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!