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!
I still remember my first real moment of joy with wine, the feeling of this enormous world opening in front of me, the history, the culture and the sheer complexity and scope of it all. I’ve had this same feeling since, but the first experience I had of it was in a classroom on an uncharacteristically warm Monday morning in London, preparing to start my intensive WSET Level 3 course. As I’d chosen to bypass the first two levels of the WSET, I found myself very much the odd one out; not only had I not brought a spittoon but I hadn’t ever considered spitting wine out before in my life. I didn’t know the basics of wine production, let alone the nuances of different countries, regions and producers, nor had I tasted anything outside of Spain before. It was truly a baptism of fire and yet the only thing I recall was how much fun I had. It was a life-changing week for me and everything since has been inspired by what I learnt there.
I’m still relatively new to the wine industry, as that week was only just over 2 years ago now. Even so, everything has changed as I’ve spent the time between constantly studying, working and trying to improve my understanding of wine. The wines I’ve tasted can now be counted in the thousands rather than the hundreds. I’ve gorged myself on study guides, books, podcasts, blogs and trips to wineries. I’ve worked a harvest and seen some very exciting and very boring sides of the industry. I’m 5/6s of the way through the WSET Diploma and have organised hundreds of tastings in Barcelona. Despite being a newcomer, I can no longer be blown away quite in the same way that I was at the beginning, as it is with all things. However, ‘Ah ha!’ moments still come quite frequently as I have so much still to learn, yet they tend to come as individual pieces of the puzzle, rather than someone drawing back a curtain and showcasing the finished article.
Often these moments come when several disconnected facts find common ground and helps explain a concept you’ve been struggling to get your head around. In tasting, they’re even more common-place as you slowly learn how your palate responds to acidity, tannins, alcohol and the other components of wine. Probably my all time favourite, though, is trying a wine you know all about theoretically, have spoken about and yet have never had the opportunity to taste. A wine that has some sort of historical relevance to a region, a grape or a style. Usually these wines come with pretty hefty price tags and a fair amount of fame, so actually getting hold of them is easier said than done but when it does come along, it’s all the sweeter for it. Last week I had the distinct pleasure of one of these rare ‘Ah ha!’ moments in the shape of the famous ‘Super Tuscan’, Sassicaia.
Tenuta San Guido Sassicaia 2001
A lot has been written about Sassicaia, arguably Italy’s most famous wine, so I won’t add a great deal of detail, other than to say it was a relevatory experience for me. As I was learning about appellation laws in Europe, I also learnt about the concept of ‘Super Tuscans’, a term coined largely by the US and UK wine trade to describe wines that were made within Tuscany, often using a blend of international varieties in spite of local regulations. Sassicaia was one of the very first, a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc, and has gone on to create a legendary reputation largely due to the craft and skill of consultant Giacomo Tachis, as well as the vision and drive of the owner of the estate, Mario Incisa. The resulting success of these wines, originally designated as Italian Table Wine or “Vino da Tavola” forced the Italian authorities to create a separate designation known as ‘IGT’ to accommodate wine-makers who wanted to be more creative with their production, without conforming to DOC and DOCG regulations. Such was the success of Sassicaia in particular, that it now has it’s own DOC within Bolgheri DOCG, making it the only wine in Italy to enjoy this distinction.
For a wine that’s moving onto it’s 16th birthday it was still remarkably youthful in both appearance and profile; a lovely deep ruby colour with only a slight bricking towards the rim. Beautifully aromatic with lots of blackberry, damson and plum fruit, along with the tell-tale roasted green bell-pepper and slightly minty note. This wine is in an excellent place with lots of leather, tobacco and earthy, savoury elements layered behind, but the freshness and life is the most remarkable thing about it. This will happily age for another 10 years although I was delighted to have caught it now, when the finely grained tannins had their last shred of grip and texture before becoming completely integrated. A very moving bottle of wine.
I drank the wine catching up with a friend over a long and very enjoyable lunch at Monvinic wine bar in Barcelona. Did it cost a lot? It certainly did, €137 to be precise, and that was just for the wine. Would I do it again? In a heart-beat. I’ll probably never experience the same mind-blowing revelations that I did when I first started to learn about wine and that’s ok. As long as I find and occasionally splash out on wines that give me these ‘Ah ha!’ moments, that connect the dots between hundreds of hours of studying, I’ll be more than content. The rest of learning about wine is a slow collection of knowledge and practicing continuously, all made worthwhile by these occasional, brilliant bottles. If they can be shared in good company again, well, I’d say that would make me a very happy man indeed!
