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.
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!
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!
PS: If you've had experience with the MW program or tasting with MW students, please share your wisdom in the comments!