Earlier this month I took my second exam in my WSET Diploma pursuit – Sparkling Wines of the World. Now that I’m well past the 48 hour restriction on discussing the exam “using social media or otherwise”, and WSET has actually published the questions asked and revealed the wines poured blind, I think I’m safe to write about my thoughts on Unit 5.
A brief aside before I get started: On exam day several people (4 or 5) just didn’t show up. Our instructor waited a few minutes past the 12:30 start time, but no word. Did they get the time wrong? Change their mind at the last minute? Whatever the reason – it’s odd to go that far, pay the course & exam fee, and then not show. Reminds me of when Hubs took the bar exam 20 years ago and a guy sat down next to him with all his testing materials and asked “how long do we have to take this test?” He then left his stuff at the table next to Hubs, said he was going to the restroom before the start of the exam – and never came back. We still wonder what the hell happened to that dude. He’s probably in Congress.
Anyhoo, back to the WSET exam – we were given an hour and five minutes to do both sections: tasting and theory. We could tackle them in either order, so I opted to do the tasting first – thinking that this would take me less time to get through, therefore leaving me longer for the theory section. Well, to quote the sage wisdom of former heavyweight champ Mike Tyson: “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
UNIT 5 – TASTING.
The three wines were bagged up and each student was responsible for pouring into his or her own glasses. (I’m curious as to the reasoning for this . . . maybe so we can’t claim the instructor mixed up the wines? So we can pour as much or as little as we want? Any thoughts on this?) In any case, when wine #2 was poured, and it was red – I think that threw off a lot of students. I know it threw ME off. You just don’t expect to get a sparkling red on the exam.
We weren’t required to specifically identify the wines, but rather discuss possible grape varieties and an assessment of quality. Surprisingly, we also weren’t asked to write about possible production methods. These were the three wines on my the exam (posted recently on the WSET website):
Wine 1: Prosecco Superiore Extra Dry NV
Wine 2: Barossa Valley 2012 Sparkling Shiraz
Wine 3: Roederer Quartet NV (Note to self: find this wine – it was delicious!)
After seeing the official reveal of the wines, I feel pretty confident about the tasting portion of the exam. My notes match up fairly well with the wines above, so I don’t believe I missed anything obvious. However, I got so wrapped up in writing slowly and legibly and nailing my aromas (was this ripe pear? Or more of a baked pear?) that I took longer on the tasting then I planned – and then panic started to set in . . .
UNIT 5 – THEORY.
Before starting the tasting portion of the exam, I took a quick peek at the questions for theory – just to make sure there wasn’t anything completely wackadoodle. When I saw the three topics: Transfer Method, Climate and Weather in Champagne, and Limoux, I relaxed a bit. I could at least answer each of those with some semblance of intellect.
But after spending too much time on tasting, I felt rushed when I started in on theory. I got nervous about time constraints and then my hand started shaking (I’m not kidding). This made my handwriting worse than normal – which on a good day is barely legible (see example at left). At one point, my pencil lead broke four times and I just about lost my shit.
Post-exam, other students lamented about their handwriting too, so at least I’m not alone in hoping that the examiners are able to decipher my essays. Seriously though – who the hell handwrites these days?!
There’s no point in stewing about this over the next three months. The exam is done and over with and there’s nothing I can do about it now – except think about how I’ll take what I learned from this Unit and apply it to my next one.
So, to piggyback off my Unit 2 “Dos and Don’ts” here are a few more:
DO use a variety of study materials. For Unit 5 I continued to use my trusty Outlines (of course) as well as flashcards – which were particularly handy when I was on the road or running. Going over the finer points of Champagne trade structures definitely helped take my mind off my aching legs.
I also incorporated practice exams for this round of studying – I highly recommend doing this! A few weeks prior to the exam I made a list of all the topics that I thought could be asked – everything from various pressing methods to Pol Roger to Chilean sparklers. I put them in our oversized Gonzaga cup (Go Zags!!), had Hubs draw out three, and then I’d write a brief essay on each for 30 minutes. This helped me get used to writing for a longer period of time as well as get over that immediate mind blank when you see the subject matter you’re supposed to write on: “Cava?! WTF is Cava?” (Or am I the only one that this happens to?)
DO budget your time. Aim to spend no more than 10 minutes per wine or question on the exam. Each theory question is weighted equally, so it doesn’t make sense to write a lengthy diatribe on one and only a few sentences on another. Bring a watch in case the room you’re in doesn’t have a clock. And you won’t be able to use the clock on your phone.
DO make yourself a roadmap. Before writing out my answers to the theory questions, I sketched out my thoughts on a scratch piece of paper. So instead of jumping right into writing about the Transfer Method – I essentially recreated a very general outline on it: what it was, how it’s different from Traditional Method, where it’s used, what are the pros and cons of it, etc. This gave me a roadmap to follow when writing out my answer and helped me stay on track. In reviewing past WSET Diploma exams, one big issue I’ve noticed is that candidates fail to actually answer the question asked. Making a roadmap helps prevent detours that will only take up precious time and won’t get you any credit.
and finally . . . DON’T PANIC. Take some deep breaths. Sip some water (another DO: bring your own water!) If you’re not getting any aromas from a wine, don’t keep sniffing and swirling – just move on and come back to it later. If you don’t know where to start with a theory question, try to at least answer the basics: what is it, where is it, how is it made, etc.
After finishing Unit 5 I asked myself – would I study any differently? And I honestly don’t think I would. Even though a LOT of what I studied wasn’t even on the exam: no producers, hardly anything on Italy (other than wine #1 being Prosecco), no Spain or Germany, and besides wines 2 & 3 – nada from the New World. However, you never know what you’re going to get asked on these exams – so I’m glad I was prepared for anything. Bottom line: learning shouldn’t be just about passing the exam (says the girl who broke four pencils taking said exam).
And just in case you get Limoux as one of your theory questions too 😉 . . . here’s the outline.