Every week I head over to Monvinic, Barcelona’s largest international wine bar, to practice blind tasting. Typically this involves a flight of 6 wines, split equally between white and reds from all across the world. I’ve long been a believer that blind tasting is an incredibly useful study tool, and I’ve decided to track my sessions here in all their misery (mostly) and glory (very rarely!). As a result you may seem some confusing measurement terms as I am currently using the WSET Lexicon as a frame-work for my tasting notes partially trimmed down here for the purposes of brevity.
As this was my first blind tasting session in well over 2 months owing to my studies for exams on spirits and sparkling wines, I enjoyed it even more than usual. For a first blind tasting after a long time without practice, I was reasonably happy with the outcome although as always, the real learning is in the post-tasting analysis. With that being said, here were the wines and the results!
The first wine has a medium lemon colour. There are pronounced aromas of ripe golden apples, peach, apricot, and a touch of white flowers. There is a note of wet stones, lime, lemon and a lovely honeyed note. Just the slightest hint of tell-tale kerosene.
On the palate the wine is off-dry with high acidity, medium alcohol and a medium body. There are pronounced aromas of candied lime, lemon, ripe green apples, pear, peach and honey. The finish is long with the same wet stone/mineral quality discovered on the nose. An excellent wine with a long life ahead of it; refreshing acidity, a lovely balance of both primary and tertiary flavours and a good intensity. It felt very typical of a high quality Riesling.
Guess: Riesling from Alsace in France from the 2009 vintage.
Reality: Riesling from Nahe in Germany from the 2011 vintage
Emrich-Schonleber is a small estate ran by Werner Schönleber and his family, which now comprises 18 hectares in the Nahe region of Germany, just south of the more famous Mosel-Saar-Ruwer. It has been a family ran estate since the 18th century although only became focused on wines from 1965 onwards. Today their 18 hectares of land are given over to the production of wine, mainly focused on Riesling with elements of Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) and Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc).
Conclusions/Learning points: I’m reasonably happy with this conclusion, as I judged the acidity, sweetness levels (14 g/l sugar) and flavour profile well. I misjudged the level of alcohol which ultimately took me to the wrong place, and the evolution of flavours which took me to the wrong vintage. I need to drink more good quality German Riesling as I still sometimes mistake weight of flavour for alcohol in terms of mouth-feel. Even delicate wines can pack a punch!
This wine has a medium lemon colour. There is a medium+ intensity of aromas, with ripe peach, apricot, nectarine and green banana. There is detectable oak here, contributing notes of vanilla, cloves, honey, bread dought and a slight nuttiness; almonds? The oak is a little heavy and there is a slightly rubbery note to the wine.
On the palate the wine is dry with medium+ acidity, medium+alcohol and a medium+ body. There is a pronounced intensity of almonds, vanilla, toast and very little fruit; very muted in fact. There is a lot of phenolic bitterness to the wine which dominates into a relatively short finish (medium-). A reasonable quality wine but missing fruit and balance.
Guess: Xarel.lo from Penedes in Spain from the 2014 vintage
Reality: Chenin Blanc from Swartland in South Africa from the 2014 vintage
Wine: A.A Badenhorst Secateurs Chenin Blanc 2014
A.A Badenhorst is a venture between two cousins in Swartland, South Africa, where they cultivate 28 hectares of old bush-vines. Although this wine didn’t fare well in my blind tasting assessment, I have enjoyed their other products over the past year, especially the white and the red from their ‘first tier’ of wines.
Conclusions/Learning points: A swing and a miss. This is a good example of taking a single aspect of the wine and allowing it to dominate the conclusion, in this case the relatively clumsy oaking and oxidised notes, both of which I encounter with lower quality Xarel.lo here in Catalunya. Normally acidity would be a tell-tale sign from Chenin Blanc but according to the fact-sheet on this wine from the A.A Badenhorst website; “… and slightly lower acids than previous years.” Pleased to judge the alcohol correctly here and if I were taking this as part of a WSET exam, marks would still be high indeed as I judged both the flavour profile, structure of the wine and usage of both lees contact and oak vessels. According to their website, A A Badenhorst focuses on the production of ‘natural’ wines so I suppose typicity may have been a slight issue in the wine selection? Anway, I wasn’t even close in my conclusion!
The wine has a pale lemon colour. On the nose there is a medium+ intensity of fresh aromas, with green apple, green pear and gooseberry coming to the fore. There is ample fresh citrus here with both lemon and lime, wet stones, freshly cut grass and elderflower. Clearly a very fresh and youthful wine with no discernible oak.
On the palate the wine is dry with high acidity, medium alcohol and a medium body. There is a pronounced intensity of lemon, lime and gooseberries, wet stones, green apple and green pear. An incredibly crisp, lean style of wine with plenty of mineral nuances. The finish is mouth-watering and medium+ in length. A very good quality wine with clean, refreshing flavours, a balanced structure and a good intensity and finish. It doesn’t speak strongly to a particular grape but is exactly the sort of sharp, white wine I enjoy, particularly on a hot summers day.
Guess: Sauvignon Blanc from Sancerre in France from the 2014 vintage
Reality: Albariño from Rias Baixas in Spain from the 2014 vintage
Wine: Zarate Balado 2014
Adega Zarate is one of the oldest wineries in Rias Baixas, in the sub-region of Salnés. Tracing their lineage all the way back to 1707, the family have been recognised as a top quality style of fresh, mineral-driven Albariño since the 1950’s and have pioneered many of the new technologies, stainless steel etc, that the region now takes for granted.
Conclusions/Learning points: Another miss, although not a million miles away, this time. High acid, semi-aromatic varieties tend to quite alike and the differences can be very small. The irony of this is that I actually like and drink this wine a lot, but it isn’t like most commercial Albariño s as it doesn’t showcase the peachy, floral side of the grape and focuses more on the citric, mineral style. I’m not too sure that I can learn a great deal from this one, other than to perhaps include more grape varieties in my final grouping as I didn’t even consider Albariño!
The wine has a pale ruby colour. On the nose there is a medium intensity of fresh and slightly dried strawberries, cherries and red apple skin. There is a light hint of smoke, pepper and tertiary aromas of undergrowth, grass and a touch of leather.
On the palate the wine is dry with medium+ acidity, medium- ripe and firm tannins, medium+ alcohol and a medium- body. The flavour intensity is quite similar to the nose but rather dilute and the finish is medium. This is a reasonable quality wine but I was underwhelmed with the intensity of flavour, as well as the simplistic nature of the wine as it felt like it had a little bottle age.
Guess: Pinot Noir from Burgundy in France (Basic level) from the 2011 vintage
Reality: Pinot Noir (Spätburgunder) from the Ahr Valley in Germany from the 2010 vintage
Wine: Meyer Näkel Spätburgunder 2010
The Ahr Valley is one the most northerly German wine regions, although at a tiny 550HA it is not well known internationally. This was my first experience their wines but Werner Näkel has been producing mainly red wines here since 1982, when he first took over the family estate. I’m not a fan on this single showing, but looking forward to trying more of their wines in the future! I did briefly consider Switzerland as an origin for this one…
Conclusions/Learning Points: Well, happy enough to correctly guess that is was Pinot Noir. The confusion for me on region was the medium alcohol (13.2%, correctly judged) but the very light, ‘dilute’ flavours and lack of complexity. As with the wine above, I’m not sure there are too many lessons to take from this other than comfort in the fact that it would be a truly horrible exam if it included a red wine from the smallest producing region of Germany!
This wine has a deep ruby colour. On the nose there is a medium+ intensity of ripe blackberries, plums and black currants. There’s something light oak influence here with toast and cloves, and a touch of dried herbs and leather. Not overly complex but fresh and pleasant, with some development.
On the palate the wine is dry with high acidity, medium+ firm and slightly sticky tannins, medium+ alcohol and a medium+ body. The flavours are fresh and accessible, the wine is well structured and there’s some development of flavour. It tastes Italian but I can’t think of a grape variety that encompasses all the above, or even a blend. The finish is medium+. A very good quality wine that was a lot of fun to taste and deliberate over.
Guess: A Cabernet Sauvignon blend from Bordeaux Superieur in France from the 2010 vintage
Reality: Montepulciano from DOC Rosso Conero (Marche) in Italy from the 2008 vintage
Wine: La Calcinara Folle Conero Riserva DOCG 2008
La Calcinara are a small estate in the heart of Candia, Italy. They’re a relatively new establishment having been founded in 1997 by Mario Berluti and focuses exclusively on the Montepulciano grape planted on 9 hectares of land. A new winery for me but happy to try more based on this experience!
Conclusions/Learning points: A mile away in the end and this one is very much down to lack of knowledge and experience with Italian wines. In my tasting note I wrote at the side “it tastes Italian” but I didn’t have the theoretical knowledge to take the deep colour, the flavour profile and reconcile that with both high acidity and the firm, sticky nature of the tannins. One for the memory bank!
This wine has a pale garnet colour. On the nose there is a medium+ intensity of dried red fruits like cherry, strawberry and red plums. There is clear and obvious oak usage with vanilla and dill, as well as a plethora of tertiary characteristics like dried tobacco, leather, mushrooms, wet leaves and a touch of volatile acidity.
On the palate the wine is dry with medium acidity, medium- slightly grippy tannins, medium alcohol, medium bodied and a medium+, very savoury finish. The flavours on the palate are almost entirely tertiary and this is clearly an old wine. Incredibly savoury but there is also a sweetness to it, I believe contributed from the American oak which leads me to my conclusion.
Guess: Tempranillo blend from Rioja in Spain from the 1990 vintage
Reality: Tempranillo blend from Rioja in Spain from the 1995 vintage
Wine: R.Lopez Heredia Vina Cubillo 1995
R. Lopez de Heredia are an iconic producer from Rioja, being one of the very first wineries to establish themselves there back in 1877. Arguably the most traditional bodega in Rioja to this day, they pride themselves on staying true to their roots and their wines reflect this, with long, slow maturations in American oak for both white and red wines the norm. If you’ve ever wondered what quintessential Rioja was all about, pick up a bottle of Tondonio/Bosconia/Cubillo with some age on it (The 2004 Reserva sells for 20 euros in Spain; insane QPR) and enjoy!
Conclusions/Learning points: Not much really, as aside from the vintage I was right on track. It’s always nice to finish with a win, especially as this is the sort of classic Spanish wine which may well come up on an exam. Vintages are difficult to be specific about as a wine gets older and the trick is to figure out the quality of the wine, and then try to discern how far along the path it is. I slightly over-rated the Cubillo and as a result, I thought it was older than it actually was. A better quality wine would have more structure, fruit and intensity at the age of 22 years old, but I’m splitting hairs really.
Overall, a really enjoyable tasting! It’s good to be back with the more general wines of the world and I have a full 9 months of studying and practice ahead of my final exam in January 2018. There’s lots to taste and lots to learn, so I will be back next week for more!
If you follow me on social media, you’ll see that every now and again I spend some time in London tasting wine, sitting exams and taking advantage of the broad selection of available, most of which we certainly can’t find in Barcelona. One day I’d like to be able to nip across to London every now and again without worrying about the cost of it, although the weak pound made the last trip surprisingly bearable, but the reason I’m spending a lot of time in London is due to the WSET Diploma; a course I’m studying through at the WSET HQ in Bermondsey.
The WSET is the ‘Wine and Spirit Education Trust’, created in 1969 as a charitable organisation to cater for the educational needs of the UK wine industry. Today the WSET is the leader in wine education, with courses available in over 70 countries worldwide. The whole system is based on an easy to understand level system, running from 1-4 with optional side-courses such as Sake and Spirits as separate study options. I personally entered the system at level 3, bypassing 1 and 2 more for financial reasons than anything else, and I credit that course with globalising my perspective on wine, which up until that point had been very Spain-focused. A few months after passing the level 3, I decided to enroll for the level 4 program, the WSET’s flagship qualification and a necessary stepping stone for those seeking to become Masters of Wine.
Since beginning the course in February 2016, my education has been accelerated to a rapid pace due to the quality of the teaching and the pressure of the exams, which are certainly no walk in the park, and I’m now 50% through with only 3 exams to go in March and June next year. The WSET Diploma is designed to give an incredibly solid understanding and knowledge of every major aspect of the wine industry and I have to say, thus far it has met this lofty goal. Even for the smaller units, you have to learn every facet of that unit as you simply don’t know how the examiners will set the questions.
The major issue of the course is the cost of it; if you want to actually have any class time then the costs are currently £1800 pounds a semester (I saved about 350 euros by booking my second semester post-Brexit!), plus the cost of the flights to London, accomodation, food, travel and of course the books and wine that you need to expand your knowledge throughout the course; my overall costs will be close to €10,000 by the time I’m finished. It’s tough, it’s time-consuming and it’s expensive but ultimately is it worth it? For me, absolutely. I’m having a wonderful time and I can’t wait to get back to the school in January for another week of learning, always taught by Masters of Wine and industry experts. The WSET gets its fair share of criticism and I’ve had issues with the organisation itself (having to bring tasting glasses from Barcelona to London for classes is beyond absurd) but I can’t imagine I would have had my mind opened to the industry in the way it has been, were it not for my interaction with the course material, my teachers and the wonderful people I’ve met along the way.
The course itself is broken down into 6 distinct parts:
Unit 1 – The Global Business of Wine
What is it? All the nuts and bolts of the wine industry; why do wines from New Zealand always cost so much? What are the advantages and disadvantages of being a family-ran business in the wine industry? Does the bulk transportation of wine risk the quality of the final product and what are the economic advantages?
Exams: 1x 2500-3000 word essay done in your own time, and 1x 75 minute case study done under exam conditions in an essay format.
Unit 2 – Viticulture and Vinfication:
What is it? The foundation of the entire wine industry; the biology of growing the grapes and the chemistry of turning them into wine. This has been my favourite unit thus far and digging into the details that deeply has given me a wonderful context for the industry as a whole. Which combination of root-stock types would you use for areas suffering from drought? What are the disadvantages of using bentonite as a fining agent? What are the side effects of potassium deficiencies in your soil?
Exams: 1x 90 minute exam with 100 multiple-choice questions. The easiest exam of the course by some distance.
Unit 3 – Light Wines of the World
What is it? ‘The Big One’ as it’s often referred to, is by far the most intimidating and difficult exam of the course which I will be taking next June. Essentially, every single wine that isn’t sparkling or fortified could come up here, with an indepth knowledge of every major wine region in the world required to pass. What steps can the South of Italy take to catch up to the more illustrious regions of the North? To what extent has Australia adopted itself to climate change and what is the future of this approach? Describe the 5 major grape varieties of Greece and their role in the wine industry, both local and exported. Tough stuff.
Exams: 1x 2 hour blind tasting of 12 wines.1x 2 hour exam with 4 essay questions to be answered on practically anything you can think of. Extensive knowledge of all other units needed here, which is why it is often the final exam.
Unit 4 – Spirits of the World
What is it? Exactly what it says on the tin; a comprehensive look at the world of spirits from both a production and industry point of view. Why have MaCallan changed their age-referenced labels in favour of Amber, Sienna and Ruby? What is the future for the Tequila industry? Explain the differences between the major styles of Rum from around the world.
Exams: 1x 30 minute blind tasting of 3 spirits and 1x 30 minute exam with 3 mini-essay questions.
Unit 5 – Sparkling Wines of the World
What is it? If it has bubbles inside it, it’s going to be contained in this unit! From Prosecco to Franciacorta, from Cava to Champange and from Moscato D’Asti to Lambrusco, and every stripe of New World sparkling wine as well. What are the major processes for producing sparkling wine and what are the advantages and disadvantages of each? Explain the domination of Prosecco on export markets. Disgorgement – explain.
Exams: 1x 30 minute blind tasting of 3 sparkling wines and 1x 30 minute exam with 3 mini-essay questions.
Unit 6 – Fortified Wines of the World
What is it? Port, Sherry, Madeira, Vin Doux Naturels, Rutherglen Muscat and practically anything from the south of Spain is included here. The exam has been slimmed down over the years as the market for fortified wine slows down globally, but it was still detailed enough to give us all a headache! Describe the major shippers in Madeira, describe the processes used for the different styles of Vin Doux Naturels, Pale Cream Sherry.
Exams: 1x 30 minute blind tasting of 3 fortified wines and 1x 30 minute exam with 3 mini-essay questions.
This is something I get asked a fair bit about, and although I’m currently studying my Diploma with the WSET I’d like this to be about wine education in general, as I intend to cover those topics in more depth another time. The real questions are, I suppose, what is wine education all about? Is it as much fun as it sounds? How do I go about it?
