WSET Diploma Exams
I'm just two months into the Diploma and I've done three exams already. There's been some intense studying going on and it's a relief I can finally sit down with a glass of wine (Pieropan Ruberpan Valpolicella, since you're asking) and relax. Our next exam isn't till June, so I'm not sure why the WSET have found it necessary to cram these three very different exams into such a short period of time. Anyway, here's how they went...
The Diploma starts, obviously, with Unit 2 (out of 6), which focuses on all the technical stuff - what happens in the vineyard and the winery - the building blocks to everything we go on to study about wine. We took this exam in February and I wrote about it then. I passed with distinction, which I won't be doing for these next two exams.
The next exam was Unit 5, on sparkling wine, which we had to study in conjunction with Unit 4, spirits. It was hard studying these two completely different and equally vast topics together. The amount of information we had to process, let alone the amount of drinks we needed to try, in just the space of a month, was at times overwhelming - not forgetting that we have other things to do in our lives as well. I was helped by going to a series of trade tastings where I sampled all the sparkling wine I could and by a blind tasting of nine spirits very kindly arranged by Sam of Manchester House. All that work doesn't quite prepare you for the pressure of the exam itself, though.
Both the sparkling and spirits exams are in the same format: three drinks to taste blind and three subjects you to have write a paragraph on. The exam's 65 minutes, so you have roughly just ten minutes for each drink and question. I decided beforehand to tackle the written answers first to get the factual information out of the way and, for the sparkling wines, to allow the wines to warm up and the aromas to become more apparent.
That cunning plan fell to pieces with the first question, which caused a wave of panic to rush through me as I read it. "CM (Coopérative-Manipulant)" was all it said. First question I asked myself as I fought off the panic: what's a Coopérative-Manipulant? Second question: even if I remember what one is, how do I dredge up enough information to write an answer? (Each question is worth twenty-five points, so you pretty much need to say twenty-five things.) Third, and final question, How and why would the examiners ask this question? A bad day at the office that they decided to take out on the whole world of Diploma students?
After the exam, we all clustered together to work out how we should, or could, have answered that question. First off, we reached for our study guides to see what it said about Coopérative-Manipulant. Here's what we found:
That's it, and half of that definition was the question. However, the WSET advise that we read other material to deepen our knowledge so when I got home I looked at the recommended further reading, Christie's World Encyclopedia of Sparkling Wine. This book is exhaustive and here's what it says:
Slightly more helpful, but that's not the only book I've got for further reading. We got sent a copy of the Oxford Companion to Wine with our study materials, and this is our go-to book. It did expand on the above entries a little.
Even with these books to hand, I'd be hard pressed to write a detailed answer and in exam conditions it was an arduous task requiring some imagination. What was particularly frustrating was its close emphasis on a term from a traditional wine-making area, rather than stretching out to newer areas. I was all prepared to write about Argentina (Moët & Chandon are just about to release their first Argentinian wine in the UK - one of a million facts I never got to use) or the issues around quality New Zealand sparkling wine reaching the market it deserves, but here I was blagging about two letters that sometimes appear on a bottle of Champagne.
My mood wasn't improved by the next question - "Saumur." That fashionable, high-quality, commercially important Loire Valley sparkling appellation. Oh, is that a question about France again? I was ready to answer a question about the Loire, but didn't think they'd ask about a specific appellation because they're not important enough. Wrong.
After the very specific and then the specific, came the massively broad - "Black Grapes," a subject I could have spent the whole exam writing about. I seem to have taken a different approach to answering the question than my fellow students, writing in detail about Pinot Noir and Meunier, the two black Champagne grapes, with a passing reference to Sparkling Shiraz at the end, rather than writing about every black grape used in the production of sparkling wine (and there are a lot). The difficult thing here was knowing what information you were expected to produce in just ten minutes.
I then went on to tasting the three sparkling wines, which presented fewer problems. The first was Prosecco, but from the higher quality Prosecco Superiore DOCG; the second was a fairly standard Cava, from major producer Codorníu, with a hint of toastiness at the end the only indication that it had been aged on its lees; and the third a Californian Blanc de Blancs. We didn't have to specify where the wines were from - instead asked to come to a conclusion about the quality of the wine - but I was quite pleased I had been able to work out that the third wine, by far the best, was New World and not Champagne.
I'm not that much of a spirits drinker, though I've become more interested in them over the course of the last month, which is why I've been blogging about them incessantly. I think that's why I found the tasting (the practice) much more difficult than the written questions (the theory).
I again approached the written answers first, covering the spirits with a piece of paper in a vain attempt to mask the aromas emanating from the peaty whisky which I could smell from the other side of the room even before the bottle reached me. Before the exam, which took place a long three hours after the sparkling, a few of us joked about which obscure category would come up. So there were a few wry glances around the room when we all looked at the first question, "Cachaça," a subject we had guessed may appear as it's still not that well known but it is World Cup year. (Another relevant topic we also thought would come up was Jim Beam as it's been taken over by Suntory, a huge event in the world of spirits. It would also have given me a chance to write about Mila Kunis in an exam. Wrong again.) The second question was "conversion," probably the vaguest exam question I've ever faced. Most of my answer was about the conversion of insoluble starch into fermentable sugars in malted barley, which I hope is what the examiners were looking for. The third question was "Districts of Cognac." I read Nicholas Faith's book on Cognac last summer and answering this question was a process of distant recollection. Frustratingly, I could only remember five of the six regions (Bons Bois being the missing part). I then bluffed about soils as best I could.
For the tasting, we had to state where each spirit was from, what it was made of, what spirit it was, and how long it had been aged, all worth five marks out of the possible twenty-five. In short, get it wrong and you're screwed. The first spirit was water white and quite aromatic. At first, I smelt only tropical fruit flavours so concluded it was a white rum. But for the rest of the exam, something kept nagging me and I kept returning to it, desperately smelling it for enlightenment. I concluded it probably wasn't a white rum, but couldn't figure out what else it could be. It wasn't a vodka - too aromatic; it wasn't a tequila - no agave; it wasn't a grappa - not grapey or rancid enough; probably not a pisco - again, not grapey enough; not a Calvados - there was no age to it. There was nothing else it could be, so I reluctantly settled for white rum, knowing if that was wrong, all my tasting notes were wrong. It was pisco. Looking back, I'm not surprised that it was pisco, as it was so aromatic, but that's one tough spirit to spot. It was also one of the spirits we'd speculated, but feared, they'd ask us about.
The second spirit confused me too. It was amber coloured, with oaky aromas and dried fruits. It could either be a brandy or a rum, I thought, and I leant towards brandy because I could smell raisins and sultanas (from the grapes, I thought), because it wasn't dark enough to be a dark rum, and because I'd named the first spirit as a white rum. Answer: it wasn't dark enough to be a dark rum because it was a golden rum. From Jamaica's most famous producer, Appleton Estate, it was pretty good too.
The third spirit I barely needed to taste. Smell peat and write the tasting notes: peat, smoke, earth, smoked fish, seaweed, bonfire. After the problems of the first two spirits, I even felt confident enough to suggest it may come from Islay. The only confusing thing was its pale colour - it smelt rather than looked like a whisky. It was Ardbeg 10YO, which has a noticeably paler appearance than its neighbours Laphroaig and Lagavulin.
That tasting was one tough thirty minutes. I've done all the WSET courses and this is the first one that's focused in any detail on spirits. Not having being taught it thoroughly or consistently, the only way you could spot these three spirits with any confidence is by being a professional alcoholic. If I have to resit, that profession awaits.