THE IMPORTANCE OF TASTING 'OPEN LABEL'

blind tasting vs open tasting

I talk a lot about blind tasting here, but wanted to cover something that's important to do when your goal is building up tasting memory, and that is tasting 'open label'.

AKA tasting while knowing what you are tasting.

 

Here's why this is so important:

You can assess a wine blindly, for acidity, tannins, body, etc, but until you've tasted a broad range of wines, you have no context.

When I was just getting started learning about wine, I found it helpful to taste the flights open label first (i.e.: knowing what they were). Then, our tasting group would repeat the tasting of the same wines, but this time the wines would be bagged so we could taste blind. This helps to develop palate memory. Moreover, even when you're a relatively advanced taster, this technique is helpful to revisit.

When tasting a particular type of wine (i.e. McLaren Vale Grenache, GC Chablis, etc), note to yourself as you taste: what are the key markers or characteristics of this wine? On your tasting notes, {circle} items that jump out at you.

After tasting several Chablis for example, do you have any flavours or characteristics that you particularly notice about these wines (here are some of mine: green apple peel on Chablis, burnt toast and lime curd on Hunter Valley Sem, grapefruit pith on Pinot Gris).

 

Once you ‘get’ a particular flavour or aroma, it’s like learning a new verb in another language, and as you add more and more to your lexicon, you will become fluent in your new language.

These are the tells which will later help you when you are narrowing down your list of likely wines in a blind tasting or exam. 

 

Should I watch the grid?

I’d also recommend open tasting while looking at your WSET grid and descriptors, and asking yourself if you sense each category while you taste.

It takes a little practice, but you will naturally memorize the different flavour camps, and eventually, will be able to run through them in your head by rote as you taste: ‘do I taste citrus, stone fruit, oak? etc.

 

PS: When you write your notes, be methodical about writing out the categories in the order of the tasting grid. It will help organize your thoughts as you taste (and will be helpful for the exam, because you won't miss any point categories).

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

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

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: ID'ING ACIDITY IN FINO SHERRY

Blind tasting Fino Sherry

Q: Dear Rachel,

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 From the Sherry.Wine website

From the Sherry.Wine website

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

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

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

WHAT YOU CAN LEARN BY FAILING A BLIND TASTING

 What #blindtastingfailure feels like...

What #blindtastingfailure feels like...

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

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

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

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

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

Big mistake. Huge. {Pretty Woman reference}

WRONG.

They were Syrah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers & Cin Cin,

Rachel

BLINDTASTING Q&A: PRIMARY, SECONDARY, TERTIARY FLAVOURS

blindtasting for wset diploma

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers,

Rachel

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

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!

BLIND TASTING WSET EXAM TIPS

 Me before the exam: please let there be a Riesling!

Me before the exam: please let there be a Riesling!

Some of the trickiest elements of the WSET Diploma are the blind tasting exams. I recently had an email from a reader requesting blind tasting tips for their upcoming exam.

After giving it some thought, I've put together my top 5 tips to help you ace your blind tastings, plus one bonus tip. One item I want to note up front though: you don't need to ID a wine to pass the exam - your ability to accurately assess the wine's characteristics is what will get you a pass (although it's always nice to get it right)!

Have a routine

There was some research recently that said when you have a routine when you taste, like looking in a particular direction, it can help you be more effective. There was also a study on the parts of the brain a somm or wine student accesses as they taste wine, and doing MRI's found they were the regions that govern logic and memory.

After I read the research, I took note of where my eyes went when I tasted, and found it's always up and to the right as I test a wine sample. This was a habit I'd developed without thinking about why. After noting it, I make efforts to repeat the same movement, especially in exams and when I can't pinpoint what a wine is. Having a habit is comforting and helps you feel in control when you're in a stressful situation.

Pretend you're picking up and swirling a glass of wine under exam conditions, and pay attention to any habits you have: where are your eyes looking? Try it out next time you do a blind tasting. I'd be interested to hear in the comments whether you look up and to the right too, or somewhere else completely (maybe your eyes are closed)!

