WHY DO WINE EXAMS – AND WHY DO WSET LEVEL 2?

By Diana Lyalle

The first thing to know about WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) Level 2 is that it is a “win win”.  You get to taste wines throughout the course, but there is no tasting exam at the end!  The exam (sorry, there is a teeny weeny theory exam) is simply 50 multiple choice questions in 60 minutes, pass mark 55%.  That’s it!

Why bother when you can go to great wine tastings without any exams at all, I hear you cry?

For wine trade professionals, the answer is obvious.  WSET qualifications are required in order to progress in your career.  Not only that; consumers are very clued up these days.  People like me equip them to know their way round a wine list and suss out faulty wines with confidence, so those serving them need to stay one step ahead.

For consumers, wine exams seem daunting and a tad unnecessary.  Much easier to book yourself on to a nice gentle wine tasting event where no one will put you on the spot and get you to think too much.  Indeed, thinking is far too tricky after a glass or two, surely?

So why on earth do people like me do WSET exams?

To be honest, I went on the WSET Level 2 course as something to do.  The exam at the end just happened without me thinking about it.  I was new to Bristol in 2003, and had no friends locally except my new colleagues.  A wine evening class was just the thing – I could go after work, I could go on my own (a big plus for Nancy Nomates – although in the end a colleague couldn’t resist and signed up too!) and I didn’t need to know anything at all about wine to attend – I didn’t even need to have done Level 1!  I was a lawyer with no interest in the wine trade.  I was just a curious wine drinker, simple as that.

I went on to become hooked on studying wine – hence I am part way through my WSET Level 4 diploma course.

But what do you get out of it if you don’t want hours of in depth study?

These days, the answer is found partly in the “strap line” for the course – “Looking behind the label”.  The label on a wine bottle won’t tell you what the wine will taste like.  But it will tell you what it should taste like, if you know what to look for, and what the labelling terms mean.  The course book (see photo above) is packed with wine labels and ways to decipher them. It is a handy tool in itself.

You also get to understand how food affects the taste of wine, and vice versa.  Many “old world” wines are made to pair with food, but the wrong food with the wrong wine can be a gastronomic disaster.  Both Levels 1 and 2 spare you the pitfalls of the food/wine marriages from hell.

However, to my mind, the real benefit is the tasting side of it.  You taste a wide range of wines to ensure you recognise the styles and quality levels taught.  As you can see above, you get a handy card which sets out the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine (SAT).  Even at Level 2, there is a decent amount of detail on it to help you identify the wine style and quality.  So although you don’t get tested on it, you get a useful framework you can use to appreciate wine better whether at home, or in a wine tasting event.

I have always found it hard to name an aroma I recognise without prompting, and on the back of the card is a lexicon which lists a number of common aromas you might detect.  It is A5 sized and laminated so you can stick it to your fridge or pin it on a memo board.

You can then use your tasting skills when you next go to a wine tasting event.  However well tutored it is, there won’t be time to teach you how to get the most out of the wines.  That won’t matter for simple wines, but if you are lucky enough to be tasting expensive complex wines with a range of subtle flavours and aromas, you are likely to miss many of them without having first acquired wine tasting skills.  That seems a real shame.  In my experience, most people get far more out of a quality wine if they can use their tasting skills.

Of course, you can swot the rudiments of tasting wine in books and on websites.  But it is only when you find yourself in a tasting room, discussing the wine in front of you with others that you fully understand how the terms we use relate to each other, and to what is in your glass.  The best classes are held round a table, so you can easily follow and join in the tasting experience. No one is born a Master of Wine.  Unless we have an impaired sense of smell and/or taste, wine tasting is a skill which can be acquired through tuition and practice.

Recognising that we are becoming more IT savvy and have less time to travel to the nearest tasting course, WSET increasingly offers virtual classrooms, especially useful for its many international students.  However, I doubt that distance tastings can replicate being with others in the same tasting room. Even if they could, I don’t think I would enjoy them as much.  I have made and cemented lasting friendships on my wine courses.  How could I have done that in a virtual classroom?  Indeed, as my good friend Kelli (yes, we met on a wine course!) says, “Wine tastes better with good friends”.

I have therefore come to realise that the real reason for doing your WSET Level 2 course is not the exam – in fact you can almost forget about it.  The main benefit is the wine tasting skill you acquire, because you are taught about wine style and quality using the wines you taste on the course.

In 3 days, or 8 evenings, you will have given yourself a sound framework for your future wine tasting adventures.  You will understand wine styles and quality levels.  You will know why wines taste as they do – in terms of both grape growing and wine making.  You will be able to demystify wine labels.  Most importantly of all, you will get at least twice as much pleasure from every glass of wine you drink than you do now.  Wines that never touched the sides of your mouth can now be sniffed, sipped and savoured as never before.

I call that a sound investment.

If this blog has inspired you to sign up, I wish you well on your wine adventures, wherever they may take you.  All I ask is that you click on the comment button to keep me updated.