CHANGES TO WSET: LEVEL 2 WINE, LEVEL 3 SPIRITS, & LEVEL 4 (DIPLOMA) WINE IN 2019

changes to wset diploma 2019

WSET have announced substantial changes to their Level 2, Level 3, and Level 4 programs. 

They're separating courses into three different streams: Wine, Spirits, and Sake. Here's a summary of what will be changing and when.

Changes to the WSET Diploma:

-The new Diploma program starts as of August 2019, focuses exclusively on wines, and includes 5 units. They are: D1, D2, D3, D4, & D5.

-Students currently in the Diploma have until the June 2019 exams to finish using the existing program structure. Those who have already passed Unit 4 and are transferred into the new program will still receive a Diploma in Wines & Spirits, as opposed to a Diploma in Wines. The June 2019 exams will be the last using the existing curriculum (for the Diploma Spirits unit, there will be a resit exam in March 2020 for those who failed in June 2018 to still achieve the Diploma of Wines & Spirits, see the notes at the bottom of this section). Those who are part way through the Diploma program after the June 2019 exams will be automatically transferred over to the new program, and will have credit for their units applied to the new curriculum units which launch in August 2019.

-Spirits is being carved out of the new Diploma, which will focus solely on wines (Level 3 Spirits will be a new, separate program, echoing the removal of spirits content from the Level 3 in Wine).

-Unit 3 Light Wines of the World will be of longer duration. I had asked WSET last year about whether they would split the curriculum into two shorter units, based on the low passing rates for Unit 3 Theory. They said it was a challenge in deciding how such a split would be organized, and have opted to keep the curriculum together but give students more time to study. The new unit will be called D3 Wines of the World. There will continue to be both a Theory and a Tasting exam, but these will be held over two consecutive days instead of on the same day. Students will now be given more time to complete the exams.

-Unit 5 Sparkling (new name D4) & Unit 6 Fortifieds (new name D5) unit exams will continue to have both a Theory (short answer open response) and a Tasting portion of exams. Students will be given more time to complete the exams than under current rules.

-A new 3,000 word research paper will be added, called the D6 Research Assignment, with subjects relating to current wine trends. Students mid-way through the Diploma who have passed their Unit 1 Coursework Assignment will receive credit for D6.

-The way the exam is structured will change for the Unit 2 Wine Production & Unit 1 Business of Alcohol units. These will become: D1 Wine Production, and D2 Wine Business. Both will have final exams based on short answer, open response questions. Students who are partway through the Diploma and have passed their Case Study will receive credit for D2, (as mentioned above, those who have passed their Coursework Assignment will get credit for D6).

-Students who completed the Diploma in Wines & Spirits will continue to use the nominal DipWSET, which will also be used by graduates of the new curriculum.

-From WSET's website: "The WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines and Spirits will be permanently withdrawn on 31 July 2019, with the launch of the new WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines on 1 August 2019.  All students enrolled on the current Diploma will be automatically transferred to the WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines in September 2019. 

Spirits will not be part of the new Diploma, but there will be one final Unit 4 Spirits examination for resit-only candidates in March 2020.  All students transferring with a pass in Unit 4 or who gain a pass in March 2020 will graduate with the WSET Diploma in Wines and Spirits upon completion of all Units."  

See WSET's video on the new program and transition information for current Diploma students here.

Changes to WSET Spirits Programs:

-New is a WSET Level 3 Award in Spirits - launching Aug 1 2019. The new curriculum will include Asian spirits: Baijiu, Soju and Shochu. The final exam will include both a blind tasting of two spirits, and a written paper (which will include multiple-choice questions, plus a short answer section). The pre-req to get into Level 3 Spirits is the Level 2 Spirits course.

Changes to WSET Level 2:

-As of Aug 1 2019, WSET Level 2 will focus solely on wines; spirits content will have been separated out to a Level 2 Spirits course.

How will this effect Wine Prep Courses?

