STUDENT Q&A: FROM ADVANCED TO DIPLOMA, TASTING GROUPS, & PASS RATES

WSET Advanced to Diploma

Q: Dear Rachel, I am a very keen amateur. I love wine, I read Decanter and others, subscribe to Jancis, and just passed Level 3 with Distinction. But the more I learn the more I realise what I don’t know…

Would you recommend that one has read all of the source material you mention prior to the course starting? 

Is it OK to launch straight in to Level 4 or should I do something like a French Wine Scholar and/or Italian Wine Scholar and/or Spanish Wine Scholar first to deepen my knowledge of those regions and improve my tasting; or is the structure of the Level 4 course such that it’s perfectly OK to jump straight in?

Do you think I will need to organise/join a tasting group outside of the classes?

Do you have any sense of what the success rate is typically at Level 4, and should I take the January or June exam?

A: Great questions here! I’ll do my best to answer.

I felt the same way as you after completing level 3. Fascinated, wanting to learn more, but questioning whether the expense and time commitment would be worth the investment. It’s all about learning what you don’t know that you don’t yet know!

For source material, I re-read my level 3 textbook before starting, and did a leisurely read through of the Wine Atlas & Oxford Companion to Wine. I didn’t take any notes at this point, just a read-through to refresh my memory, and also to get a lay of the land before starting the Diploma classes.

I went straight from Level 3 into the Diploma. My instructor always said about the difficulty and amount of knowledge we would acquire moving through WSET: Level 1 is like jumping onto a phonebook, level 2 up onto the countertop, level 3 is the rooftop of a house, and level 4 is a rocket into space!

The leap between Advanced and Diploma was a bit startling at first, but I adjusted to the new workload quickly. 

The level of detail and command of facts at level 4 is a big jump from 3. That being said, I do not believe it is necessary to take additional courses before entering the Diploma (although I’ve heard positive feedback about the FWS/IWS and wouldn’t dissuade you if you’re interested in a particular field). My thinking was to get through the Diploma right away, learn as broadly as possible, then continue to learn about the areas I found particularly fascinating. Now that the Diploma is completed, my eyes have been opened to the regions and wines I find most interesting, and I feel I can make well informed decisions about investing in more education.

In terms of tasting, the changes in abilities at beginning and by the end of level 4 were huge. On day 1, our instructor poured us several flights of two wines. In each flight, one wine was high quality, and one was basic quality. By a show of hands, our class was to show which we thought was the premium wine. There was no consensus, and I remember feeling concerned that I couldn’t identify quality. Within a couple of months, and with more practice, this exercise became much more successful.

I strongly recommend a tasting group outside of classes. The students whose tasting skills progress the fastest and became strongest are those who are blind tasting in a regular group outside of class (either weekly or every two weeks). I think trying to taste on your own, or solely in the classes will put a damper on your progress, and in the case of tasting solo, can greatly add to the program’s expense.

I have looked at the individual unit pass rates for Level 4. In my Diploma class, which is admittedly a rather small sample, about half the students who started together passed together (about one third quit the program or paused their studies). The toughest unit is #3 (theory), with the lowest pass rate, and the easiest to prepare for, in my opinion, is unit #2, which is a good unit to start with (partially due to the material, and partially due to being multiple choice). For Unit 3, I recommend writing the June exam sitting rather than in January (the pass rate is higher for this month, I believe in part because it is hard to study through December holidays!).

Here is an approximate average of pass rates for each of the units for the results of years 2010-2015:

  • Unit 1 CWA 88%
  • Unit 1 Case Study 75%
  • Unit 2 91%
  • Unit 3 Tasting 70%
  • Unit 3 Theory 42%
  • Unit 4 59%
  • Unit 5 73%
  • Unit 6 65%

Cheers & Cin Cin, Rachel

PS: do you have feedback on the FWS program? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments!

BLINDTASTING Q&A: FINDING FLORAL IN WINE

Finding floral notes in wine

Q: Dear Rachel,

My weakness in tasting is uncovering the florals...do you believe in those smelling kits they sell online?

 

A: When I blind taste a wine and sense a floral component, I'm always happy to get such an important clue AS to what the wine could bE.

For tasting kits, I have used the wine faults version, which I found very useful. It's challenging to find example wines demonstrating the different types of faults.

I haven’t purchased the kits with a wider selection of notes, as I believe they are very expensive and the flavours/scents can be found at a variety of sources. Of course, if your budget allows, and you want to try out the kit, have fun and let me know what you think of it!

