Approaching a Wine Century

Wine Century Essential - De Long's Wine Grape Varietal Chart

Wine Century Essential – De Long’s Wine Grape Varietal Chart

I’m creeping up towards my goal of 100 varietal wines from 100 different varieties, and it’s worth a post on its own, largely because I never really explained it in the first place.  So to start, what is this Wine Century that I keep going on about?

Wine is made from grapes, and while the vast majority of quality wine is made from one species called Vitis vinifera, within that species there are varieties such as Syrah and Chardonnay that have their own unique properties.  It’s a bit like breeds of dogs – most domesticated dogs are Canis lupus familiaris but within that species (sub-species to be more accurate) we have Labrador Retrievers, Irish Setters and hundreds of other breeds.  So roughly speaking, varieties are to grapes as breeds are to dogs.

If you drink wine, you quickly become familiar with the names of the more popular varieties, particularly if you drink New World wine where the grapes are commonly found prominently displayed on the front label.  If you study wine, you get to know even more varieties as you learn about increasingly obscure regions and grapes.

In 2005, Deborah and Steve De Long came up with an idea to promote lesser known grape varieties, and what resulted is The Wine Century Club.  You can apply for membership by listing 100 grapes you’ve tasted, along with the wines in which they were found.  There are subsequent levels of membership if you taste 200, 300, and so on.  It’s free, and is essentially bragging rights for wine geeks.  The De Longs are also responsible for the Wine Grape Varietal Table which I love, as well as some excellent maps.

So I’m attempting to join that club and I am finding it an interesting challenge.  On the one hand, it should be easy, given that Wine Grapes profiles 1,368 different grapes being used in commercial wine production.  In Australia alone, Vinodiversity lists over 100, so in theory I wouldn’t even have to leave the country.  Easy, right?

First off, there are a small number of varieties that dominate wine production.  If I head to my local wine merchant here in Adelaide, there’s no end of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir, but if I want a bottle of Carignan, I have to dig substantially deeper.  Second, it’s not always clear which grapes are in a wine.  Most European wines don’t list grape varieties on the label, requiring some online research (or the type of expert knowledge you get while studying for the WSET Diploma).  Finally, most grapes are known by more than one name, so you can’t list both Frontignac and Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains because they’re the same grape.  Still, if you drink enough wine and keep track, it shouldn’t be too difficult to eventually hit a century, right?

If you just want to tick boxes, sure.  Last year I enjoyed a Prosecco which I had assumed was made exclusively of that grape.  It turns out it also contained small amounts of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Bianchetta, Perera and Verdiso, which means in one bottle I picked up six grapes.  Between that bottle, a classic red Bordeaux blend, and a bottle of red Châteauneuf-du-Pape which can contain up to 18 grapes, I could be up to 30 grapes tasted in three bottles.  While only a handful are commonly used, scores of grapes are permitted in Port.  There’s even a wine from Mario Giribaldi called Cento Uve which contains over 150 different grapes, and so in theory you could do a century and a half with a single sip (were it not explicitly forbidden).

However, this site is about wine education, primarily my self education as I document my drinking.  In this context, listing a grape as part of a century should mean that I’ve tasted it, I’ve researched it, and that I know more about it than I did before I encountered it.  However, I’m not comfortable describing how a grape tastes if I’ve only had it in a blend.  Despite it having been a component of the Prosecco from last year, I couldn’t give you a tasting note for Verdiso, or really tell you anything about it.  So for my first Wine Century, I am only going to list varietal wines.  That makes it more difficult, but not impossible.  Does that make it better than doing a normal Wine Century?  No, just different, and if I go for 200 I’ll certainly start to count grapes tasted in blends.  For now though, there are two main complications with this extra level of challenge.

First, wines which one might think are varietal can actually be blends.  Labelling laws vary widely across the world, but in many places even when a variety is displayed prominently, it is permitted that some percentage of the wine may be made from other grapes.  I’ve encountered that several times, including a “Gamay” which actually contained some Pinot Noir and a “Carignan” which contained Carmenère and Malbec.  They weren’t labelled that way to mislead, and the websites for the producers had full details, but if you’re looking to stick to varietal wines, it can be frustrating.

Second, there are some grape varieties which, while common in blends, are less frequently found as varietal wines.  Pinot Meunier is a classic example, in that it’s very often found in Champagne, but typically alongside Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir.  Also, since it’s not considered as noble as those two grapes, if a Champagne producer made a varietal Pinot Meunier, they might be hesitant to draw attention to that fact..

