The Longest Day: WSET Diploma Unit 3 Exam
The ideal way to approach an exam is to be relaxed, calm, and focused. So I set off at 6:45 to make the hour-long journey from Napa to San Francisco for the day's tasting and theory exams. The plan was to do a quick tasting with my study group before the exam to get into the right frame of mind. I knew there'd be traffic but I did not factor in rain. The slightest drizzle brings the Bay Area to a halt. Yes, there's a drought in California, yes, rain is unusual here, but believe me Cali folk it is safe to drive faster than 20mph in light rain. Crawling along the freeway, the 50-mile journey took 2 hours 45 minutes. I stumbled, sweating, shaking, and just about ready to cry, into the exam room at 9:30, the very minute it was scheduled to start.
Thankfully, our tutor Adam Chase had delayed the start and I hadn't missed an exam I'd spent over a year preparing for. There was even time for a member of my study group to give me a taste of a Vouvray - never has Chenin Blanc tasted so good. And it proved that a quick sip of a refreshing, dry white wine is a great way to prepare the palate for an intensive tasting.
Twelve wines, organised into four flights of three. We were given an hour to taste the first six wines, followed by a ten-minute break and then the final six wines.
Each flight had a different theme. The first flight was three white wines, all the same variety. As with all the wines, we had to write a tasting note, assess the quality, and state its readiness for drinking and its ageing potential. We also had to say which country and region each wine was from, before concluding at the end of the flight which grape variety the wines were made from, giving reasons for our conclusion. The wines were quite clearly Chardonnay; working out which region each wine was from was more difficult as Chardonnay is made in such an international style.
I got some oak on this wine, so although I said it was from Burgundy I didn't think Chablis - but Fèvre have been using more oak in their wines in recent years. It would have been nice if the WSET had chosen a more typical example of Chablis.
Hardys HRB D652 Chardonnay 2011 (Australia)
An oak bomb that could have come from any warm climate region: I guessed California.
Au Bon Climat Wild Boy Chardonnay 2012 (California)
From one of my favourite producers, the Wild Boy is only available in the UK. As this exam is taken all around the world, choosing wines that are distributed in different countries may help. I guessed the wine was from Chile, as I'd already gone for California for the previous wine.
The second flight had one white and two reds: this time we had to say which country/region they were all from, as well as deciding which grape variety each wine was made from, again giving reasons. I actually got all three grapes, but changed my mind on the first wine at the last minute as I was confused trying to think of a country that makes sweetish Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Cabernet blends. I could only think that the wines were from France, so at the last second crossed out Riesling and wrote Chenin Blanc - forgetting that New Zealand produces forgettably small amounts of medium-dry/sweet Riesling.
Te Kairanga Martinborough Riesling 2011
Medium-dry and rather shallow, yet with lime aromas characteristic of Riesling. Should have stuck with my instincts.
Yealands Estate Reserve Central Otago Pinot Noir 2013
This was a good Pinot Noir, though rather too full-bodied and fruity - factors which should have led me away from Burgundy.
Villa Maria Reserve Gimblett Gravels Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2010
Balanced and integrated, this was a really good example of a Cabernet Sauvignon from a moderate climate. It was slightly herbaceous, with green, minty aromas which made me think of Bordeaux.
I finished one minute before the time was up: 6 wines in 60 minutes leaves very little time for reflection. Instead, it's a case of constantly writing while simultaneously trying to assess the quality, identity, and connection between each wines. The one good thing about this is that, right or wrong, you just have to move on.
For the next set of six wines, I decided to do the fourth flight first as it featured two whites and a red. This was a mixed selection of wines we had studied, with no link connecting them. As well as assessing the quality, we had to state the grape variety/ies and the region the wine came from.
