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.