LESSONS FROM A MOCK MW BLIND TASTING EXAM: PART 1

12 red wines. 2 1/4 hours. Everyone, sharpen your palates, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

12 red wines. 2 1/4 hours. Everyone, sharpen your palates, it’s going to be a bumpy ride.

Whenever I have the chance to taste with Master of Wine students, I leap at it. I’m not an MW student, so it’s an amazing opportunity to learn (especially when considering whether to apply in June).

What kind of questions are the students asked, how do they compose their answers, what logic are they using as they taste?

Last weekend, I sat a mock Paper 2 exam. There were 12 wines to taste, all of them red, and we had two and a quarter hours to write the exam. There were three flights within the 12 wines, and each flight had a set of questions relating to those particular wines. In this article, I’m going to focus on one cleverly presented flight of wines from within the mock exam, not only because it stumped everybody, but also as it hammered home a few key takeaway points on blind tasting exams in general.

Wines poured and we’re off to the races

Wines poured and we’re off to the races

The flight had four red wines, and in the mock exam it was the last of the three flights. On the instruction sheet, we’re told they’re all from the same country and that each is a blended wine. For each wine, we must: identify the origin as closely as possible, assess its quality in context of its origin, and comment on its maturity level.

Here are my notes:

Wine 1 - Med+ ruby with hint of purple. Deepest colour of flight. Medium tears. Musty aroma. Med+ intensity dark berry, smoky spice, oak suggests USA. Med body, med acid, med+ velvety tannins, med/+ alc ~13.5%, smooth/no edges.

Wine 2 - Med- ruby, watery rim, sheeting tears. Med- intensity red fruit, earthy, not getting a lot of scent. High acidity, med+ alc ~14%, crunchy raspberry. Very concentrated.

Wine 3 - Med ruby tending to garnet, rim is showing some age. Med tears. Med+ intensity, US pickle oak, red fruit, soft spice. Perfumed. Very high acidity, high tannins, very bright flavours. Has some age.

Wine 4 - Med ruby. Med+ intensity, game, smoke, rock, dusty. Med body, med alc, balanced. Youthful.

Lesson 1: My notes, taken at the tail end of the exam, are not up to snuff. I’ve gotten tired, and have skipped some important categories. Because I haven’t rigorously assessed the wines, it makes it much harder to draw conclusions based on the question. I have overtasted all 12 wines, going back to them over and over because I can’t place them, leading to palate fatigue (and very dark red teeth). I nosed through all 12 to begin, and left this flight till last because it was the deepest coloured and most pronounced set.

Takeaway: stick to your note taking system, whether it is a grid, cross, or other. Minimize how often you taste each wine to avoid palate fatigue, for example only taste each sample twice.

Lesson 2: This was a rather sly question as written, because unless you were careful, it was easy to draw the wrong conclusions. The question tells us that all four wines are from the same country, but doesn’t mention region. It tells us they are all blends, but doesn’t say anything about them being the same blend. When I brainstormed red blends, at first I was trying to come up with four different blends for each country. But, after re-reading, I saw that these could be all the same blend, or all different, from the same region, or from many regions in one country. I also grasped on the second read through that the question was not even asking for us to ID grapes, but to comment on origin and maturity.

Takeaway: re-read the question to clarify your understanding of it matches up with what the examiner is asking you to do. Having an incorrect understanding of the question’s goal will set you down the wrong path.

Lesson 3: So, I had re-read the question and noted what it was really asking. Based on the tasting, I reasoned this was an old world wine region, with warm climate. Then, I made my list of possible origins. Here were my three top choices:

- Italy

- Spain

- France

…but guess what? The place the wines came from is not even on that list. So, I’d spent my time working from an incomplete assessment of the wines, trying to fit them in to a region, but none quite fit.

Takeaway: if you’re making a list of possible regions, or grapes, have a stand by memorized list that you work from. For example, I should have had a full list of warm climate countries known for blends ready in my brain. Because, if the answer is not even in your long list, it will never appear in your answer!

So, where were our mystery red blends from? The guesses at the table ranged from Spain, to France, and Italy. But it was:

Wines L>R 1-2-3-4

Wines L>R 1-2-3-4

PORTUGAL! Of course. A warm climate, lots of red blends, old world. It wasn’t even on my radar. Whoops! Lesson learned.

Hope you enjoyed this summary, and happy blind tasting. If you have any suggestions or blind tasting tips, please leave a comment below.

Cheers & Cin Cin,

Rachel

Wines from L>R 4 - 3 - 2 -1

Wines from L>R 4 - 3 - 2 -1

LEARNING FROM MW STUDENTS

tasting with MW students.jpg

Lessons from a weekend of mock MW exams:

1) Set up mock exams using past exams

Scan old exams for questions and wine flights. Look for what the examiners are trying to test on, and find comparable wines, or wine styles. Really figuring out what the test is about helps you as a student: often, it's about winemaking techniques and quality.

We did a flight of 12 white wines on day one and a flight of 12 reds on day two, all under real exam conditions: totally blind, timed to 2 hrs 15 mins, no talking. A good exercise, as I felt tasting all one colour at a time made it more challenging on the palate (there are pictures on my Instagram if you want to see what we tasted).

Where you learn the most won't be during the exam, it will be after when everyone shares their thought processes, which wines or regions they considered and/or rejected. Did several students think something was something else, and why?

2) When blind tasting, if you don't consider an option, you can't choose that option

After the first mock exam, I recognized where I had gotten some wines wrong because I had not considered the correct answer as an option. This can happen when you feel stressed or rushed. After assessing and writing my notes on acidity/alc/body etc, I'd note a list of potential grapes. It was a real face palm moment when the wine was revealed and it wasn't on that list! How was I supposed to get it right if I hadn't thought of it? The second day, I made sure to be more considered in listing out potential candidates as I 'funnelled', which resulted in better logical thinking.

