TIPS FOR BLIND TASTING SPARKLING WINE (WSET DIPLOMA UNIT 5)

sparkling wine blindtasting tips unit 5 wset

Q: Dear Rachel, my study focus is on Champagne and sparkling wines right now, so I'd be interested in more observations and tips for how to do well in a blind tasting for sparkling wines.

A: Thanks for your question, here are some tips on blind tasting sparkling wines, along with exam strategy and suggested tasting flights to practice with! Feel free to comments below with your own sparkling wine blind tasting tips.

Cheers, Rachel


Blind Tasting Strategy

When tasting sparkling wines, it can be confusing for the palate. So many sparkling whites, so little time (or, you could luck out and getting a sparkling Shiraz).

When tasting, don't try to slot the wine into a category right away, take your notes as per usual and after you've assessed them, go back to them to look for clues. 

I find major clues on the nose of the wine. Yes, of course the mousse/bubbles are the defining character in a sparkling wine, but the nose helps me with ID, and I don't typically find the bubbles very helpful for this (exception: when a wine is poured and it's really, really frothy). Look for these items in particular as you nose the wines: floral notes (Prosecco, Sekt, Asti), autolytic/leesy notes (Trad Method, time on lees), rubber (some Cavas), diesel (Riesling), minerality (Champagne), tropical fruit (California, Australia), wet wool/lanolin (Chenin). These are not hard and fast rules, but general prompts to ask yourself about as you taste.

On the palate, determining acidity is so important. Knowing which wines are likely to display lower acidity is a major helper for you. Personally, I find quality Champagne in particular has a high ringing acidity that lingers at the back of the throat, and BdeB Champagne can have a particularly piercing minerality on the palate. I often find Cava has less acidity and a more rounded body.


Exam Tips

Clean Glasses: make sure you have properly washed your glasses of any residue so the bubbles don't adhere to any debris in your glasses.

Watch While Pouring: The exam starts when the examiner says it does, but you can carefully observe the wine while you pour it. Look at the bubbles, how frothy it is when poured, and the colour. This will help you move quickly through the appearance section of your exam with ease.

Sniff, Then Decide Order: Nose the wines, then decide the order you will taste them in. You don't have to taste wine sample #1 first. Leave any with strong aromas till last.

Not Getting Anything on Nose: If you are trying in vain to ID any aroma characteristics, take a slurp of the wine and write your palate note. Then go back to the nose. Often, this will help you ID some aromas you couldn't before.

Re-Nose the Wines: After you've tasted all the wines and written your notes, go back to the wines again. The warmer temperature of the wines may help release extra clues that weren't apparent at the beginning (for example, I caught a rubber-y note on a wine that helped to confirm it was Cava during my exam).

Making an ID: Not every tasting exam question will ask you to ID the wine. For those that do, think like the examiners - they want you to identify classic examples, not to trick you. So, here's a list of questions I use to suss out the potential candidates:

1) is the wine aromatic > Yes (think tank method Asti, Prosecco, Sekt)

2) is there autolytic character & how much > Yes (think Trad Method = Champagne, Crémant, Cava, new world sparkling) 

3) is there high or low acidity and corresponding body -plus what kind of fruit character? (Low acidity, fuller body with tropical/stone fruit> think warmer region / High acidity, light to medium body with citrus/green/apple/pear fruit> cooler region).

4) is there evidence of oak and is it balanced? (Think: reserve wine, barrel ferment, old world vs new world)

5) what's the quality level: how long is the finish and is the wine balanced? (Long finish with balanced acidity> premium / Short finish with neutral flavour, unbalanced sugar/acidity, flabby> less premium)

6) does the colour give you any extra hints to confirm your assessment? (Pale - young/cool climate. Deeper colour - oak use/bottle age/warmer climate)


Comparison Flights

Here are some suggested flights for blind tasting practice:

Traditional Method - Champagne Comparison

Non-Vintage Champagne - Vintage Champagne - Another new world traditional method (such as Cali/NZ/AUS/SA)

Traditional Method - Non-Champagne Comparison

Crémant d’Alsace - NV Cava (traditional grapes) - Cap Classique SA - (Bonus points: Franciacorta)