Baumard Carte d'Or Coteaux du Layon 2013
I figured out this was a really sweet wine, so my tasting notes should be quite accurate. I concluded, however, that this was a Riesling from Rheingau rather than Chenin Blanc from the Loire: once again I got my Riesling and Chenin Blanc mixed up. If only the Chenin Blanc I'd quickly tasted in the morning had been sweet rather than dry. This was the only wine of the twelve which I rated outstanding.
Fillaboa Albariño (WSET haven't released the vintage)
This was a beautifully aromatic wine, grapey with ripe stone fruits, but with a really dry, mineral palate. Albariño didn't cross my mind though - the nose was so grapey that I went for Muscat from Alsace.
I went out on a limb with this wine and called it a Recioto from Valpolicella, as there seemed to be a definite sweetness on both the nose and the palate. I was completely wrong about that.
Failing to get the grape or the region right may seem a disaster, but even though I declared that the Malbec was a sweet red wine I actually think my tasting notes were pretty decent.
I then moved back to the third flight, which was wines all from the same region. Strangely, we didn't have to identify that region. Instead, we had to give a detailed assessment of quality - for this section there were 8 points rather than the 4-6 points for the other flights. Having found out the identity of the wines, I'm glad we didn't have to name the region. I was convinced these three wines were from Rioja: the first two wines were oaky, with red and dried fruits, while the third was young and fruity.
The nose and palate of this wine were so mature and developed that I instantly concluded that it was a Gran Reserva, and one that was ten years old at that. It was quite a beautiful wine albeit losing some of its freshness, and I was very surprised to learn it was less than five years old. Because I thought it was so much older, this is one wine from the exam I will have lost quite a few marks on.
I thought this was a modern Reserva; as it's been aged in oak for 12 months, I at least got the ageing right. This had really nice red fruits, but didn't seem quite balanced - maybe a bit too young still.
Young, fruity, and nondescript, this completed the trio of basic appellation, good appellation, and top appellation.
I came out of the tasting exam already exhausted but content that I'd done enough to pass. Although I'd misidentified some of the wines, I felt my tasting notes were accurate enough - which is what I think wine tasting should be about. Put simply, all I want to know when I taste a wine is, What does it taste like? and Is it good?
After a near three-hour drive and a two-hour tasting exam, the last thing I wanted to do was a three-hour theory paper. But did it I did.
I was expecting some obscure questions designed to torment us, but all of them were fair enough. I still made some basic errors which I'm annoyed about but there's no changing anything now. Here, paraphrased, are the five questions I answered, followed by the two I avoided.
Account for the differences in the style, quality, and price between the following appellations:
a) Pauillac b) Barsac c) Entre-deux-Mers
This was the complusory question, the one everybody was dreading in case it asked something we knew nothing about. This was a very approachable question, though: very high-end red AC from Haut-Médoc; sweet white from next to Sauternes; and basic dry white from the biggest producing area in Bordeaux. (If I had been answering this question in Manchester, where I started studying for the Diploma, I would have had to answer on Pomerol instead of Pauillac. The questions vary slightly for Asian, European, and American papers.)
"Riesling can claim to be the world's finest white grape variety." Why is this the case (60%)? Why is Riesling unfashionable in some markets? (40%)
This was another question you could really get your teeth stuck into.
Describe the red wines of the south of France from:
a) IGP/Vin de Pays b) Corbières c) Bandol
I engaged in a bit of bluster for this one, but hopefully I threw in some accurate information along the way. My answer for Bandol can be summed up as, The red wines are really, really good - which I think is impossible to dispute.
Discuss the climate and choice of grape variety in five of the following regions:
a) Aconcagua b) Clare Valley c) Okanagan Valley d) Central Otago e) Salta f) Central Valley USA
This is the answer I am least confident about, with a lot of repetition (particularly the phrase diurnal temperature varitation). I also got confused about Salta, saying Chardonnay was grown there instead of Torrontés. That really annoys me, because I knew that and I lost some easy points. The region I avoided was Canada's Okanagan Valley: I could describe the climate (cold winters, very hot summers, arid conditions) but couldn't remember which grape varieties are grown there. Wines from Okanagan are not ones I encounter every day. (On the European paper, Coonawarra and Lodi were asked about instead of Salta and Central Valley.)