As you meet to blind taste wines each week, consider bringing along some of the following supplies to nose after you taste.

Floral ideas: my first stop would be the florist or market, but I’m including some other ideas here for you too. The flower notes to try and smell are: jasmine, rose, elderflower, citrus blossom, lavender, chamomile, & violets. Yes, I'm the strange woman closing my eyes and smelling each of the flowers at the store :O

Beyond the grocery or market, I’d pop in to an essential oil store, plant store, or perfumier (such as Jo Malone, or a perfumer that specializes in individual notes) to smell or taste the following: Elderflower cordial/syrup or St Germain liqueur, chamomile tea, dried lavender sachets, orange/lemon plants in bloom, rosewater, & candied violets. For the scent of garrigue, try dried herbes de Provence (the kind with lavender flowers in it!).

Liqueurs, essential oils, and distillations do a nice job of capturing these floral scents in isolation, so if you can't find the fresh version these are a great source (for example, it's much easier to find fresh citrus blossoms in winter than summer).

When I smell a wine, I find that the floral note will often be the ‘top note’ or first item I note on a wine showing white floral character, and on reds showing violets/lavender that I catch it at the beginning of the nose or at the end of the palate. 

Here are some example floral notes - feel free to add your suggestions in the comments and I'll include them here:

~Nebbiolo: Rose

~Syrah: Violet

~Prosecco (Glera): Elderflower / Wisteria

~Moscato Bianco: Citrus Blossom

~Rhône reds: Herbes de Provence

~Brunello (Sangiovese): Violet / Lavender

~Gewurztraminer: Rosewater / Rose

~Riesling: Jasmine / Chamomile / Elderflower

~Torrontes: Floral Soap

SIMILKAMEEN SPONSORSHIP: CHARDONNAY PROJECT FROM OUR VINEYARD

When we bought our vineyard in the Similkameen Valley last summer, my husband and I inherited a crop of grapes and weren't sure what to do with them!

The vineyard was (and still is) a wild place, full of weeds, wildflowers, bugs and birds, and the grapes were growing with abandon, having not been pruned the past two years. We decided to sponsor two young winemakers who wanted to make their own wine for the first time, Keenan and Madison, with a small lot of grapes.

They visited our vineyard in late August 2016 to harvest, and spent the winter creating their wines. This weekend, we picked up a few bottles from their efforts: a pet nat and a still version of the Chardonnay.

Happy Chardonnay bunches destined for Keenan & Madison's project

Happy Chardonnay bunches destined for Keenan & Madison's project

This project was fun to be a {small} part of, and we plan to do this again. If you know someone in the Similkameen or Okanagan who is an aspiring winemaker, we will be awarding one lot of grapes for them to work with under our Similkameen Sponsorship this harvest season! I'll link to the details soon.

Intrepid young winemakers braving what was a very cold 2016 winter

Intrepid young winemakers braving what was a very cold 2016 winter

Here are some pictures from the journey:

After picking, straight to the crush pad. They whole cluster pressed until midnight! Lots of yeast from the organic site made for a vigorous ferment. Natural wine begins...

After picking, straight to the crush pad. They whole cluster pressed until midnight! Lots of yeast from the organic site made for a vigorous ferment. Natural wine begins...

A DIY pupitre

A DIY pupitre

Time to disgorge - a messy business

Time to disgorge - a messy business

It’s certainly been a learning experience. We’ve learned it’s important to settle the juice as best as possible before it starts to ferment...tomorrow’s disgorging may be a nightmare but we think that might have given us a clearer wine. We’ve also learned how important it is to be in a community of friends to help when needed.

Most of all we’ve learned to appreciate new flavours and aromas in wine. After our own project, all we want to drink is other folk’s experimental and funky wines. {Madison}
Enjoying the final product: Similkameen pet nat

Enjoying the final product: Similkameen pet nat

Congratulations, Madison & Keenan! I wish you all the best in your wine careers and am anticipating big things from you both.

Cheers,

Rachel

BLINDTASTING Q&A: ID'ING ACIDITY IN FINO SHERRY

Blind tasting Fino Sherry

Q: Dear Rachel,

I am struggling to assess acid, especially where there is residual sugar and high alcohol. For instance when tasting a Fino, the low body and dry style for me always makes the acid stand out. I know Palomino is a low acid grape variety so will write low/medium-, but that is not what I'm tasting. 