Aromatics

Asti - Sekt - Prosecco

The Rosés

Rosé Cava - Rosé Crémant - Rosé Champagne

Sparkling Reds

Brachetto d’Acqui - Lambrusco - Sparkling Shiraz

Crémant Flight

Crémant de Loire - Crémant d'Alsace - Crémant de Bourgogne - (Bonus points: Crémant de Limoux/Blanquette de Limoux)

Chenin vs Chardonnay vs Riesling

Vouvray/Saumur - Chardonnay-based Cava - 100% Riesling Deutscher Sekt or new world

'Other' 

Deutscher Sekt - New Zealand Sparkling - Australia Sparkling 

Mass Production Bubblies - choose low-mid priced, widely available producers

New world tank method - Cava - Crémant

New World Premium Flight

Choose three premium sparkling wines from: NZ, Australia, South Africa, USA (WA/OR/CALI), Chile, or Argentina

Q&A: PREPPING FOR UNIT 4 SPIRITS & UNIT 1 COURSEWORK ASSIGNMENT

unit 4 wset spirits & unit 1 coursework assignment.jpg

Q: Hi Rachel, I'd love to hear your suggestions on how to tackle forming a study plan for Unit 4 and the Unit 1 essay assignment.

I'd also like to hear your recommendations for how much reading you did beyond the WSET provided materials for Unit 4, and how much you felt that reading (or lack thereof) contributed to your pass with distinction?

A: Thanks for your questions! Here are my thoughts on studying for Unit 4 and prepping for the Unit 1 coursework/essay assignment.

Coursework Assignment

I found the research for the coursework assignment was so much fun (more than writing or editing the essay), so I spent about a week doing lots of reading. The most important part is tracking your sources as you research. That way you don't have to muddle through later trying to remember where you got what info for your quotes and citations. 

I added the extension Tab-Snap to my browser, so that I could open lots of windows at once, then email myself the list of links when I was done for the day. It makes it so much easier for when you need to assemble your source list. I would add my own subtitles to the emailed list and keep all my sources in a Unit1Sources.doc:

For example, my email to myself would look like this for each source link:

(date last accessed - source material description - link): Oct 31, 2017 - historic gin recipe with earliest known gin bottling - link.example.link

For older book sources online, google books was great, just be sure to list the page numbers, author, title etc you reference when keeping track. WSET likes to see a broad range of sources - magazines, books, news articles, you can even look up and request an MW thesis if you find one on your topic. I also did an in person interview with a subject matter expert and recorded it, then used a quote from him in my paper. 

Unit 4 Spirits

Unit 4 reading that I found particularly useful beyond WSET provided info (these three are the books that I found most contributed to passing with distinction):

~Dave Broom Rum - it’s an older book, but fun pictures and descriptions of the different islands’ rums which really brought the subject to life for me

~Dave Broom World Atlas of Whisky - you don’t need to read all the write-ups of the distilleries, but I loved how he explained the distilling process and different styles and regions here

~I was lucky that my coursework assignment was on Gin, which has a fascinating history, so I read lots of books. The one I found most useful for studying was the Gin: the Manual, again by Dave Broom. The first 50 pages in particular give a concise summary of this spirit. (Maybe I should buy stock in Dave Broom!)

~For the Spirits unit, I found video particularly helpful in studying. Many of the distillation techniques and processes sound very academic and sometimes confusing on paper, but watching them on video helped me recall the details during the exam and when studying. If you visit my youtube page, I’ve made playlists of videos for each of the spirits. The ones on whisky are particularly good! https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCKUKyUZYTBY9Horl27LSTGg

~If you have a distillery nearby, especially with nice distillation equipment, I’d recommend arranging a tour, as seeing it in person really helps.

~Tasting: I did buy all the spirits on the WSET list. Luckily the flavours in spirits are so distinct, it makes the tasting portion of the exam easier. Especially if you have your theory down pat, it can make describing quality and identifying the spirit easier.

Cheers & Cin Cin,

Rachel

2017 YEAR IN REVIEW, 2018 GOALS

2017 year in review wine

The year has blown by. Once in a while, I looked up to find a month had passed in a blur. The overwhelming feeling I have for 2017 is gratitude that I can earn a living doing something I adore. Thank you for reading this blog, and thank you to the wonderful wine students around the world who inspire and spur me on!

I'd love to hear about your goals for 2018 - please share in the comments section below.

