WSET Diploma

PLANNING YOUR YEAR IN WINE

2019 planning your year in wine

The question for 2019: How do you stay excited about wine, fit in ongoing learning, all while staying interested and avoiding wine ennui?  

I'm at that in between stage: post Diploma and considering the MW; definitely wanting to keep my knowledge fresh, and most importantly to stay curious and inspired about wine.

My planning for the year started with 1) travel (Porto, Paso Robles), added in 2) some wine festivals and seminars (Vancouver Wine Fest, will I see you there?), and sprinkled in a liberal dose of 3) tastings, 4) books, and 5) wine buying. That way there's something to look forward to on the calendar each and every month. There's still time to plan out your year, here's an outline of my plan to stay excited about wine this year, and how you can make your own plan too.

1) TRAVEL

I start with travel so that it actually happens! If I leave things to later, invariably, things get ‘too busy’ or something or another comes up to thwart vague plans. This year, it’s a mix of big trips and closer to home mini-breaks (Bridget Jones ref here). That way I have trips to plan for and look forward to, and room for surprises too!

March - Walla Walla (returning to explore and see what’s changed in the past few years)

April - Lisbon, Porto, Douro (my dream trip, Port is my #1, the big one for the year), plus London to judge at the IWSC, Verona, & Bordeaux

June - Willamette Valley (Pinot hound here, ready to scour for the cellar)

Oct - Paso Robles (never been before, love the wines, looking for your recommendations)

2) WINE FESTIVALS & SEMINARS

Next, I look into the wine festivals happening through the year. My favourite is Vancouver Wine Fest (VIWF). It’s well run, brings fantastic wineries around the world, and also puts on top class tastings. This year’s theme region is California, and I’ve already registered for several seminars (hope to see you there!). I’ll also be attending Vinitaly in Verona this spring. If there’s a festival you think I should add, please comment below and let me know.

FEB - VIWF

APR - Vinitaly

3) WINE TASTING

I attend a smattering of trade tastings and blind tasting groups, but starting in Feb, will be running a blind tasting group geared specifically towards Level 3 students. A good friend is taking WSET Level 3 online after challenging Level 2 (he’s a professional from outside the wine trade), and I’m organizing biweekly sessions geared to getting his palate ready for the exam. This is a great opportunity for me to buy classic wines and do some review too! I’ll also continue mock MW exams in the lead up to applying to the program in June > if you’re thinking of applying, please send me a message to be included in my pre-MW online study group.

Another option in this vein is wine clubs. Generally, I don’t like signing up because I don’t want too many wines from the same producer, but I do belong to Turley and Ridge (classic, and always welcome gifts and popular with guests).

FEB-APR - biweekly Level 3 tasting sessions

MAR-JUN - Mock MW exams to prepare for applying to the program in June

4) BOOKS

Are you like me in that you have a billion wine books in piles everywhere? OK, that’s hyperbole, but there are so many good books and only so much time to read them, plus it’s so easy these days to order yet another. I’ve set out a book schedule, that way it isn’t so daunting to see the stack, and here it is. Hope you’ll join in my ‘informal wine book club’ :)

FEB - Sommelier’s Atlas of Taste by Rajat Parr

MAR - Vines & Vinification by Sally Easton MW (the new WSET textbook)

APR - Volcanic Wines by John Szabo MS

MAY - The Wines of Burgundy by Silvain Pitiot

JUN - Bordeaux Chateau: A History of the Grands Crus

JUL - Champagne by Peter Liem

AUG - Wine Folly: Magnum Edition by Madeline Puckette

SEPT - Reading Between the Wines by Terry Theise

OCT - Barolo & Barbaresco by Kerin O’Keefe

NOV - The Wines of New Zealand by Rebecca Gibb

DEC - Wine and War by Donald and Petie Kladstrup

5) WINE BUYING

One of my favourite audiobooks is by Brian Tracy. In it, he says that the number one indicator of success in any person is how far into the future they are able to plan for. That got me thinking about wine. A statistic commonly thrown about is that almost all wine is consumed within hours of being purchased. Not only does having wine on hand make it remarkably fun and easy to host dinner parties (Oh, you like Italian reds… would you prefer a Barolo or a Chianti, honoured guest?), and saves times during holiday rushes (no need to race to the wine shop), but there is real joy in researching and purchasing wine with the intent of cellaring it. Maybe this is old hat to you, but it’s only in the last few years I’ve started to do this, and with serious intent over the past two.

I can’t plot this on a calendar like I did with items 1-4 above, but I can share that I give myself leeway to buy two wine purchases a month! There are criteria though! The wine must be ageworthy for the next 10+ years, ideally come from a classic region (aka blind tastable), and a recognized producer. Bonus points for high value to price ratio (aka I’m not generally buying expensive Bordeaux, but I do like Port and Champagne). This means by the end of a year, I will have set aside between 6-12 cases of ageworthy wine within my budget.

To start, if you don’t already subscribe to your local wine importer or wine store newsletters, it’s a great thing to do. Some of my favourites are Somm Select, Kermit Lynch, and Sedimentary Wines. Not only are their emails fun to read with an eye to investing, but you pick up great wine producer knowledge along the way.

So, there’s 2019 all planned out and ready to tackle with aplomb! Cheers and thanks for reading! I hope you’ll share some tidbits or suggestions in the comments.

Rachel

FINDING A WINE TASTING STUDY GROUP

start a wine study group

Hello fellow student of wine! I've had several requests to help peeps find a local wine study group. I thought you may find it helpful to have a place to leave a comment if you're seeking study partners or tasting groups.

Be sure to mention your study level (ie Diploma, WSET Level 3...) and your region.

Cheers, Rachel

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

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 D4 (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 & D6 (UNIT 1) RESEARCH PAPER

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 D6 (Unit 1) research paper.

I'd also like to hear your recommendations for how much reading you did beyond the WSET provided materials for Unit 4 Spirits, 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 D6 (Unit 1) research paper/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 D6Sources.doc:

For example, my email to myself would look like this for each source link:

(date last accessed - source material description - link): June 30, 2019 - 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 D3, previously called Unit 3 (theory), with the lowest pass rate, and the easiest to prepare for, in my opinion, is unit D1.

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!

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!