In a wine like these, do you have any tips/tricks for identifying the acidity level?

 

A: Thanks for your message. That’s a really good question. 

When we're blind tasting in exam conditions, it's important to remember that our assessment of a wine's acidity, sweetness, or other category is not just about how we perceive the wine, it's a question of recognizing and articulating its underlying qualities. So, as you mention, a wine can taste high in acidity when we know it's technically low in acidity!

When tasting a fortified wine which has very high residual sugar, it definitely becomes more challenging to determine the acidity level. For some, like a great Madeira, the acidity will sing in your mouth despite the sugar. Another clue of higher acidity is that despite the sweetness and alcohol you’re registering, the wine tastes fresh, bright, or balanced.

A sweet wine with a flabby flavour profile or lower acidity can sit heavy on the palate and taste flat, or have overwhelming sweetness or alcohol without balance.

Palomino like you mentioned, is a grape that produces lower acidity wine, and its juice is often adjusted with some tartaric acid before it undergoes fermentation - but Fino can have a bright, refreshing flavour profile, and sometimes a crisp salinity too (as in Manzanilla).

For me, the freshness that could taste like acidity comes from the biological aging/resulting acetaldehyde (AKA it smells distinctly of flor). Grapes for Fino often come from the best sections of albariza soil, plus the flor consumes glycerine, resulting in a lighter body.

With Fino, the flavour from flor will be immediately recognizable on the nose and palate, and you should ask yourself whether it’s there for each pale fortified you taste blind, so you can check in with your palate about whether the acidity is as high as it’s being perceived.

I found the analytical info for Fino and Oloroso from the Consejo website, it was curious to see Oloroso is listed as potentially having higher ranges of TA as it doesn't always taste that way on the palate!

From the Sherry.Wine website

From the Sherry.Wine website

From the Sherry.Wine website (check out the TA and Glycerine levels)

From the Sherry.Wine website (check out the TA and Glycerine levels)

Also of interest is this tasting article from Decanter China, in which Fongyee Walker MW suggests tasting a Fino (low acidity, high alcohol) against a Hunter Valley Semillon (high acidity, low alcohol).

WHAT YOU CAN LEARN BY FAILING A BLIND TASTING

What #blindtastingfailure feels like...

What #blindtastingfailure feels like...

What's the #1 mistake you can make when blind tasting?

In my opinion, the biggest mistake is: deciding what you are tasting before you are finished assessing the wine!

I was recently at a blind tasting where we were doing 12 wines (all red) in a mock Master of Wine exam setting. We had just over two hours to taste the wines and write up our essays. The problem, I went into the practice exam having got into town very late the night before. Definitely not enough sleep to stay sharp while doing a substantial flight of red wines. Plus, I'd skipped breakfast.

Tasting humble pie: I got to the last two reds, the end was in sight! After so many tannic wines, I was ready to be done. We were told they were from the same country and were made from the same grape. They had a medium ruby colour.

I smelled the nose and got some bright red fruit, and a hint of what struck me as aromas of semi-carbonic maceration. I somehow decided right then and there that they must be Beaujolais

Big mistake. Huge. {Pretty Woman reference}

WRONG.

They were Syrah.

Re-tasting them after the bottles were revealed, right away, there was the gamey, savoury note. Plus the distinctive peppery flavour. The assertive tannins. 

While tasting, a voice in my head had said: these have too much tannin to be Gamay. But instead of listening, I tried to make Gamay fit by postulating they were Morgon.

How did I ever convince myself these were Beaujolais? It was a really bad ID.

I know how: not enough sleep. Not having a proper breakfast and glass of water before tasting. By rushing through to identify the wines before doing a proper assessment.

Everyone makes mistakes. I'm sharing this in the hopes the next time you have an exam that you avoid some of these pitfalls. The #1 being, always assess the wine objectively, then use deductive reasoning to try and identify what it could be. The mind is a powerful thing, and put on the wrong track, will tell you that you're smelling and tasting things that aren't there.

Next time I do a mock exam, I'll be sure to remind myself of the Parable of the Syrah Beaujolais.

Thanks for reading! Commiserate in the comments, and if you're brave, share the worst ID you've made in a blind tasting.

Cheers & Cin Cin,

Rachel

BLINDTASTING Q&A: PRIMARY, SECONDARY, TERTIARY FLAVOURS

blindtasting for wset diploma

Q: Hi Rachel, I'm having some trouble with blind tastings in picking out primary, secondary and tertiary flavour characters.