So that’s what I’m trying to do now – a Century of Wines, all varietal.  I haven’t quite hit 80, and I have every confidence I’ll finish 100 before the year is half through.  I had been planning on a second part to this post regarding the practicalities of tracking 100 grapes, but really it’s down to keeping good records as to what you’ve been drinking, researching the wine in question to verify which grapes are in it, and being adventurous as to what wines you drink.  You may find you have to go out of your way once you get past 50 or 60 varieties, but making use of things like the Wine Grapes Varietal Table and Vinodiversity are great for finding less common grapes.  Finally, forming a tasting group with other people interested in doing the same thing can make it not only easier, but more sociable and entertaining.

WSET Diploma 2011-2012 Examiners’ Report

WSET Diploma Examiners' Report

WSET Diploma Examiners’ Report

In December the Examiners’ Report covering the 2011-2012 WSET Diploma Exams was published, and while I’m only getting to it now, it makes for interesting reading.  Anyone who will be taking a WSET Diploma exam this year needs to read it, and I mean the entire paper, so I’m not going to summarize the important points.  In terms of passing the exam, knowing what the Examiners want from your answers is as important as knowing the course material.  There are, however, a few things I want to discuss that have to do with neither.

First, the report, and the ones that preceded it, give the pass rates for each exam as a whole as well as for each question, and there are some interesting trends.  First, the good news is that generally pass rates for the Unit 3 exam are going up.  I won’t speculate as to the instruction getting better, the students studying more effectively or the exams getting easier.  It’s more true for the tasting component than the theory, but the overall upward trend is clear.

Overall Pass Rates

Overall Pass Rates

Second, students who take the exam in January have been somehow disadvantaged.  The difference is slight for the tasting, but pronounced for the theory exam.  Since the questions are different for each exam, there will always be variation, but I suspect it’s more to do with the January exam coming on the heels of seasonal festivities.  While many industries get busy over the holidays, those studying wine often work in hospitality (such as sommeliers) and so cannot devote as much time to the course in the weeks leading up to the January exam.  Also, while there are some students who sit the exam for the first time in January, many who fail on their first attempt in June resit the exam in the following January.  I have no data as to pass rates of those resitting an exam, so I can’t even speculate what that does to the January pass rate.

January vs. June Tasting Pass Rates

January vs. June Tasting Pass Rates

January vs. June Theory Pass Rates

January vs. June Theory Pass Rates

Thirdly, while January exams have had a lower pass rate historically for the theory component than the June exam, 2012 was the first year that that trend was reversed.  Since I sat the January exam, my natural reaction would be to take credit for this, but in fact it seems the June students suffered a somewhat harsh exam with a particularly tempting question proving to be deceptively difficult.  Still, January theory pass rates are trending upward at a faster pace then the June rates, so I am hopeful that the playing field will at some point be level regardless of when a student sits the exam.  And if you will be sitting a January exam for Unit 3 next year, keep in mind the extra challenge when making your study plan.

And finally, a very small word on some of the content of the report.  It typically contains selections of answers from student papers, sometimes provided as examples of what examiners expect, but at other times as public humiliation of especially poor efforts (though fortunately without the names of the students in question).  While I am grateful none of my work was so ridiculed, I am suffering a fate nearly as bad, for my wife had one of her essays reproduced as “one of the few better ones” from a question that few dared to attempt (51) and fewer still (13) managed to pass.  It was bad enough to be outperformed on the theory exam, but I fear I will be reminded of this triumph for many years to come.  And yes, I would do the same were our roles reversed.

Some Tips for the WSET Diploma Unit 3 Exam – Part 4

Please read carefully

Please read carefully

Right, I’ve told you about planning out your studies and reviewing the examiners’ reports, what you need to know about wine regions, and what you need to know about everything else.  Finally, there’s the exam itself, which is worth its own post.  I promise this will be my last post on the topic, because if you’re not a Diploma student, it makes for rather dull reading, and really I just don’t have anything further to offer on the topic.  Still, the exam itself, the hours spent actually taking it, are worth discussing.

There are four things I’ll address about taking the exam – reading, planning, writing, and pacing.  First, reading.  Every year the examiners’ report is littered with examples of students sitting the exam who didn’t read the instructions or the questions.  The instructions have some crucial information in them, particularly which and how many questions you are required to answer.  Typically the theory section will have a mandatory question and then several others of which you are required to answer most but usually not all.  Obviously it’s important that you understand which question you are required to answer, but it’s also critical that you not waste time writing answers beyond the ones for which you will be awarded points.  Every year some number of students make that mistake, so don’t be one of them.  Also, double check names.  Even casually it’s very easy to mix up Pouilly-Fuissé and Pouilly-Fumé, but under the stress of exam conditions it’s been known to happen with Austria and Australia.

Reading is important for the tasting section as well, as each flight is of a distinct nature that requires a specific type of tasting note.  Typically these will be along the lines of an assessment of quality of three similar wines, or finding the theme that unites the three wines.  If you just write standard tasting notes for each flight without having understood the instructions, you’re unlikely to receive full points.