I love working with WSET students, and will continue to support you as you study for your WSET Level 4 Diploma exams, using the current curriculum until the June 2019 exams (and until March 2020 for the Unit 4 Spirits exam). Students who are freshly embarking on the Diploma and those who are already studying Level 4 are welcome to enroll in the Prep Courses for each unit, and will continue to have access to the updated Prep Course for their applicable unit as the materials are updated after the August 2019 relaunch at no additional cost (aka enroll in Fortifieds Unit 6 Prep and continue with Fortifieds D5 Prep after Aug 2019).

Wine Prep Students in Level 3 Wines can continue to study via the current Level 3 Wine Prep course which was recently created for those in the new WSET curriculum.

Cheers & Cin Cin,

Rachel

WHAT DO TEXT NOTIFICATIONS HAVE TO DO WITH STUDYING WINE?

studying wine

Have you noticed your ability to concentrate is dimishing lately?

I'm an inveterate book reader. Or at least, I thought so.

One day, I started to notice all the books I bought were piling up in stacks - the bedside table. The coffee table. Beside the coffee table. But I wasn't really reading them.

I'd start and a few pages in, pick up my phone to look something up. Or, I'd get a text and then realize I'd stopped reading half an hour ago, and was down a rabbit hole of links. 

 

What does this have to do with studying wine...

If you're in WSET Level 3 or the WSET Diploma, then you've probably got a copy of the Oxford Companion to Wine. A key resource for us wine students, but not exactly a thrilling read.

If I could barely make it through a long form article, what hope was there for memorizing the information needed to study for tough wine exams? Or to be able to focus in an exam?

 

Our ability to concentrate & notifications

I've been driving back and forth between Vancouver and our vineyard in the Similkameen Valley, four hours each way, regularly for the last two years. Recently, I've become a huge fan of audiobooks. I'd download a couple to listen to during the drive. One that captured my attention is Bored and Brilliant - How Spacing Out Can Unlock Your Most Productive and Creative Self, the story of how a podcast became a movement for thousands of people to examine their relationship with technology, and regain productivity and creativity.

 A surprisingly helpful book for wine students

A surprisingly helpful book for wine students

I recommend this to students of wine who have a few hours to spare. The audiobook medium is helpful, especially if fitting in more reading has become a challenge.

 

Here are the top lessons from the book, and how I incorporated them into my life:

 

#1 Turn off all non-essential notifications

This includes: text messages, WhatsApp messages, Instagram notifications, email notifications etc. If there's an emergency, family can still reach me by calling.

The book explains how these notifications were developed by experts in human psychology to create a dopamine response. Effectively, they are engineered to capture our attention and reward us for noticing them. 

Within a week of turning them off, I had a much greater ability to focus on the present. Time spent on tasks became more absorbing. I think these notifications were the major contributor to a dampened ability to focus.

 

#2 Limit time on social media (sorry, Mark Z)

I'm not a prolific social media user, but definitely like to check in on IG, FB, and Twitter. However, the book delved into the negative effect these platforms can have on us with too much time invested. I now limit myself to 15 minutes a day on these platforms.

Effect: less time scrolling, more time reading, creating, and enjoying real life. 

 

#3 Have a phone free space

In the book, the author describes a woman who takes daily walks without her phone, and the feelings of boredom she encounters. Then the boredom starts to transform into curiosity, observations, and ruminating about challenges and solutions in her head.

The advice I took is having technology free spaces. The dining table is a phone/laptop free zone. Restaurants too. Sometimes, it's fun to go out and leave the phone at home. One last rule for myself: no using the phone while walking.

 

The result? 

I'm making headway on the piles of books, and can focus more effectively for much longer. Keeping phone free spaces means less distractions and more quality time. This is not a skill, but a practice that resulted in enjoying life more, and yielded concrete results in wine studies and while blind tasting.

So, with these regained skills, I'm off to savour a glass of wine with a pleasant meal, and later on, read the OCW entry on Prädikatswein.

Cheers & Cin Cin,

Rachel

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 smell and then 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.

Other clues:

Strength of mousse can be helpful. Take note if you feel the bubbles/atmospheres are lower in a particular wine, as several styles are made with lower pressure.