3) Assume the default position of learning from others

Blind tastings in a group setting can sometimes feel competitive or intimidating. Taking the position of being determined to learn from every person present takes the pressure off being correct, or feeling embarrassed at getting something wrong, and puts the focus on improving. How did the person who nailed a wine perfectly get to that answer? How did they funnel? What other grapes did they consider? 

4) It always comes back to knowing theory

As talented as any taster can be, accuracy is underpinned by knowing the theory solidly. In an exam, there's no time to be second guessing the components of regional blends, or winemaking techniques in a certain type of wine. These facts need to become intuitive, so they can be accessed with ease while tasting.

5) Blind tasting talent = hard work + experience + opportunity

Getting better at blind tasting is all about practice. Take every opportunity you can to taste, especially with students at a level above you. The MW students I tasted with were not always as good as they are now, they were once WSET Level 3, then 4 students. There is no substitute for experience, whether that is trying wines, meeting with producers, attending seminars, or travelling to wine regions.

Sometimes, I have to remind myself to be patient with my current level of understanding. The Diploma is all about breadth of knowledge, and those in the MW program are working with that plus depth.

I'd love to hear about your experiences as you worked to improve on blind tasting, please leave a note in the comments below.

Cheers & Cin Cin,

Rachel

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

WHAT I LEARNED BLIND TASTING WITH MW STUDENTS

This year, I was lucky to participate in several mock exams and tastings with Master of Wine students.

Not only did it give an insight into the rigour of the program, but it helped immensely with my blind tasting skills (bonus!). Sitting around a table with a group of MW students, you learn a few things quickly:

They take wine very seriously. After 'hello's', it's right into pouring and writing the mock exam in silence: 12 wines, 2.25 hours. Chit-chat is saved for after the exam. The wines are chosen in advance by someone familiar with MW exams and the types of wines you'd expect to find. Even the corks are pulled ahead, or bottles can be decanted so there are no extra clues like bottle shape or capsules. Post-exam discussion is animated. Wrong or right, you have to swallow your pride and share what you identified a wine as, so that everyone can learn together. It's often when a wine has been incorrectly ID'd that I learned the most.

Bottles & a flight from one of the 12 wine mock MW exams

Bottles & a flight from one of the 12 wine mock MW exams

They are not messing around. No staring off into the distance to ponder the profundity of wine, these students are busy swirling, slurping, and writing. Some students use a shorthand to note the technical qualities of the wine, a quick way to jot down alcohol level, body, acidity, finish etc before they write their essay. Note: they are much more specific than Diploma students, for example, alcohol is not listed as a range, it is described as the %ABV, and residual sugar is noted in g/l. Flavors and aromas are noted, but not in a flowery or stylistic way. The aromas/flavours are used more as clues to what the quality, winemaking techniques and provenance of the wine are (for example, noting use of oak, lees aging, and minerality on a sparkling wine as evidence for Champagne).

They know their appellations and producers inside & out and use logic to identify wines. I really appreciated the MW students' detailed knowledge of appellations when we discussed the wines post-exam. This level of comfort comes only with extensive tasting, reading, studying, and travel.

Things like: knowing by heart the key sub-regions around the world for each grape or blend of grapes, the way a grape varietal manifests itself in those regions (such as expected alcohol level), the aging rules for quality wines, whether a style is fortified and to what level, how a particular sweet wine is produced (noble rot, passito etc), and key producers and their house styles for each area, and much, much more. It's like the WSET Diploma to the 10th degree.

This amount of knowledge can be intimidating, but it's the base level for passing the first year MW exam. Only by knowing what to expect in each appellation could you reasonably put a wine in its proper place (for example, I incorrectly guessed a wine was Mencia, when it was pointed out to me that the alcohol should have shown higher if that was the case).

When placing a wine where you know the flight is all made from the same grape, and you think it is either Shiraz or Cabernet Sauvignon, you'd next want to list all the sub-regions each grape could be from. The next step is attributing each wine to the correct sub-region, using clues like the depth of color, alcohol, body, acidity etc. Very logical!

MW exams can now be written on a laptop, but my mind works best with pen & paper

MW exams can now be written on a laptop, but my mind works best with pen & paper

They use a different style/format than the WSET Diploma. The exams were in essay format, and regurgitating an analysis of the wine's acidity, flavours, and finish isn't enough to pass. The essays focused on the quality and provenance of the wines. Consider for example this set of questions on a flight of 3 sparkling wines:

Comment of the method of production, considering how this has influenced the style of the wine - Identify the origin as closely as possible - Comment on the quality level in the context of the region of origin.

While the group assured me you can pass without ID'ing all the wines correctly, you're much more likely to pass if you know exactly what wine you're tasting. These essays take wine from the theoretical into the practical too, so book smarts alone aren't enough to pass. The focus is very much on real life wine trade information, producers, sales figures, and trends, so having in depth current knowledge on the business of wine is very important.

It's been humbling and exciting to taste with a group of students at a level above and beyond the WSET Diploma. If you've been considering the MW as a goal, I highly recommend tasting with MW students. It has given great insight into the immense dedication, hard work, and significant expense in time and money (travel, time off work, buying wine) involved in this most challenging wine program. Will I apply to be an MW student next year? I'm thinking about it, but there's much more studying and tasting to be done!

Cheers,

Rachel

PS: If you've had experience with the MW program or tasting with MW students, please share your wisdom in the comments!