After you’ve read the instructions and all the questions, you need to start planning before you put your pen to paper.  First, if you have a choice of questions you’ll need to decide which questions to answer.  There may be a question for which you are completely unprepared (hopefully not the mandatory question) or it may be just a matter of deciding for which questions the material is freshest in your mind.  Second, if you are going to answer one of the multiple short answer questions, decide which ones, because you’re likely to be allowed to drop one or two.

Next, jot down a quick outline of how you plan to answer each question.  This serves two purposes – you’ll write a better answer if you have an idea as to the structure you want before you start writing, and also you’ll quickly find out if you would be better off answering a different question instead.  If your answer is about a region or a grape, it’s also handy to jot down reminders as to the points you want to make sure you address in your answer.  This also applies for the tasting, making sure you cover all the required parts of the SAT.

Third, writing.  Over the course of sitting the exam, you’ll be writing furiously for hours.  Unless you write in longhand often, it can be a shock to the system, which is the last thing you need during the exam.  For that reason, I strongly encourage people to sit a practice exam.  It is a good idea for other reasons as well, but really, it’s worth it just to get the experience of having to write page after page of text as quickly as you can.  Also, you’ll get a better idea as to how much you can write in a fixed amount of time, which brings me to my last point, pacing.

When I took the theory part of the exam we were given three hours in which we had to answer five questions.  That works out nicely to 15 minutes prep time, 30 minutes per question, and then 15 minutes at the end to review.  However, you really need to stick to it. If you go over time on one question, you will have that much less time for the rest.

The same is true for your tasting flights.  Make sure you quickly hit all the points of the SAT because they are easy marks which should not require a huge amount of thought.  Don’t  get too bogged down in trying to nail the grape and the region.  Keep in mind how few marks they are worth relative to the tasting note as a whole and don’t obsess over them when you would be better off putting down your best guess and moving on to the next sample

So that’s it.  I expect Diploma students will get more use out of the OCW links I posted last week than any number of tips I could ever write, and recognizing that I’ve updated them with the two pages from the very front of the Unit 3 Study Guide in the “How to use this Study Guide” section.  They are largely for review, but potentially useful for students who are preparing for their Unit 1 and Unit 2 exams.  As always, I’m not an examiner and I have no special insight other than having passed (and only just at that).

Domain Registration Failure

The registration for this domain expired recently, without notification and despite auto-renewal being enabled.  While service was uninterrupted from my point of view, apparently such was not the case in other parts of the world.  Apparently some users were redirect to  less savoury websites.  My provider has assured me that it won’t happen again, though I am still in the dark as to how it happened at all.

This is of course incredibly embarrassing, and I apologize to any users who were inconvenienced and especially to Jancis Robinson who so kindly directed people to check out the pages of links I posted.

OCW Links for WSET Diploma Students

Well worn course materials

Well worn course materials

As a WSET Diploma student, the most important theory course materials are the red Study Guides which are created by the WSET for the course, and the Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson.  The Study Guides contain largely summary information about the content of the course, along with maps, sample question, and space for notes.  The largest runs to almost 200 pages.  The OCW contains a huge amount of material, though only a subset of it is within the Diploma curriculum.  The edition I have runs to over 800 pages, but if you subscribe to the Purple Pages at jancisrobinson.com (and there is a student discount), there is also an online version.

Each Study Guide contains a list, or in some cases several lists, of terms the student is expected to reference in the OCW.  If you have both books in front of you, study can consist of looking at a list in the Study Guide and then reading the corresponding entries in the OCW.  I subscribe to the Purple Pages, and therefore didn’t have to carry my OCW with me when I was travelling, but there were no online versions of the Study Guides or of the lists of terms.  Halfway through the course, I bit the bullet and made my own list for the Sparkling Wine unit by hand, with each entry being a link to the online OCW, so I was able to go back and forth between the list of terms and the OCW entries on a computer, tablet or smart phone without needing to actually carry a Study Guide.

When we started on Unit 3, I thought about doing the same, but for Unit 3 there are roughly 2,000 such terms across nearly 40 lists, and I decided it would be too much work to do by hand.  However, a few months later I revisited the problem and with a little bit of programming I was able to generate a working version of the Unit 3 lists with links into the online OCW.  I used it extensively in the months leading up to the exam, as did my wife (who I should mention beat me on the theory part of the Unit 3 exam with a Distinction, the swot) and a few other students in my class.  However, since the Study Guides are the intellectual property of the WSET and the OCW belongs to Jancis Robinson, I didn’t feel comfortable sharing the lists any further.

However, since then I’ve been in contact with the right people at the WSET and with Jancis Robinson and both parties seem happy for me to publish the pages of links for Diploma students to use.  The OCW entries themselves are only available to Purple Pages subscribers, so it’s not useful in the least unless you subscribe, but students do get a discount on membership with a promotional code available either through the WSET or through contacting subscriptions@jancisrobinson.com , and as far as I’m concerned it’s a small price to pay to avoid having to tote around the massive tome.

