WSET Diploma - Week One
I walked into the room nervous and fearing I was very late, but I was actually three minutes ahead of the 9am start; the strict warnings about being there at 8.30 to register were shallow. That's something I find about the WSET: lots of particular instructions about doing everything in a particular way, but frustratingly vague when asked for a particular example or answer. I was hoping for some clarification about what exactly the WSET want from us, as students, and how they think we should take what we learn into the business, but I still feel it could be a long time till I find a clear answer - every tutor's different and although they try to conform to the WSET way of doing things, each one still interprets it differently.
Our first two tutors reflected these different approaches: Karen, a trained teacher with a belligerent attitude towards conveying information, and Russell, mild-mannered with a suggestively persuasive teaching technique.
The day was intensive, mainly focused on tasting. This is where WSET can be at its most infuriating and inconsistent. The guidelines, and interpretations of those guidelines, change all the time, wrestling with their self-imposed limitations. The SAT (Systematic Approach to Tasting), a two-sided document which tries to make the subjective exercise of wine tasting as objective as possible, is going to change for our Still Wines tasting exam next year, but not for the Sparkling Wines exam in March. I finally learnt that medium(-) and medium(+) are alternatives to medium, not grades between low and high; that lemon-green colour has to have some green in it (seems obvious, but I've never been told that before); that gold has to have some orange in it; that purple has to have some blue in it. Why couldn't have these facts been made clear in previous courses? or is it that WSET are always having to correct/nuance their definitions?
Karen gave us a useful blind-tasting tip to help organise and identify the wines: in a flight, look at each wine separately and write your observations; then smell each wine separately and write your observations; and then decide in which order to taste them.
Our first flight of blind tasting had three white wines, three questions: which grape variety are the wines? which one is a big volume brand? which one is cool climate? The grape variety was easy, because the first wine was massively oaky: Chardonnay (from Meerlust, South Africa). Distinguishing the other two was harder, but the faint whiff of oak chips on the second wine indicated a brand (Jacob's Creek; any wine described as having "subtle oak flavours" was aged with oak chips, not in oak barrels) and the higher acidity on the third pointed towards cool climate (Chablis).
The second flight of blind tasting I got completely wrong. Four reds, all the same grape. I figured out the grape was Cabernet Sauvignon, because each wine had blackcurrant aromas and flavours, but I didn't identify any of them correctly. I even managed to describe a 2004 Pauillac as being an unoaked Languedoc; in my defence, even after identification, it was still a disappointing wine. But I went home a little stressed about tasting - even if the exam's over a year away.
Another tutor, Gareth, striding around the room like a sergeant-major and as English as they come - he confessed, without any embarrassment, to having worn a tweed suit to a whisky tasting on Islay.
The first tasting was four wines: two reds, same grape, one from a cooler climate, the other from a warmer climate and two other reds, same conditions. The first wine gave the game away for that pairing: garnet colour, strawberries and raspberries, Burgundy Pinot Noir. The second pairing was more difficult as the wine from the cooler climate was actually from Hawke's Bay, which has a fairly moderate climate, but its tannins were less ripe than the other from Barossa Valley (the grape was Syrah/Shiraz). When trying to identify the origin of a wine the ripeness of the tannins is an important indication.
Then followed a prolonged morning of viticulture lecture, which can only be described as hardcore. The Diploma starts with winemaking with good reason for it provides a thorough base for understanding everything else about wine. I was terrible at biology and chemistry at school, though, and I have no horticultural skills whatsoever, so I'll be glad when the exam's done with at the beginning of February.
The afternoon was much more fun, as well as equally educational, with an amazing line-up of eight high-quality, but very different sweet wines. It was an intensive, informative tasting, learning about the different methods of sweet-wine production, and then tasting examples.
In the line-up was a lusciously sweet Canadian icewine from Peller, which was outstanding but needed a lushly sweet dessert; even though this was the sweetest wine we tasted, it was shown third out of eight. We were also treated to a 1992 Beerenauslese, a wine whose aroma was so crazy it stank of old socks and could sit in a line-up of funky beers. My favourite wine of the tasting was a Tokaji, made by the great Spanish estate Vega Sicilia; complex funky aromas from the Botrytis, yet with a real freshness on the palate. We finished with a 2003 Sauternes; its oaky spiciness was so upfront it reminded me of an American rye whiskey, and on further tasting it felt a little unsubtle.
Another hardcore morning of Gareth lecturing on viticulture. Hard for it to stick in the mind, so much information being delivered so quickly. I did an online mock paper in the evening; to my surprise I managed to get 70%, enough for a merit. Encouraging, but it involved quite a bit of guesswork and I'm going to have to do a lot of work before the exam in February to properly organise all the information I've struggled to process.
The afternoon saw our final tasting session of the week. First, we split into groups of four, each group tasting a wine. We wrote collective tasting notes, without drawing any conclusions about quality or identity. We then saw another group's notes and wrote conclusions based on their tasting, after which we tasted their wine to see if our actual conclusions matched our projected ones. An interesting exercise in communication and the importance of clarity: do people hear what we think we are conveying? how do we interpret what we're being told?
The day finished with a mock tasting exam, which we were all suitably nervy about. Three red wines: write a tasting note, decide the grape variety and give reasons, and assess the quality of the wine, all in thirty minutes. That may seem a long time, but ten minutes to describe, define, and assess a wine is intense. We don't get our marks till February (it would have been much more useful for us for the tutor to mark the papers straightaway), but we were told the identity of each wine afterwards. Cabernet Sauvignon (got it; full of blackcurrants and mint); Nebbiolo (got it; garnet colour, red fruits, and loads of tannin and acidity); and Pinot Noir (didn't get it, amusingly declaring it was a Merlot; my description of leather, game, and mushroom should have pointed me in the right direction, but it crossed the mind of no one in the room that this difficult, dark-coloured wine could be Pinot Noir, even though it turned out to be from the heart of Burgundy, Nuits-St-George). Don't know what mark I'll get, but I already feel I've learnt a lot about pinpointing the identity of a wine. I'm looking forward to practising my tasting skills in more comfortable conditions.
All tasting over, meaning a day's worth of Gareth lecturing, the focus on the business of wine. Lots of interesting information, but conveyed at breakneck speed over the course of eight hours. The WSET really need to improve their teaching techniques and encourage more student interaction. Most of the students in the class work in the industry - and the two that don't have a lifetime of drinking experience - and we would all benefit from hearing about everyone's else experiences of, and opinions on, the business from different perspectives. A tasting would have helped, as well; for example, a supermarket wine, a wine from Majestic, and a wine from an independent retailer. Would we have spotted which was which? how would quality have varied? which would have seemed better value for money?
Another morning on the business of wine, this time focusing on brands. Again, tasting some of the brands we learnt about would have been helpful. This did finish with some groupwork, though, with our task marketing a quality fino sherry in the UK - just the kind of thing I'd like to do in real life!
In the afternoon, we were given daunting example questions on sparkling wines and spirits, exams we're taking in March. In each exam, you get given three drinks to taste - and I don't drink sparkling or spirits that often. And then there are three written questions, each worth twenty-five marks. For example, write about Pinot Meunier, Asti, and Bollinger; Bourbon, Cognac labelling, and Diageo - all subjects I know so much about.
All in all, I've got plenty of studying - and drinking - to do over the next two months on three very different topics!