Memorize & Scan

As you smell and taste, mentally run through the different aroma and flavour categories in your mind. Use the same order each time, so it becomes a strategy.

I always start with fruit: red fruit, black fruit, stone fruit, citrus, dried fruit. Oak: toast, vanilla, wood spice. Dairy: cream, yogurt. Herbaceous: cedar, tobacco, mint. etc. You don't need to find something from every category, just mentally ask yourself whether that category is present in the wine. It's a prompt to get you thinking.

Personally, I used to occasionally miss noting minerality, but now I make sure to just ask myself if it's present in the wine.

Pretend you are running a computer scan of the wine with your mind. Yes, it's a bit geeky, but now that I've memorized the categories, it's quick, easy, and intuitive.

With the tasting grid, you need to memorize the categories and their order. Absolutely! When I write a note, the elements are in the same order every time. Avoid going higgledy piggledy and be consistent: markers love it because it makes their job easier. If you're making markers lives easier, and your thoughts are in order, you'll convey 'mastery' (that's what WSET are looking for).

So you might think this is sounding a bit robotic? Maybe, but there's room to let your opinions shine in your note. If you think a wine is excellent, say so. If it tastes muddled and lacking in intensity, say so.

Note Your First Impression, But Don't Judge

The exam begins when the invigilator says it does, but there's no rule against being extra observant as your pour your wine samples. You can already be checking for clues without touching your glass: what's the colour, how viscous is it, is it clear or hazy, are there bubbles. Which order will you taste these wines in (there's no law saying you should taste in the order they're numbered! If one's opaque purple and another's pale garnet, start on the garnet).

When the exam begins, if something leaps out at you right away about the wine, write it down. For example, it's got screaming high acidity, or smells hot and jammy, or it's very floral, put a note at the top of your tasting sheet for later. Often these first impressions will help you suss out what the wine is when you're making a final conclusion. Not to be too neurotic, but choose a place on your scrap paper where you'll make these notes, and put them in the same place every time. Systems = success.

But... don't make a judgement call till the end!

As tricky as this is, try not to immediately jump to a conclusion about the wine. If a grape or region spring immediately to mind, make a note of it, but continue to assess the wine as if you don't need to ID it. If you're convinced at the start your wine is a Syrah, then without even meaning to, you might start writing out a Pinot Gris note when it's really a Torrontes.

Be A Detective

When studying for the Unit 3 Tasting exam, at the end of a flight of three wines, use the notes you've made from your three wines to give you clues. 

On my scrap paper, at the start of the test, I write down a list of all the main red and white grapes. When I go to conclude and an ID is called for, I narrow that list down as much as possible. For example, I recently tried a flight of three red wines. They were all medium intensity ruby, with aromas of black fruit, and peppery flavours. One showed herbaceousness, and another was rich and ripe. One was very meaty.

I narrowed down the grape shortlist to Cab Franc, Syrah, and Grenache. From there I went back to my notes and underlined common words and characters. Black pepper was in every note. Blackcurrant was too. All showed medium+ or higher tannins. One of the wines was extremely herbaceous. The key clue though was the strong smoked meat character of one of the wines.

I ruled out Grenache due to the high tannins present and lack of red fruit character. Hmmm, are these wines Cab Franc or Syrah? What classic regions could these wines be from? I make a list of all the regions these wines could logically come from: on the left for Cab Franc, on the right for Syrah.

If I go with Cab Franc, the Loire would be a prime guess, but are there other Cab Franc regions that would fit the other two wines? Hmmm. If I go with Syrah, the Northern Rhone would be a good fit for the meaty wine. The riper one could be from a hotter climate, like Australia or California. The herbaceous wine is from a cooler climate, but I can't place it. Of the two grapes, Syrah made more sense, and was the correct answer.

All that logic being said, sometimes you get a gut feeling at the end: "these are from Spain" or "this wine is Zinfandel", and it's important not to ignore why that thought is coming to you. Run your gut feeling guess through the lists you made and see if it's a fit.

Practice Under 'Extreme' Conditions

No, you don't need to practice blind tasting in Antarctica, but you do need to train yourself to write excellent notes in short times, under some duress.