Right now I have the lists for Units 3, 5 and 6, with the exception of the lists in the “How to use this Study Guide” section of Unit 3 – they will be added soon.  Also, the usual disclaimers apply – I provide these pages as a third-party and they are not in any way official course material nor supported by the WSET.  They are designed to duplicate the print versions thereof as closely as possible, but any errors are mine.

So please, if you are a WSET Diploma student, have a look at the lists and if you think you might use them, subscribe to the Purple Pages and have at it.  Let me know in the comments if you spot any errors.

Some Tips for the WSET Diploma Unit 3 Exam – Part 3

Pass

Pass

So if you read my first post of tips, you now have a study plan and you’ve read through all of the past examiners’ reports, and if you read my second post of tips you have a handle on what you need to know for each wine region in the study guide.  What else could there possibly be to learn?

For a start, there’s grapes, and like regions, there’s essentially a big list of specifics that you should know for an even longer list of grapes.  First, there are the things that should be obvious, like colour, acidity, skin thickness or skin to pulp ratio, when it ripens, if it is prone to particularly high or low yields, and if it prefers cool or warm climates.

Unfortunately, that information is sometimes more difficult to come by than you would think.  The OCW entry for Merlot contains details for each one of those, however the entries for Malbec and Barbera make no mention at all of skin.  Unfortunately, it’s hard to know if a detail isn’t mentioned because what you would expect it to be (i.e. neither especially thin nor thick), or if it’s just because less important grapes merit less detail.  So if you’re going to make a big spreadsheet for this information for each grape, expect some cells to be more difficult to populate than others.  Further details that are typically only mentioned for either important grapes or if they are far from the norm include susceptibility to pests, diseases or certain climatic conditions, and preference for a particular soil type.

Again, as with regions, it isn’t that the OCW is just being a bit slack.  To really do grapes justice, you would need a full book just on that topic.  Fortunately, by the end of October, 2012 that gap will be filled, as I have every confidence that the upcoming book, Wine Grapes, from Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz will address everything you could possibly want to know about grapes familiar and otherwise.  As a wine geek, I am very much looking forward to this book being released, though I can’t decide if I want the UK or US edition.

Moving from the vineyard to the winery, you need to know what is noteworthy with respect that that variety.  Is there anything unique about how it’s typically or traditionally handled?  Does it go through malolactic fermentation?  Carbonic maceration?  Co-fermentation with another variety?  Is it typically fermented in tank, barrel, amphora, or even a kvevri?  (If you manage to mention kvevri fermentation in a WSET Diploma Exam, my hat is off to you.)  Is it matured in oak before bottling, or in bottle before being sold?  Is it blended, and if so, what are its blending partners and what does it bring to the blend.  Then wrap it up with what is it like in appearance, on the nose and on the palate – a virtual tasting note.

After you have a handle on all of that, you’ll need to know about where it’s grown, and of course the wines made from it, though fortunately that should all be at your fingertips if you have a handle on all the regions and subregions.  However, at this point it’s worth reviewing, but with an eye towards how the factors of both the grape and the region impact the respective wines.

Finally, many WSET Diploma questions have a business aspect to them.  How grapes are regarded, be they noble or a scourge, is important to know, as is if plantings of a variety are increasing or decreasing.  Recent spike or dips in popularity, as well as overall trends, are likewise important details.  Being able to list specific producers, across different regions, can also help to add examples to an answer.

I’m going to end this post with three other general categories of things you need to know, but which are fortunately more straightforward.  First, there are producers/people, which I clump together because it’s pretty much the same information – dates, notable achievements, geographical ties, and labels/wines produced.  Unlike the exams on Fortified Wines, Sparkling Wines or Spirits, you’re unlikely to be given a question that is exclusively about a single person/producer, though you could well have one or more of them as parts of multi-part questions.  So for producers/people listed in the study guide, have a paragraph worth of information in your head if you get one of those questions, and remember to pull them out as an example if appropriate for other questions.  Five or so facts will do it, and really there just aren’t that many of them.

Second, there’s quality levels and classifications.  As they’re by country or region, you should cover them within the appropriate section, but really they’re worth breaking out for study on their own.  For places like Germany and Austria, they’re fairly straightforward once you get past the fact that the German terms can be quite daunting.  Within France, there are some things at the national level and others that vary widely region to region, or even depending on which bank you’re on in Bordeaux.  They’re worth knowing specifically, including the twists and turns that have led up to whatever the current situation.  And a rule of thumb, if a classification took place in France within the last hundred years, there’s a good chance it’s still being contested.  Also, this information has a way of being useful in more types of questions than you might think, particularly ones that involve a wine label or comparing two wine labels.