Big Things 2017

~ I was elevated to Full Judge at the IWSC, and attended in April judging the wines of Canada and USA.

~ Presenting two seminars at Cornucopia Wine Fest, on the best wines from BC and wines from old vines, was a thrill. It gave me perspective on the huge volume of work behind the scenes for every tasting and festival. I also gained insight into the importance of importers and distributors, and knowing their portfolios. 

~ My husband and I continued to work on our small Similkameen vineyard (bought in 2016) and build our house. After last year's serious haircut, our overgrown vines started to look on their way to manicured. Ultimately, however, we failed to bring in a crop of wine grapes due to powdery mildew, which was a heartbreak, although there were some tasty table grapes which had the requisite heartiness to survive our steep learning curve. We bought a small tractor, a Kubota, which didn't arrive until July - but will hopefully improve our success in 2018. This year tested some of the more romantic ideas I held about farming, such as how often the vines needed to be sprayed with sulphur. It was also edifying to do more real vineyard work. Book smarts are not a substitute for hands on experience.

~ The greatest joy I had this year was working with my fantastic students, who live around the world (in over 20 countries!!!), helping them prepare for their wine exams. Reading your tasting notes, emails, comments, and essays has been such a pleasure, and I find it so very inspiring. There are now four Diploma level theory prep courses and a new Level 3 prep course in the stable.

Goals for 2018

Travel:  Each spring, I look forward to visiting London for IWSC, and this year I'll be journeying to Portugal afterwards to visit Lisbon, Porto and the Douro. I'm also heading to Verona in January for Anteprima Amarone, then on to Rome for a few days of wandering, mainly restaurants, ruins, and museums. I'd like to return to Walla Walla in Washington, and Oregon's Willamette.

Harvest: Bring in a proper crop of wine grapes. This will be the second full pruning we give our vines. Now that there's snow on the ground, we can see the new canes are in the right spot (before, the trunks reached to nearly the top of the wires), and I'm confident we can get them looking spiffy with a real crop of fruit. There's high demand for organic Chardonnay in the Okanagan/Similkameen, and we have a tractor to pay for!  

Book: I'm releasing the second edition of Winetripping in spring 2018. There are fast changes going on in the Okanagan, and many new producers to visit (I heard there are close to 100 applications for new wine producers in BC). Have you been before? 

Courses & Secret Project: Updating and enhancing my Prep Courses. New features include a blind tasting and exam strategies clinic! I love working one on one with students and this is something I will be incorporating more of in the New Year. Plus, there's a surprise project I'm working on right now, something that I think will be really useful for wine students in their blind tasting efforts. 

Study: Applying to the MW program has been on my radar since passing the WSET Diploma. I'm making on a 6 month study schedule which will begin in January 2018 to prep for the application which opens in summer.

Taste: By scouring importer websites and restaurant wine lists, I've put together a sheet of key producers by region. My goal is to be more focused in learning about producers in 2018. The body of wine knowledge is so delightfully vast: first you learn grapes, then region, then winemaking, then producer. Then you start all over again at a deeper level! 

Here's a link to your 2018 wine goals worksheet. I'd love to hear what your New Year plans are. 

Wishing you vintage Champagne, generous friends, good health, and plenty of joie de vivre for the New Year!

Cheers & Cin Cin,

Rachel

WINE APPELLATION UPDATES

Here's a running list of recent wine appellation changes, updates, items of note etc (links open in new page). Please submit any recent changes in the comments section, and I will update this list.

ENGLAND/WALES

Dec/2017 Wine industry body named 'Wines of Great Britain - WineGB'

FRANCE

Burgundy

Nov/2017 Bourgogne Côte d'Or AOC launched

Nov/2017 Vézelay promoted to Village AOC

Cognac

Apr/2018 XO spirit minimum age raised from 6 to 10 years

 

SPAIN

Canary Islands

Dec/2017 New PDO for Terenife wines

Rioja

Aug/2017 Rioja Consejo allows village labelling

Jun/2017 Rioja creates Viñedos Singulares 'single vineyard' classification

USA

California

Dec/2017 Petaluma Gap AVA created

Oregon

Nov/2017 Focus on Oregon AVAs

WINEMAS GIFTS 2017

Wine Gifts 2017.jpg

Hmmmmm, what to get for that super hard to buy for person? That savvy individual who loves wine, and seems to have everything they need. 

