I’ve always appreciated the methology I’ve learnt from studying with the WSET; it’s a very rigorous, methodical approach that forms a solid foundation for practically any sort of tasting you’ll be required to do professionally in the industry and can easily be built upon to be a little more flexible. Essentially, it’s designed on the following framework:

Balance – Is the wine balanced? Does anything stick out unpleasantly, or does any one part of the wine overpower the others? Sometimes very acidic wines can become a little tart if the flavours aren’t concentrated enough. Sweet wines can taste cloying and sloppy if the acidity is too low to support the sugar concentration. Alcohol can be quite aggressive and hot if it’s unreasonably high in the context of the wine. Even something you really enjoy in a wine, say bright, fruity flavours, can make a wine quite disappointing if everything else falls flat by comparison.

Length – How long do the desirable flavours last for? Some wines can be quite basic and still be well balanced. Some wines can be quite basic and give the impression of quality, often due to manipulation of oak, lees contact and extraction. A good, long finish however, is essentially impossible to achieve without healthy, top quality grapes and as such, is a mark of real quality.

Intensity – How intense are the flavours in the wine? This is something I find is often misjudged as it’s easy to confuse power and size with intensity. You can have a 15% ABV Barossa Shiraz that has real intensity on the palate but at the same time, a 9.5% ABV Riesling from the Mosel Valley can pack just as much of a punch. Intensity is the strength and impact of those flavours and how they’re delivered. I recall Jancis Robinson MW referring to her first experience with Musigny Grand Cru as being like ‘an iron fist in a velvet glove’ which very much encapsulates the concept.

Complexity – How complex are the aromas and flavours in the wine? Is it a young, simple wine or is there a level of development there? Can you easily distinguish between primary fruit flavours, secondary influences of wine-making and the tertiary effects of bottle ageing? Does it improve the wine as a whole?

wset-outside

Now, it’s fair to say that this system isn’t perfect. I’m sure many of us can think of a wine that is absolutely delicious without being overly complex. I’m sure that, as individual consumers, some of us like wine that is sometimes a little bit unbalanced providing it’s in favour of an attribute we happen to particularly enjoy. It’s also been noted that certain wine styles, particularly those with levels of brett, volatile acidity and other ‘faults’/quirks fare quite poorly, regardless of how tasty they are. This is where individual tasting scope and common sense comes into play; the system is after all, just a foundation to be built upon, not a stand-alone all encompassing solution. On a more personal note, below are three additional factors I subconsciously process when drinking wine outside of exam conditions:

Provenance – Is the wine easily identified? Put simply, I want wine to taste like the grape(s) it’s made from and the place it comes from as I appreciate tasting flavours and styles that have been built from decades of consistent work, regulation and tradition. Innovation is important but it has to have a solid basis other than some mad wine-makers personal philosophy if I’m going to part with hard earned cash in order to acquire it.

Accessibility – Can I drink this now or do I have to wait for a number of years before opening it? Put simply, a lot of high quality wines are quite aggressive when they’re very young and require time in the bottle for the components to integrate, soften and become more expressive. This is a problem if you live in Barcelona and rely on good friends with wine fridges to store your modest collection. As a result, I rarely buy wine anymore that I won’t be drinking within a year or two at the latest. This is a really personal one and if I had anywhere remotely appropriate for long term ageing, one I’d scrap in an instant. Probably.

Most importantly -Is it delicious? The most subjective factor of them all. Do you want to pour yourself another glass of it? Is it good enough that you’d want to share it with your friends? This may be no more objective than Alice Feirings consideration of ’emotional impact’, but it’s less pretentiously presented (I hope). I may be a wine geek but if I’m rushing to share a wine with someone, it’s far more likely to be this point than anything else.

I suppose the most important consideration of systematic tasting and analysis is to have a few criteria to go by, regardless of what they are. This is ultimately how we develop our own preferences, tasting experience and slowly start to unravel and learn the world of wine from a practical point of view. As soon as you start to stop and think about a glass of wine, your relationship to wine starts to change; for the better, I hasten to add! If you don’t already, the next time you drink a glass of wine take 30 seconds to ask yourself ‘What do I like about this wine?’ It’s well worth the time!