Finally, the last thing worth reviewing is the viticulture and winemaking information from Unit 2.  With the exception of the Unit 1 Course Work Analysis, the Unit 2 exam has the highest pass rate, partly because it’s multiple choice.  However, it can be a year and a half between studying for Unit 2 and taking the Unit 3 exam, and the material is an essential foundation.

Right, so that’s what I can tell you about the work leading up to the exam.  To some extent I fear I gave my best advice in the first post, and that was to get a plan, read the examiners’ reports and start studying early.  However, I have one more post in me and that’s about physically taking the exam, which I’ll save for some point in the future.  Next up, another wine or two.

Some Tips for the WSET Diploma Unit 3 Exam – Part 2

Pass

Pass

So having given the two broad tips last time of setting yourself a study plan and reading through the examiners’ reports, it’s time to give a bit more detail as to what students should be studying as they look forward to their WSET Diploma Unit 3 exam.  Unfortunately, the answer is everything, though we’ll start today with the everywhere component of that.

Through your studies, you will cover vast tracks of wine producing regions and be expected to have at your disposal information about each of them.  For instance, you could be asked to compare and contrast the region of Sancerre with Marlborough.  So where would you start?  For each region you study, there are specific things you will need to know, and organizing some sort of check list is a good way of knowing if you have a region covered.

First, the physical area itself.  You’ll need to know where it is, both in terms of country, state/province/department/county, but also how far it is from the equator (not in KM but generally) and where it sits relative to its neighbours.  Is it part of a larger region?  Does it have subregions, and if so what are they?  While maps are not common on Diploma exams, they’re not unknown, so be able to pick it out.  Then you’ll need to know the climate and factors that come into play in that regard, such as altitude, bodies of water, influential winds, mountains and their rain shadows.  Also any specific weather that is of interest such as seasonal flooding, late or early frosts or hail would be good to know.

Then you’ll need to know soil types, with as much detail as possible, particularly if there is a soil that is uniquely named in that region, and how it relates to fertility and water retention/drainage.  Also, if there are certain soil types on hills, others in flats and others still near a body of water, be specific.  You’ll need to know if there is an especially desirable aspect for vineyards in the region, and if there are particularly sough-after sites.

Then come the vines – what types are planted/permitted, how densely are they planted, how are the vines trained, how are the canopies managed, is mechanization utilized, is irrigation permitted, is the growing season especially long or short, how extreme can vintage variation be, do grapes reliably ripen, and are there pests, diseases or other hazards common in the area.

So we haven’t even made it out of the vineyard and you can see that there are a ton of things you’re expected to know just about the region itself and grapes grown there.  Again, it should motivate you to start your studies early, and also to organize some sort of system to track this information for each region.  Some people use spreadsheets, others format their notebooks with a section for each and others still use index cards.  However you do it, you need to have organized this information so you can rattle it off without having to think too much about it.

Next, winemaking in the region.  You’ll be required to know what wines are produced, from which grapes.  You’ll need to know the winemaking methods, from how it’s fermented and in what, if there is skin contact, if chaptalisation or adding acid is permitted, any use of oak and what kind, if there is lees contact, filtering, fining, and any ageing requirements.

Finally, you’ll need to know about the region in the bigger picture.  How are the wines perceived broadly, in what quantities are they produced, is the production dominated by big or small producers, do co-ops play a role, are the wines exported and if so to where, are their any quality levels, classifications or rankings within the region, any changes in styles or techniques recently, any major shifts within the industry or investment from outside the region.

These lists aren’t complete, but I hope they cover much of what you’ll need to know about the regions in the course.  The next problem though is actually getting a handle on those facts.  While the study guide has a list of regional entries for which students are responsible, it’s not enough to just use the OCW entries for those.

For instance, the regional entry for Tavel is a case in point.  It covers where it is, that it’s an appellation, that its wine can command a decent price relative to other similar wines, one example of an AC restriction on maximum alcohol strength, the mix of grapes that go into the wine and that it is a rosé, both historical background and more modern history regarding expansion, the importance of a certain co-op and a high quality producer, and comparison with another neighbouring appellation.  It’s a fine entry, and has some good details.

However, it doesn’t say anything at all about the climate, soil, aspect, viticulture, or winemaking (other than grape mix and that it’s rosé).  So in order to have a comprehensive picture of Tavel, you need to supplement the Tavel entry with information from the Rhône entry which does cover many of those thing, and then have a look through the rosé wine-making and rosé wine entries to round it out.  The OCW would be many times larger (and it’s fairly large as is) if the details of every region were cut and pasted into each subregion, but you need to keep in mind that if you can’t find many details about a particular subregion, then information about its parent region likely applies.