Write about three of the following grape varieties:
a) Assyrtiko b) Savatiano c) Agiorgitiko d) Xinomavro (60%)
What are the challenges facing the Greek wine industry when selling the wines abroad? (40%)
I was able to cover most relevant points regarding Assyrtiko, remembered that Savatiano is the main grape in Retsina, and wrote down some information about Agiorgitiko, some of which was accurate. I could still be writing about the challenges facing the Greek wine industry.
Describe the following wines and discuss how factors in the vineyard and winery determine their character: premium Stellenbosch Pinotage and bulk Worcester Chenin Blanc. (70%) What advantages and disadvantages might producers of these wines face in the market place? (30%)
There's only one wine I would rather less write about than Pinotage: bulk Chenin Blanc.
With reference to the wines of Italy, write about five of the following:
a) Gaja b) Dolcetto c) Teroldego d) Bianco di Custoza e) Collio (Collio Goriziano) f) Gattinara
Going into the exam, I felt quite confident about Italy. I took one look at these options, however, and moved on to Greece. (The options on the European paper were very different and, apart from Valtellina, I would have felt more confident answering them: Gaja, Teroldego, Arneis, Bardolino, Colli Orientali, and Valtellina.)
This was as tough a day as expected: the range of wines and theory questions covers just about every area imaginable. It requires not just factual knowledge, but interpretation of that knowledge. It also demands five hours of writing by hand, something I haven't done since my school days. Although I hope I've passed both papers, I feel - as I did after taking my spirits and sparkling wine exams - that I'm now better prepared to take them than I was going in. Whatever the outcome, there's always more to learn about wine, but for the time being I can go back to studying and tasting (drinking) wine for my own pleasure rather than for an exam.
After all that, there was still the drive back to Napa. Seeing the traffic going on to the Bay Bridge I pulled over for a much-needed nap. Waking up, the traffic was still there, so I went for a much-needed beer. After that, I still found myself in standstill traffic for half an hour before it finally eased up. I got back home at 9pm, a long 15 hours after I'd left, and poured myself a much, much-needed tequila.
*update* (12 September 2015)
I today received confirmation of my results, passing both tasting and theory with merit (meaning I scored 65%+). I was delighted enough to pass, let alone to achieve a good score. The results are broken down further by question, and I thought I would share how I did for each one to give an idea of how my initial reaction corresponded with how I actually performed.
flight 1: pass with distinction - as these wines were clearly Chardonnay, I wasn't surprised I had a good score
flight 2: pass with merit - I identified two of the wines correctly and my reasoning that the wines came from a cool to moderate climate were sound
flight 3: pass - given I thought that the wines were from Rioja rather than the southern Rhône, it's not surprising I didn't score as well
flight 4: pass - again, thinking that an Argentinian Malbec was a Recioto was always going to damage my score. But in both these flights, I wrote accurate enough tasting notes
My tasting scores were more up and down than I would have liked, and I need to become more consistent in my ability to identify a wine.
question 1: pass with distinction - I'm very pleased to have got such a high score on a question on Bordeaux
question 2: pass with merit - I felt I did a good job balancing fact and opinion in answering on Riesling
question 4: pass with merit - I thought I'd made up a bit too much answering this question on the south of France, but it must have been more accurate than I gave myself credit for
question 5: pass with merit - I felt I answered these questions on the climates of different regions well, but I was disappointed that I made a couple of basic mistakes, such as saying that Salta is known for Chardonnay
question 6: pass - my answer on Greece was certainly weak on describing the grape varieties, but I think I compensated enough on talking about the challenges facing the Greek wine industry
I went into the exam very nervous about the theory, but I'm really pleased that I managed to marshal a year's worth of study into consistently good answers. Knowledge that's already disappearing now that I don't have to prepare for an exam ...