WSET Level 3 - Top Tips (Part 2)
So, you've got a study plan and you're back to being as curious as a 4-year old so here are a few more tips to help organise your WSET Level 3 revisions successfully.
As always, please share these profusely if you find them useful. Equally, feel free to build on them if you find them incomplete/unhelpful as they are.
TIP#3 Understand the WSET requirements
Put your WSET goggles on before you start.
The world of wine can often be complex with more than 50 shades of grey, white, red and rosé. The WSET wine world is not. It is very well defined. Understand what the WSET wants from you at the exam and you are most likely to succeed.
The WSET Level 3 is all about understanding the key factors influencing the style and quality of wine. There are five elements: climate, soil/topography, grape varieties, viticulture and winemaking. For each key wine in the syllabus, you should be able to say WHY wine A is qualitatively and stylistically different to wine B.
Example: Chablis Grand Cru vs. Standard Chablis
The style of Chablis Grand Cru can be described as having a more intense and complex nose (riper fruit aromas, oak notes) and palate (more body, more intensity of flavours, riper fruit flavours, buttery texture, longer finish) and will be deemed of higher quality vs. a standard Chablis. Of course, all five elements above will have an impact but the differences in style and quality between the two wines are mainly due to:
1. Climate and Soil/Topography: The Grand cru sites are on south facing slopes and enjoy more sunshine and better drainage, hence delivering riper fruits at harvest for higher alcohol (i.e. more body) and phenolics (i.e. riper fruit flavours). Some Grand Cru will also have a higher concentration of minerals.
2. Winemaking: the winemaking process for Grand Cru often includes a part or all of the wine being fermented and/or matured in oak while standard Chablis does never see any oak.
When you study for the WSET Level 3 and especially the open questions, you need to be able to understand and form all these connections in your mind for each of the key wine in the syllabus. This will also help you when having to try a wine blind and having to reverse your thinking.
To help your revisions, I would suggest to work on using the following structure for each of the key regions in the syllabus:
Also, remember that, although Spirits are part of the syllabus, they will not feature in the tasting or in the open questions. You will only find them in the MCQ.
TIP #4 Master the systematic approach
Calibrating the tastebuds.
Right, back to school now. You want to pass this exam so you will have to taste 2 wines blind (1 white, 1 red), describe its style, assess its quality and for a few bonus points, guess which are the options given this wine could be.
To do so, there is no secret: you need to know the systematic approach inside/out. You might not agree with it, you might find it irrelevant in assessing wines, find yourself thinking ‘bring the sexy back’ while blankly contemplating that faded list of clinical adjectives and descriptors. Tough luck. You still need to know it. A wine that ‘smells like my Dad’s garage’ or tastes like ‘the lemon drizzle my Grandma used to bake when we came back from school on Thursdays’ is not going to cut it with the WSET examiners.
A few tips to master the systematic approach:
Use acronyms to remember all the elements you need to go through at the exam
Practice writing your wine paragraph with all elements you need to go through at the exam. Write them up with a pencil and leave gaps to fill in after you have tried the wine.
''This wine is clear, of _____ ______ colour and ________ can be observed.
On the nose, the wine is clean with ______ intensity and aromas of ____
On the palate, the wine is ________ and has a ______ body, _____ alcohol, etc. ''
At the exam, just write it all down before even touching your glasses. Then you will feel like you are in control and have to taste comfortably.
Make logical conclusions! A wine that has a low acidity, no tannins and little intensity of flavours CANNOT be a wine of high quality with ageing potential. Similarly, a wine without balance (between intensity of flavours and acidity) and a short finish can not be described as Outstanding. If unclear, ask your tutor the ‘W’ question until you get it right.
BLIC(T). This is an acronym some MW students I have met use to evaluate wines. It is NOT an official WSET practice and won’t give any points at the exam so only use it if it helps your assessment. If this confuses you more than helps you, simply go back to the bullet point above. Also, remember, you don't get your money back if you don't like the advice ;-)
When you assess a wine with BLIC(T), you rate it on each of the five attributes below. Only wines that score highly on all the attributes below can be deemed very good or outstanding.
Balance. How do the components blend in together? When assessing whites, you want to consider level of acidity vs. intensity of fruit flavours. When assessing reds you want to consider the interaction between the acidity, the fruit, the oak (if any), the alcohol and the tannins.
Length. How many seconds can you count and still taste the flavours of the wine in your palate? As a rough guide, less than 5 seconds would be short; 5-10 seconds medium and more than 10 seconds long. NB: Be mindful to consider the lingering flavours of wines, not how long you can feel tannins or alcohol for. Lingering blank tannins or alcohol would not be considered as a long finish.
Intensity. How intense are the flavours you are tasting? To help you here, a Pinot Grigio would most often be at the low intensity of the spectrum while Oz Shiraz for the reds and a New Zealand Sauvignon for the whites would be at the other end.
Complexity. How many flavours do you get on this wine and how generic are these flavours? For example, a Beaujolais red wine might have a few different flavours e.g. cherry, banana, kirsch, bubblegum. But most of these flavours tend to be basic or generic. They are not very well defined and may taste a little bit generic, unclear, not very well-defined. The wine vaguely tastes like cherry, banana, etc. On the other hand, you might in a Grand Cru Burgundy clear, well-defined and various fruit flavours (fresh redcurrant, wild raspberries) along earthy notes, minerality, oak spices (cloves), smokiness, etc. The clearer and/or the more the flavours, the more complex the wine.
(Typicity). Your wine might not have the greatest balance, length, intensity and complexity but might be the quintessence of its region of origin and style. Let’s be honest, if the only attribute that the wine is scoring high on is the typicity, it is unlikely to be great wine.
TIP #5 Recognise quality –even in wines you don’t like
Nothing personal. For real.
Wine appreciation is a very subjective thing. You might be an absolute lover of every wine from Australia and hate all things French. And that is absolutely fine.
When it comes to you passing the Level 3 WSET, you need to forget about these natural preferences and become able to assess the wines objectively and this systematically.
There are a lot of Australian wines of all quality levels so you suffer from a serious bias towards these wines, maybe try to assess the different quality level between wines you know to recognise a good from a very good and an outstanding Shiraz for example.
Keep an open mind and then move on to another category, maybe less close to ‘home’ when it comes to your wine taste, etc.
I have a natural bias towards low to medium-bodied European reds. It was hard but I forced myself to experiment with New World wines. As a result, I got to understand styles and differences better and got to not just appreciate them but like them too.
Only practice makes perfect!