You might think it’s then enough if you know all of those details about a particular region, but that’s really just the baseline.  If we get back to the original question, compare and contrast the region of Sancerre with Marlborough, having that information is required in order to answer the question, but dumping everything you know may not be sufficient to get a good score.  First, if a question says “compare and contrast” the examiners demand that you do both.  Then you need to have a quick think about why the two regions would be paired together in such a question?  Both produce popular, varietal Sauvignon Blanc but differ greatly in the context from which it comes.  From there you would build up your list of how they are comparable and how they differ from your compilation of ready facts, and put together a cohesive set of paragraphs demonstrating both familiarity with the regions and the critical thinking required to give an analysis of the two side by side.

I personally would start with the obvious similarities in terms of varietal Sauvignon Blanc but then move through how the differences in climate, soils, viticultural techniques, and winemaking, produce very different wines in the glass.  You could make a list of every detail you knew about both and organize them into columns of “same” and “different” but the Diploma is more about analysis than wrote memorization, and so demonstrating how the differences in conditions between the two regions are expressed in the glass is much more worthwhile.  If I had more recent, topical details, I might even try to talk about the rise in popularity of not only Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc wine, but also of that style and what influence it has had on producers in Sancerre.  So having the facts is an essential part of your preparation but applying them appropriately in answering the question is the real key.  There could be any number of similarities or differences you might choose to highlight, but in the exam there is limited time, and therefore only so many words you can write, so picking what’s most important is critical.

Finally, as with all things where I’m giving advice, I’m not a Diploma level instructor nor an examiner, just someone who has recently studied for and passed the Unit 3 exam.  And it was a Pass, not a Merit or Distinction, so I’m not trying to portray myself as anything more than the graduate that I am.  But all the same, I hope this is in some way useful, and of course wish everyone luck as they prepare for their exam.

Next up (after another wine or two), what to know beyond regions and subregions.

Some Tips for the WSET Diploma Unit 3 Exam – Part 1

Pass

Pass

I had a comment recently regarding the WSET Diploma Unit 3 Exam, which was the reasons I started this blog in the first place.  While I wrote a bit about the exam throughout the lead up to it, I didn’t give any sort of summary in terms of what turned up to be effective in actually passing the test.  So over a few posts, intermingled with wine reviews, I’m going to try to organize some thoughts here in hindsight, and in particular for someone who is looking at sitting their exam in January, six months from now.

First off, set yourself a study plan.  It doesn’t have to be hugely detailed, but when you have six months to go before your exam, it’s a good idea to know how that time will be divided.  I’m speaking largely with regards to the theory part of the exam, but it’s also a good idea to have tasting sessions laid out in advance as well.  I heard a Master of Wine explain how it should be impossible to fail the tasting section (though many, many people do so every exam), which was convincing enough that I didn’t sweat the tasting.  More on that in another post.

Now when I say a study plan, essentially it’s something along the lines looking at the syllabus and assigning a certain amount of time per area.  The red study guide breaks Unit 3 down into 4 elements, and though they’re not exactly of equal size, you could start by giving each element three weeks.  Depending on how much time you have to study, you should be able to read through the red book for each element and all the corresponding entries in the Oxford Companion to Wine.  At that pace, you would be spending three months going through it, leaving you with another three months in which to prioritize the sections that need further work.  But however you do it, right now the important thing it to have a plan and a schedule to go along with it.

Second, read through past examination papers and most importantly the examiners’ reports.  Do this before you do any actual studying.  The questions change from exam to exam, but the format largely doesn’t.  The reports give insight into what the examiners wanted for each question, and generally give an example of a really good student answer.  This will let you know the level of detail you will need to provide on your answers, so as to better focus your studies.

Also it will give you a sense of the areas of study that get the most attention.  For instance, I have yet to see an exam without a question relating to some part of France – my exam had two questions that were exclusively about France, and another on Merlot where knowledge of the grape in the context of Bordeaux, that is France, would have been useful.    My exam had no questions where knowledge of the wines of Austria would have been remotely useful.  Other exams have had such questions.  The moral of the story is that if you don’t study the big topics, you will absolutely regret it.  If you don’t study all the smaller topics, you may or may not regret it, but you’re taking a chance.  So if you want to be smart/safe, know everything.  If you can’t, be sure you know the major topics.

On a related note that I will address further with regards tips when you’re actually sitting the exam, there will typically be a question you can skip, in that you’ll be required to answer one mandatory question and then four out of five of the remaining questions.  So you can plan your studies with the expectation that if you get a question on one area you haven’t covered, you can most likely skip it.  However, it’s a much better idea to be prepared all around as much as you can than to chance it.  From past examiners reports I made some predictions as to what the questions on my exam would be and was more wrong than right.