Thoughts on: Blind Tasting Wine

wine-tasting2

Blind tasting: the act of tasting, analysing and attempting to identify a wine with no prior knowledge of where the wine was produced, who it was produced by, the quality level, the price or anything else that could help define it. This involves evaluating the colour and intensity of the wine; is the slight garnet tinge due to the ageing process of red wine or is it due to the grape variety? The aromas of the wine; Is it complex or simple? Are the aromas primary, secondary, tertiary or a combination of several/all three? Does the profile of the aromas suggest a cool climate, a moderate climate or a warm climate? On the palate now; how is the level of acidity and is it suggestive of malic or lactic acid? How are the levels of alcohol, tannins, flavour intensity, finish and residual sugar? Is it well balanced or is something sticking out? Is that peppery finish coming from the grape variety or as a result of ageing in oak barrels?

The options are many and varied, and this is why blind tasting is often described as ‘A game of clues’. Within your analysis, you gather as many clues as possible by breaking down every aspect of the wine. Using your results, you put it all back together and come to a reasonable conclusion as to what the wine is, where it came from, which grapes were used and even what year the grapes were harvested in.

Quite recently I’ve discovered that blind tasting can be polarising. There are many within the industry who see it as nothing more than a parlour trick, a game to be played occasionally for fun with friends but that has no commercial relevance within the wine industry itself. On the other hand, every major wine education body in the world places blind tasting in high regard, including the very pinnacle of wine education; The Institute of Masters of Wine. Whilst I can understand the arguments against blind tasting, there is no doubt in my mind that it is an incredibly useful skill, albeit one that is very, very difficult to be reasonably proficient at, never mind gaining a mastery of it. So what are the main advantages of blind tasting and why is it held in such high regard? In no particular order:

  1. Objectivity: I’ve discovered through my own education and experience that it is possible to be highly objective about wine, it just requires a lot of discipline and practice. The thing is, we all have unconscious bias in our lives, whether it be our political beliefs, our moral code or whether or not we once had a bad bottle of Californian Chardonnay. Blind tasting goes a long way to eliminating this, allowing us to focus on nothing but the liquid in front of us, free from distractions such as labels, bottle shapes, price points and, heaven forbid, scores from famous wine critics.

  2. Focus: Once these distractions are removed, it becomes a practice of your senses; there is nothing to focus on other than the liquid in your glass. How does it look, smell and taste? By practicing these skills in blind conditions, we not only improve this skill but our ability to taste and evaluate wine in general. Analysing a wine, gathering information and applying your judgement to come to a reasonable conclusion takes time and money to practice, but greatly enhances your appreciation not only of the wine in front of you, but of wine in general. It is nothing if not a humbling process!

  1. Learning: Whether your conclusion is right or not, you will nearly always learn from the process. It’s usually quite easy to trace your process back and find out where you took a wrong turn, where you misidentified a characteristic or structural component that took you away from the truth. Without any distractions, it’s a fantastic way to learn what certain grapes, climates and wine-making practices can do to the final product:

    ‘Ah, so that’s the difference between French and American oak usage’

    ‘You’re telling me there’s no malolactic fermentation here, so why is the wine so creamy?’

    The aroma of strawberries and spice led me towards Grenache, but I misread the alcohol level’

    Better yet is to learn from other peoples processes. I regularly taste with a group of 5 friends who work in the wine industry and I’m always fascinated to hear their process, their thoughts and how it all added up to their conclusion.

  1. It’s fun!: If you’re coming up to exams, practicing blind tasting may seem more stressful than fun. At every other time, though, it is a really lovely social activity that not only enhances your own understanding of wine but gives you an opportunity to do so in great company. The trick is to not give yourself overly high expectations; blind tasting is a very difficult practice and unless you have a Master Sommeliers exam around the corner, it’s worth your while to approach it with a sense of levity. I’ve recently started to include blind tastings as part of our weekly wine tasting events in Barcelona and without fail, they’ve resulted in wonderful nights and a request for them to be included more often! That alone is a pretty good indicator for me to keep practicing, keep learning and keep enjoying the art of blind tasting!

As I’m blind tasting on a pretty regular basis, I will start posting the results of my various failures and learnings under the tag: Barcelona Blind Wine Tasting. Original, eh? Whilst our tasting group is already pretty full, it’s relatively easy to put one together. All you need is a group of friends, a time and a place and a few glasses. Everyone brings a bottle and takes it in turns to pour the rest of the group a drink whilst they analyse the wine and come to their conclusions. The more friends, the more wines you get to try! For those who want an indepth look into the world of blind tasting, I have to recommend the fantastic ‘The Concise Guide to Wine and Blind Tasting’ by Dr Neel Burton.

Have the latest posts sent directly to your inbox!

Get the latest posts delivered to your mailbox: