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.
Below is the break-down of the course but if you’re living in Barcelona and want to get started with some WSET education, check out the lovely Sharon Levey at Wine Courses BCN.
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.
The above is the layout of the WSET Diploma, the most demanding and high level course available through this institution. Fear not, for not all courses are this rigorous so don’t be put off if you want to get started, you absolutely should! For more information on the WSET in general, this is their global site.