So that should get you started – come up with a study plan to take you up to the exam and read through the examiners’ reports.  Oh, and finally one note on the January exams – they have a lower pass rate.  In 2009 it was only a 6% difference, but in 2011 there was a 20% difference.  I put it down to holidays just a few weeks before the exam, in that for most people taking the exam, it’s a very busy time of the year.  That means if you are reading this and looking at a January exam, know that the odds are stacked against you to some extent and use that knowledge to motivate yourself to study now instead of leaving it for a few months.  Six months may seem like a long time, but there’s a huge amount of material to cover.  If you can go through everything once in three months, you’ll have a much better idea as to how you need to spend the following three months.

And I hope I don’t need to say this but I will anyway – even though I passed my Diploma and am now a WSET Certified Instructor, I am not certified to instruct at the Diploma level and I have no special insight into the exam or the examiners other than personal experience and what I’ve read in their reports.  I hope what I share over the following posts is useful, but this is obviously just supplemental to what you should be getting from your instructors.

Next up, knowing about everywhere – what specifically?

Back from an interesting week

My WSET Diploma Pin

My WSET Diploma Pin

Apologies to anyone who was expecting wine writing last week.  As I mentioned, I was off in Sydney for the WSET Diploma Graduation dinner and then three days of courses.  I had every intention of posting about the dinner, and then doing a write up of each day of the course, but the evening of the dinner was far to celebratory for me to undertake any writing immediately thereafter, and after the days of instruction I was busy preparing for the next day or catching a plane home.  However, that’s all done, so I actually have a few spare moments to recap the week before I return to writing about wine.

First off, Graduation.  We started the Diploma course with the Sydney Wine Academy just over two years ago, and the class had roughly 25 students.  Over the two years that followed, some students dropped out, but we also had two join – one who had started the course in London and another who had been working independently.  When the time came for the last exam, Unit 3, we were closer to 20.  We were also joined by another outside student who had completed the course elsewhere except for the exam.  In the end, we had 10 students pass the exam, and all were able to attend the dinner, though some who either didn’t take the exam in January or didn’t pass will do so over the next month.

[With regards to pass rates, having 50% of those taking the test is pretty good for the January exam, when the previous month is often very busy for those sitting it.  Pass rates for the theory section of January exams were 34%, 49%, 53%, 50%, 42%, and 42% for 2011 through 2006 respectively.  June pass rates for the theory exam were higher each of those years, in one case by as much as 20%.]

The event was held at Fix St. James in Sydney, which is known not just for excellent food, but particularly for their innovative approach to wine, their eclectic wine list, and the man behind all of it, Stuart Knox.  The event was officiated by Clive Hartley, who administers the course through the Sydney Wine Academy, and Jude Mullins, who manages many of the international aspects of the WSET courses.  Due to a schedule crunch, it was on the same night as a talk by Andrew Jefford, organized by the Wine Communicators of Australia.  Many of those attending the talk came to the dinner as well, which meant the attendance was larger and more distinguished than it might have been otherwise, but that there were people who were there for the graduation and others who were really just there for the dinner.  Still, I think everyone had a nice time, and most of the graduates snuck out at the end for a more intimate drink at a nearby wine bar.  Oh, and then were was whisky.  And then it got blurry.  And then, all too quickly, it was time for class.

Yes, because the first thing you want to do after a big night is sit in a classroom so you can learn how to be an instructor, and that’s what I did not just the next day, but for the rest of the week.  The timing of the dinner was in part motivated by Jude Mullins being in town, and part of the reason she was in Sydney was to teach the WSET Educator Training Programme.  The number of WSET course providers in Australia has taken off over the last decade, and the value of the education provided is being increasingly appreciated within the industry which further increases demand.

The instructor course had very little to do with wines and spirits – you need to already have that knowledge to take the course.  Instead, the emphasis was on what to teach and how to teach.  Everyone taking the course knew more than they would be expected to teach, and it was more a matter of deciding what was most appropriate at each level of instruction offered.  Fortunately, the WSET has very clear specifications for each course in terms of what students are expected to know at the start and what they need to know at the end.  In addition to learning what to teach, we had a bit of time on the topic of how to teach.  We finished the week by each student having to give a presentation on a tiny section of the course at Level 2, and then conducting a tasting at Level 3.

It was an interesting group of students, a dozen in total.  Many were from large drinks companies and were planning on offering or upgrading their in-house education programmes.  Others were involved in wine education or looking to soon be.  Funnily enough, we had not only one Master of Wine as an instructor, but a second who was taking the class as a student.

I managed to survive not just getting to class after the big graduation celebration, but also put together and successfully delivered a halfway decent presentation, so I passed.  Therefore, I am able to use the title “WSET Certified Educator”, though I’m not sure how well it squares with a blog called drunk.com.

Speaking of which, the witty and insightful wine writing you’ve come to expect from this blog will be returning with my next post.  With the last wine post I hit the 50th varietal wine in my quest for a century, and I’m also closing in on my hundredth wine post, so there’s good stuff on the way.  I have three empty bottles here on my desk to remind me that there are a great many notes waiting to be polished into posts.  I’m not sure if anyone else is learning anything from this blog, but I certainly am, and now that I’m a Certified Educator, I’m sure my continuing self-education will be conducted at a much higher level.