There’s a couple of ways to look at this, and I’ll get the first one out of the way quickly: If you want to be professionally involved with wine, you should, of course, invest in wine based education. Gone are the days of casually working your days in a wine shop and winding up as a senior buyer for a major wine company; the industry is now both more visible, more competitive and the world of wine has grown enormously. This subject came up a few months ago, when Matt Kramer, part of the Wine Spectator team, wrote a scathing article about this ‘new wave’ of wine professionals who were placing too much faith in qualifications and not enough on experience. Easy to say if you were fortunate enough to get a job with no experience/education and even easier to say if you were wealthy enough to have access to the worlds best wine from a young age (This was more a product of the times – wine simply used to be a lot more affordable!). For the rest of us though, we’ll simply have to spend our time and money investing in education.
With that aside, this post is really for people who have little to no professional interest in wine but want to know more about it, which I believe accounts for the vast, vast majority of wine consumers. Is wine education a worthwhile expenditure for you? I believe so, and here’s a few reasons why:
Base knowledge – This is the big one for me. The world of wine is a vast, complicated subject that is absolutely rife with subjective opinion, interpretation and personal preference. All well and good but in order to get to grips with the enormity of the subject, it pays to have a framework to work from, a foundation if you like. Once you understand the basics of Viticulture (growing the grapes), Vinification (Making the wine), market influences, wine service and consumer habits, there isn’t too much you can’t quickly grasp from that point onwards. This is where good wine education comes into play, as it covers these bases in adequate detail and builds everything upwards from that point.
Tasting skills – Whether or not you like a wine is a matter of personal preference. As I mentioned in this previous post, the concept of having ‘good taste’ is nonsense and should be taken with a very large pinch of salt. However, in terms of improving your ability to taste wine, break in down and understand the different components, a systematic approach to tasting is invaluable. The lexicon of wine language is just that, a language and in order to use it, you have to learn it. This is where tasting practices come in, and having a benchmark to work from is the real advantage here. When I first took my level 3 course with the WSET, I saw red wines under 14% alcohol as being quite light, because my only experience up until this point had been with big, beefy Spanish reds. I quickly discovered that 14% is considered pretty powerful for a lot of the world! Conversely, we had a German student who was so used to drinking Mosel Riesling that the concept of ‘High acidity’ was lost on her for all but the most gripping of wines.
Experience – As Mr Kramer points out, nothing is a substitute for experience. When I first starting studying wine, Spain was my only real experience. In a week in London I got to try 112 wines from all over the world; Californian Chardonnay, Burgundian Pinot Noir, Canadian Riesling, Italian Nebbiolo, Australian Cabernet Sauvignon…. it was a truly eye-opening experience for me. Whilst it takes a while for such an intense amount of information to settle in, it completely changed my approach to wine and I saw a thousand doors open in front of me. I’ve been excited and curious ever since, constantly searching for new wines, new grapes, new regions and a better understanding.
Context – Like all good education, the learning process should be less about what to know, and more about how to think. With the foundation above, I have discovered that learning how to think and analyse wine and the world around is has greatly improved my analytical skill-set in general. To paraphrase Ian Cauble MS from the documentary SOMM; how often do we really take the time to sit, analyse and think about something? We mostly live our lives at a very fast pace and that is something that is simply not possible with wine, it has to be broken down and dissected in order to really answer that golden question; ‘Why does this wine taste the way that it does?’. In particular I have found that my appreciation of food, coffee, cocktails and basically anything that can be appreciated on the nose and/or palate has greatly improved since I started to focus on wine.
Fun – I suppose it goes without saying that wine education tends to be a lot of fun! I have yet to meet anyone who spent time and money with an institution like the WSET and regretted it, as pass or fail you always gain something from it. With that comes new friends, new contacts and definitely new holiday destinations! It’s hard to learn about the natural beauty of Piedmont in Northern Italy without wanting to travel there immediately; wine, after all, is very rarely made outside of beautiful areas.
So, there you have it, I am greatly, greatly in favour of wine education, although I suppose that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. In the future I intend to look at some institutions in a little more depth in terms of what they can offer. However, for now, if you live in Barcelona and wanted to take a look at enhancing your wine education, I’d like to introduce my friend Sharon Levey, who offers WSET courses levels 1 and 2 for the most affordable price in the entire city, as well as being generally lovely and a fantastic teacher. Next month I am hoping to introduce her to Maestrazgo Wine Club with a special tasting event but for now check out her website for more information.(Today is the last day to book a course for September! Next ones are in November)