For example, characters such as nutty I find difficult to pick out, and dried fruit could be be either primary, secondary, or tertiary. How do you differentiate?

A: The way I learn to pick up flavours and aromas I personally find challenging, is to taste examples that show very high intensities of that item.

For example, I was having trouble picking up on VA (volatile acidity), until I tasted a Chateau Musar red. Now I associate VA with that wine, and the scent of a freshly opened bag of dried fruit! Once you develop a flavour memory, it becomes much easier to identify that note in the future.

My rules of thumb when tasting, and deciding on primary/secondary/tertiary: if I’m getting mostly ripe fresh fruit, neutral, or citrus/floral character, it’s youthful/primary. If I’m smelling and tasting mostly winemaking notes (especially oak/oak spice/toast/vanilla/nutty, MLF/lees stirring/cream/butter) along with fruit I slot it into secondary/developing, and if it’s dominated by earth, spice, leather, nuts, tobacco, or faded/dried fruit, but no fresh fruit, it’s tertiary/developed.

For your questions on nuttiness and dried fruit, I’d start with an example that showed each.

Nutty notes: I often get this where oak or extended lees aging is showing up in the glass (secondary), an aged/oxidative style of white like white Rioja (tertiary), and often on fortifieds that have seen extended aging in barrel like tawny port, darker sherries, Rutherglen muscat etc. I sometimes taste a fresh almond quality in wines made from Marsanne (primary).

WINES: I’d try an Oloroso or Amontillado sherry, as I often get roast nuts on these wines (even though it’s a fortified, I think sherry is a good place to start for ID’ing nutty in non-fortified wines), and a white Rioja from a traditional producer.

Dried fruit notes: I pick up dried fruit in three main ways - where it’s dried out on the vine in a hot windswept climate (such as in Lodi) and some of the berries have raisinated, which can be primary in a youthful wine. Or, where the grapes have been dried for appassimento style wines which have a sweet raisin-y note (secondary), and in older or oxidized wines where what was once fresh fruit has faded to a softer earthier dried fruit note (tertiary).

WINES: There’s 'youthful' Amarone for picking up secondary aromas (winemaking) of dried fruit. A good quality Lodi Old Vine Zinfandel or McLaren Vale Grenache, which can have great intensity of primary wind dried/ripe fruit on the nose and palate. For tertiary dried fruit, I'd taste an older Chianti, or if you can get an older Amarone, that would make a great comparison with a younger vintage (secondary vs tertiary).

Cheers,

Rachel

PS: Have a blindtasting tip for differentiating between primary-secondary-tertiary, or a new question for me? Comment below!

BLINDTASTING Q&A: LENGTH & FINISH

blindtasting q&a.jpg

Q: Hi Rachel, I have a question about tasting.

What are the elements of “Long length”?  When do you say it has long length? Is it the acidity? Or tannins? Or Alcohol?

A: Great question.

When I think about a wine’s length, it’s all about how long after it's spit out/swallowed that pleasant flavours of the wine linger on the palate.

When I spit out a wine, and right away the taste fades or turns sour/bitter/sickly sweet etc, that’s a short finish. 

If the flavours echo through my palate for a long time, and I can still sense the wine after it's gone, that’s a long finish - and if it’s in between those two, then it’s a medium finish.

Some wines linger for what seems an age, and those are the best!

I believe balance has a lot to do with length. If a wine is too hot with alcohol, or has thick rustic tannins, or unbalanced acidity, it can’t have a long pleasant finish. A wine that has those elements in harmony, along with complex flavours, can achieve long length... and long length is a hallmark of a high quality wine.

Cheers,

Rachel

PS: leave your blindtasting comments and questions below! I'll answer them in this ongoing Q&A series.

JANCIS ROBINSON'S WINE WRITING COMPETITION

How excited am I to have my two entries into Jancis' wine writing competition published today?

Pretty darn excited!

The first article is a fairly cheeky list of wine writing tips from the Greek god of wine, Dionysus, and the second is a story about how starlings came to the Okanagan/Similkameen courtesy of Shakespeare.

Of the published entries, the winner could potentially become a columnist with JR!

Read the articles here.

BECOMING A WINE JUDGE

IWSC Icewine Flight

One of the most interesting experiences I've had since starting a wine career, is learning to be a wine judge. 