Thoughts regarding the WSET Diploma

WSET Course Materials - First Day, February 2010

WSET Course Materials - First Day, February 2010

For those of you new to this blog, I started it in November six months before I was to take the Wine and Spirit Education Trust Diploma Exam for Unit 3, just as a study aid and a way of keeping myself focused on the task at hand.  Here is what the WSET website says about the course as a whole:

The Diploma is a specialist qualification where detailed knowledge is combined with commercial factors and a thorough system for the professional evaluation of wines and spirits.

[...]

Who it is aimed at:
People employed in the wines and spirits industry required to make managerial decisions, interpret information and have a thorough understanding of market trends and requirements.

The course is divided into six Units, with five of them taking up one year, covering topics from viticulture and winemaking through the industry, fortified wine, sparkling wine and spirits.  The remaining unit, Unit 3, takes the second year, and essentially wines of the world, excluding those covered in the other sections.  Having passed all the section in the first year, I sat the Unit 3 exam in January with some trepidation.  And as I posted yesterday, the results arrived and I passed.

First off, I’m incredibly relieved.  I won’t have to retake the exam in June, but more importantly, I won’t have to put three months of intense study in between now and June.  Also, I can just put a tick in the Diploma box and that’s all there is to it.  There’s a great sense of completion.  Also, I hadn’t really appreciated that I was starting to get very anxious about the result.  Immediately after the exam, I certainly had my doubts if I had managed to scrape by on the theory section, but somehow that was submerged for almost all of the last eight weeks until I had an email saying I should phone up for the results.  I then spent an excruciating 15 minutes trying to get through, with my stomach turning with each busy signal.

Second, there’s the question of what’s next?  I’m primarily looking at getting back to my non-wine longer term career, while keeping up wine study as a hobby.  Without the specter of resitting the exam, I should certainly be able to focus on that more.  The next step up in wine education would be to go for the Master of Wine, though that is a bigger commitment than even the Diploma and would likely be much easier to do somewhere like London or New York where there is greater availability of wines of the world.  Another option is to pick up teaching qualifications, but I’m not sure how much that interests me.  I enjoy learning new and different things about wine and spirits, but I’m not sure how well I’d be able to handle covering the same material over and over for different groups of students.

A shorter term option is an Honours Diploma, which is essentially a 4000-5000 word research paper that is supplemental to the Diploma.  I’m not sure how much it counts, for instance, if one were applying for a position in the trade, but since I’m essentially writing roughly 1000 words on different topics for this blog on most days, I can’t imagine it would be too difficult.  Obviously there’s a huge difference between doing original research and the collection and distillation that I do here, but still, 5000 words is nothing, provided I could find the right topic.  (Speaking of distilling – possible topic, boutique gin production in Australia and New Zealand?)

Finally, the big question is what will become of this blog.  It’s been an interesting experiment, firing up a blog from the void and seeing what happens.  There are really two sides to the coin in terms of this – how useful it is to me, and how useful it is to other people.  I started out only caring about my personal use, both in terms of researching and tracking what I’m drinking, and have been happy settling into a format of grape/region/producer/wine and a pace of roughly one post per day.  I’m sure I actually use the blog much more than everyone else in the world combined – I pull up notes of what I drank and when so when I want to tell people about a special bottle from a few weeks ago, I don’t have to rely on my poor memory.  And so long as I continue to enjoy writing about what I’m drinking, I intend to continue the update this blog.

The other side involves readers, and so I’ve done things like setting up Facebook and Twitter accounts, done some (very) small amount of promotion and even brought posts to the attention of those about whom they were written.  That’s been more work that I would have expected, and I’m not sure to what end as my goal has never been to have anyone actually read this.  I expect it to always be true that most people who type in drunk.com are not looking for a wine blog, so it’s hard to get a good sense if I have any readership, but since at least a few people who have read it seems to find some value in it, it’s not a bad thing.  And really, the minimal promotion I do in terms of Facebook and Twitter takes up next to no time compared with researching and writing posts.  So I’ll probably keep it up.  What I should stop doing is looking at Google Analytics if I really don’t care if anyone is reading.  Also, I should stop thinking about who will be interested in a particular wine write-up and if it will generate any traffic, because it is all about what I want to drink.  So look forward to a few wines in the next couple of weeks that are so obscure, there’s no way anyone else will have even the slightest interest.

Anyway, if you’ve made it this far down the page looking for something about a specific wine, I’m sorry to disappoint you with random introspection after passing my exam.  I can promise more wine posts in the next day or two, but I’m still getting my head around being a diploma graduate.