Blind Tasting

LESSONS FROM A MOCK MW BLIND TASTING EXAM: PART 1

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

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

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

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

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

Wines poured and we’re off to the races

Wines poured and we’re off to the races

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

Here are my notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

- Italy

- Spain

- France

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

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

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

Wines L>R 1-2-3-4

Wines L>R 1-2-3-4

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

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

Cheers & Cin Cin,

Rachel

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

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

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