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.