I applied to the International Wine & Spirit Competition when almost done the Diploma, and was accepted as an Associate Judge. This is a fantastic program in London which allows students to sit in during judging and to score the wines with the panel, with the caveat that a trainee's scores are not part of the final tally. (I'll include the link at the bottom of this article for those interested in applying). 

This year I returned to the IWSC, this time as a fully fledged Judge, sitting on the USA and Canada wine panels. This year, my scores counted! Here's a rundown of what happens in the judging room, along with a few lessons I picked up from the expert tasters I worked with.

Calibrate Your Palate

Each day of judging begins with a warm up flight (or 'kite'), of two red wines and two white wines. We're given the grape varietal, vintage, and provenance of the wines on our summary sheet for the day, which also lists every flight to be judged. For example: Warm Up - Sangiovese, Chianti Classico, 2014. P1. P2. Garganega, Soave, 2015. P3. P4.

The wines are brought out by the pouring team in ISO glasses that have a little numbered sticker on the base which correlates to the wine judging list. All the bottles are stored in a separate room, and our samples come to us pre-poured, so judges never find out what producer/brands they're tasting from.

We take a few minutes to score the warm up flight, then one by one, call out our score to be recorded and tallied. The chief judge scores last. We write down the total score the wine achieved, and the average. The average is used to determine whether the wine has received a medal.

During the warm up, it's a chance to sort out your palate for the day, and calibrate your scoring to quality, which was especially important as an associate. Coming into the very first day, I wasn't sure how the scores worked! 

Use The Range

Wines can be scored on a scale up to 100. One of the key lessons I took away was to use the full range of numbers, and not to sit safely in a zone of say, 77-80 points. If a wine is superlative, give it a commensurate score. If a wine is a Silver, give it a solid silver score and not barely a silver score.

If a wine is fatally flawed, it gets sub-49 (if a wine is flawed, a fresh bottle is opened and judges mark the second sample. If the second bottle is also flawed, it's a shame).

I've been asked whether a great wine will cause disagreement among judges. What generally happened with a fantastic wine was a unanimous recognition of its high quality, which was almost uncannily accurate among the panel. So, a superior wine has specific qualities which rise above subjective opinions!

A flight of sparkling wines from BC's Okanagan Valley

A flight of sparkling wines from BC's Okanagan Valley

Learn From Experienced Judges

Judges from around the world were on the various panels - Masters of Wine were thick on the ground, and trainees visited from Plumpton College and various corners of the globe (California, Italy, and Hungary last week). Everyone had unique perspectives that enhanced the judging experience. I had the pleasure of sitting on panels chaired by Michelle Cherutti-Kowal MW, who shared a miniature masterclass on scoring icewine with us.

NOSE FIRST, THEN TASTE & SCORE

The chief judge decides on how the flights of wines may be grouped together. The day starts with reds, then progresses to sparkling, then dry whites, and finishes with any sweet wines.

After the flight arrives, we commence, tasting in silence (no phones during judging). We'd nose the wines first, getting consensus on any that may be showing flaws. While nosing, I marked with an asterisk on my marking sheet any that had particularly lovely aromas.

Then, I'd work my way through the wines, making notes as I went. I tasted through all of them, scored, then tasted through again. As I re-tasted, I made a point of not looking at my previous score, to see whether my assessment was accurate against my first impression. 

Once everyone was finished, we'd call out our scores, always in the same order of judges. The chief judge reviewed the scores at the end of this process, to be fair to any wines that were sitting on the boundary between medals, or between no medal and a bronze - or any wines which had been brought up or down by one judge versus a consensus of scores. I was impressed with how fair to the wines the process was!

A flight of Okanagan Valley Merlot

A flight of Okanagan Valley Merlot

TIDBITS

What question do you really want to ask... is it whether judges get paid? I know I was curious.

I learned that top tier judges, such as Masters of Wine, will often be paid to be judges at the various competitions around the world, although sometimes it is just their airfare and hotel that is covered. One judge mentioned receiving first class airfare, which sounds lovely, and I wonder whether that still happens.

As an associate judge at IWSC, you are paid in experience. For full judges, there is a per diem.

Another question is about finding out who has made the wines we taste. Do we get to learn the names? No! We have to wait for the medal winners to be announced to find out. I know that I have a few marked down that I'm very excited to learn about.

~~~~~~~

Thanks for reading! If you have any questions, please feel free to leave them in the comments.

Cheers, Rachel

Link to IWSC Judging