You'll have 10 minutes a wine, but in the exam time flies by like crazy, and a blank page gets you no marks. Start by practising at 8 minutes a wine, but each week, drop it down by a minute until you can write a great note in 6 minutes.

During the exam, there will be 20 - 30 very stressed people in the room, shuffling, coughing, clinking glassware, etc. This can be a big distraction if you're used to tasting in silence, so I'd recommend playing music, blind tasting in a group, or having other ambient noises (like a TV in the background) as you practice.

On test day, if you've prepared this way, you'll have extra time to go back and re-taste the wines to make any final comments in your conclusions. I've picked up extra points by going back at the end, and picking up a note of cream or pepper that I missed previously that helps me ID what's in the glass.

You'll also have a little extra time to scan your answers to make sure you haven't left out a category, costing you points. For example, I noticed in practice exams that I sometimes forgot to note flavour intensity or alcohol. I made a point of checking at the end of my exam and caught that I had indeed left it out on a couple notes. Yes, two extra points! Check your tasting notes against the grid to see if you're regularly forgetting categories.

Bonus Tip: Read & Re-read the Questions

This is something that everyone says to do, but only because it's true. Every exam, there's someone who fails to read what the question is asking and may not pass because of it.

There's an easy fix though: bring a highlighter to your exam, and highlight the action words from each question. For example, if the question says, "Note the differences in quality. These wines are from different regions", then highlight and circle in pen "Note the differences in quality" and "different regions". When you're making conclusions, look again at your highlighted sections.

Thanks for reading! If you have a tip to share, please leave a comment.

Cin cin,

Rachel

WINETRIPPING: A GUIDEBOOK TO BC'S BEST OKANAGAN & SIMILKAMEEN VALLEY WINERIES

 Looking down towards Osoyoos from the Golden Mile near Oliver

Looking down towards Osoyoos from the Golden Mile near Oliver

I've been a busy bee lately, just back from trips to England and Italy, which were respectively to be an associate judge at the IWSC on Canadian and American wines and study at the Vinitaly Italian Wine Ambassador program.

Now that I'm back in Vancouver, regular trips up to the Okanagan and Similkameen have recommenced. I've been continuing my grand tour of wineries, both new and old favourites, as I finish the research for my book Winetripping. Which is no hardship! The weather's beautiful {pool weather in April? yes, please}, and the desert flowers are in bloom in Osoyoos, a rare sight.

Winetripping is something I've been working on for over a year, and am so excited to see released this June. My goal in writing this winery guide comes down to my passion for the region, which I think is some of the most beautiful wine country in the world. I want you to come and visit! 

Certainly, the Okanagan is one of the friendliest wine regions you can explore, with sweeping valley views, glistening lakes, oh, and let's not forget the hundreds of unique wineries with tasting rooms and restaurants ready for your arrival!

Ultimately, there are more wineries than you can visit, so I've curated a list of places I love recommending to friends and family. I want you to have an awesome time on your trip up to Osoyoos, Oliver, Naramata, Kelowna, Vernon or Keremeos!

There's nothing like hitting up the tasting rooms on a sunny day, choosing your very favourite wines to bring home with you, then opening those bottles up months later to reminisce about your trip.

I've heard from wine lovers that there're so many wineries that it can be overwhelming choosing where to go, and planning which you'll include and which you'll skip. So, my guide is all about making it easy for you to find the exact kind of tasting room you love, whether that's somewhere with a log cabin and dogs wandering through the vines, or a modernist producer with fancy glassware and a view over the lake.

In addition to the 89 wineries listed, other handy sections will cover arranging a tour, getting to know the local grapes, wine tasting etiquette, and suggested itineraries based on your interests (love bold reds, want the hidden gems, or maybe you're into Riesling? I've got you covered).

I feel strongly about supporting our local wineries, who work day in and out to produce this incredible beverage we all adore. By visiting the wineries, dining at their restaurants, and buying wines on site, we consumers are not only having a great experience, we're ensuring that they're able to keep doing what they love while making a good living. Cheers to that!

Find out more here.