In this case, the person was me, buying things for myself, but I'm hoping you spot something on this list for a Christmas treat you'd enjoy too, or for the wine lover in your life:

1 The gold standard in wine bottle opening, a Laguiole. For a little extra history, this one's handle is made from a 300 year old tree from Versailles. Spendy, but will last a lifetime.

2 Playing cards as a wine gift? In our house, this is the idea of a fun Friday night. Opening some Port (see below), and sitting down to share a game of crazy 8's, bridge, or gin rummy, especially during the holidays. This Theory 11 deck is just plain handsome, and pleasingly tactile. Also, the faces on those court cards!

This year, I decided to invest in two online journals: The Feiring Line & The Art of Eating. By subscribing, I help support independent writers, and in exchange, am exposed to new ideas, great vocabulary, and inspiration galore. Seems like more than a fair deal.

3 The Feiring Line is run by natural wine supporter, Alice Feiring. She's an evocative and sometimes controversial writer, and focuses on wines and locations that otherwise wouldn't cross my radar. The ability to evoke the sense of place and taste through writing, now that is a gift.

4 For the food obsessive: The Art of Eating. An online magazine covering wine, cheese, heritage foodstuffs and more. Endlessly interesting, the articles will make you want to rush out and buy obscure wines to match obscure foods from around the world. Top notch writing.

5 325th Anniversary Taylor Fladgate Port. Yes, I'm a sucker for anything with this kind of historical detail, as the 17th century repro bottle here has. A blend of 10-40 year old tawnies. Very tasty indeed. 

6 I wasn't sure what to expect from this rather theatrically titled book, How to Drink Like a Billionaire. Cracking the cover, I loved the way Mark broke down wine from a consumer-centric viewpoint. Yes to more joie de vivre, wine should be fun! Would make a great read for the wine curious person in your life.

7 Maps galore! Historic maps of Champagne! Do you sense a theme in this list? A great book for those studying Unit 5 of the WSET Diploma, or as an armchair read: Champagne: the Essential Guide to the Wines, Producers, and Terroirs of the Iconic Region.

PS: On pronunciation... do you ever mispronounce words as a joke, and then they just stick? Then, you use your new pronunciation in front of someone and they look at you like, she doesn't even know how to say 'x'? I do this with Cham-pag-ne (Futurama reference).

Did you spot something on this list for a Christmas gift? Have an idea to add? Please comment below to share your wisdom!

Cheers & Cin Cin,

Rachel

YOUTUBE PLAYLISTS FOR WINE STUDENTS

Youtube Playlists for Wine Diploma Students.jpg

Sometimes you just need a break from reading and making cue cards. watching videos is the cure.

Here are playlists for each wine region the WSET Diploma covers, including sparkling & fortified wines, and spirits, but I think they'll be of interest to anyone who's studying wine and spirits.

Hope you enjoy and find these helpful! I'll be launching wine study videos in the new year, so don't forget to subscribe. If you have any video suggestions, please comment below.

Note: links below will play video, hit mute before clicking if silence is important ;) To view all the playlists, click here.

ARGENTINA

AUSTRALIA

AUSTRIA

BULGARIA

EASTERN MED (ISRAEL/LEBANON/TURKEY)

ENGLAND & WALES

FRANCE > ALSACE, BEAUJOLAISBORDEAUX, BURGUNDY, LOIRE, RHÔNE

GERMANY

GREECE & CYPRUS

HUNGARY

ITALY > CENTRAL ITALYNORTHERN ITALY, SOUTHERN ITALY & ISLANDS

NEW ZEALAND

NORTH AFRICA (ALGERIA/MOROCCO/TUNISIA)

PORTUGAL

ROMANIA

SPAIN

SWITZERLAND

FORTIFIED > Madeira, Port, Rutherglen Muscat, Sherry, Vins Doux Naturels

SPARKLING > Argentina/Chile, Australia/NZ/South AfricaFrance, Germany, Italy, Spain, USA

SPIRITS > Absinthe/Aniseed, Bitters, Brandy de Jerez, Calvados, Cognac/Armagnac, Gin, Grappa, Pisco, Rum, Tequila/Mezcal, Vodka, Whiskies

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