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.