Alcohol level can be a challenge to assess, with the bubbles and sometimes high acidity in sparkling wines interfering in our perceptions. The ABV can be a clue to be aware of, so when you do practice tastings, I recommend that you note not only the category of alcohol level (ie Med+, Med-) but take an actual guess at the specific ABV (ie 13%, 11.5%). Then make a point of noting after the reveal what the actual ABV was and compare to your assessment. You'll start to see a common range for the different styles/regions of bubbly.


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

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

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.

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

 

WHAT I'VE LEARNED SINCE TAKING THE WSET DIPLOMA

what i learned in the wset diploma.jpg

I've had a draft of this post in the works for a while, but I've been simmering over what I wanted to say since completing the WSET Diploma last year.

I know many readers just sat for the January 2017 Unit 3 Diploma exam, and wanted to share this with you in case you find yourself in the same boat I was in...

 

"I think I failed the exam"

Those were my first thoughts as I handed in my Unit 3 exam. Really, I felt gutted and depressed at the thought of having to go back and study for this monster exam again. I felt like I was disappointing my family, who'd seen me spend so much time preparing, and my friends, for missing a lot of fun events and maybe having to miss even more. 

If you find yourself here, have hope. Have hope that you did pass the exam, that you know your stuff. Sure, wallow for a while, but give yourself a pep talk too.

 

Is That All There Is? (cue Peggy Lee)

It's probably sacrilege to say this, but I felt both incredibly free (no more studying!), and a bit lost after the final Diploma exam. What would I do now? Now that I had all this information in my head, what would I do with it? 

It was almost like having to reconnect with the person I was when I first embarked on the program - I had to try and remember = what were my goals back then, and did they match up with my current situation.

 

Memorizing vs. Knowing

Anyone who's read the Unit 3 curriculum knows how vast and yet, detailed, it is. There's a massive amount to learn, memorize, and retain. Some regions were easy to recall, and they were the ones I had travelled to and experienced first hand.

In the months after writing the exam, as I waited for my mark (and prayed to St Jude, please let me have passed this exam!), those memorized details started to fade. I'd be asked about some obscure grape varietal or appellation, that I knew I should remember, and it was on the tip of my tongue but not springing to mind. I realized the exam was over, but the learning wasn't.

If I wanted to truly know these wines and regions, I'd have to keep working, keep reading and tasting, and especially travel to visit them. But, the wine world is so big, I'd have to get specific and focus. The new challenge became: where did I most want to go and what opportunities could I find that would take me there. 

In the months after the final exam, I went to Valpolicella, home of one of my favourite wines (Amarone), to Lodi, California, in a pilgrimage to visit the old Zin vineyards (incredible), and I'm now planning a trip to the Douro.

Where do you most want to go and experience?

 

Tasting Wine For Pleasure

Right after the exam, I found myself wanting a crisp, refreshing lager more than a celebratory glass of wine. I was a bit worried, like I might not recover the sense of wonder and flavour that had drawn me to study wine in the first place. 

Over time, the romance of wine returned to me. It became a real pleasure again to order at the restaurant, or wander and explore a wine shop. If you find yourself forgetting why you love wine, don't worry, it'll come back to you.

 

On To The Next Challenge

Just when I'd managed to put the exam out of my mind, I received my pass. If you'd talked to me right after the exam, I'd have sworn up and down - that's it for me! No more wine certifications!

But then.... the sting of the exam started to fade. The memory of those many hours preparing, and the stress, had faded. It had even begun to take on a slightly rosy glow. I think one day, I'll even look back fondly on that time ;)

What's next: well, there's the Master of Wine program. I know several of my classmates undertook the Diploma because it's a pathway to the MW - and some are already in the MW now! Personally, I'm glad I've had this year to go back over the Diploma curriculum, and the time to try to learn and understand more beyond memorization. 

Many people who take the Diploma love a challenge, and have a desire to achieve. They're curious and have a love of learning. So here's my question for you: what do you want to do after the WSET Diploma - what's next for you? Or, if you're just embarking on the Diploma - what are your goals in taking this program?

Cheers,

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!