WSET Diploma Unit 5: Opting for the Sparkly Object

After successfully completing Unit 2, I started thinking about the next Unit I was going to tackle in my WSET Diploma pursuit.  (Ok, let’s be honest, I started thinking about this months before actually completing Unit 2).   So without further ado, here were my options, my thought process, and my decision (Spoiler Alert:  Bubbles.  Always Bubbles).

Unit 1 – Global Business of Alcoholic Beverages.

There are two parts to Unit 1: a 3,000 word research paper and an in-class case study exam.  Candidates can do either of these at any time during the Diploma process.  Both involve a fair amount of research and writing, which as a former lawyer, I was actually pretty damn good at once upon a time.  So, I’m looking forward to tackling these writing assignments – assuming I’m assigned a topic that I enjoy writing about.

The research paper topics are established by WSET and are released each academic year.  This year’s were released in early August, and neither one particularly spoke to me: “The short and long term implications of the 2017 vintage“, or “The Rum Revival.”  The 2017 vintage question seems incredibly broad and I’m not all that excited about spending a lot of time researching spirits – particularly since spirits will no longer be a required Unit of the Diploma beginning in August, 2019.  I’m optimistic that when I get around to doing the paper that both options will be more wine related . . . and hopefully one will be “why Washington state is the future for the United States wine industry.”  A gal can dream, can’t she?

The case study exam is offered three times a year. This is a complete grab bag of alcohol business topics – past case studies have ranged from “social media and the wine industry” to “the négotiant system in Burgundy” to “the wines of South Africa.” I think any of these would’ve been fascinating to explore in detail, which of course means that when I register for the case study (likely in March 2019) my topic will be something like “what sulfur dioxide means to me” or “why mass produced New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is the most awesomest wine in the world.”

Unit 3 – Light Wines of the World.

This is the behemoth of the Diploma – covering all wines of the world that don’t fit into the Fortified or Sparkling categories.  I don’t know if the tales of its difficulty are greatly exaggerated or not, but I’m not planning to find out any sooner than I need to.  Unit 3 will be my last Diploma Unit.

Unit 4 – Spirits of the World.

My wine school is doing one last offering of the Spirits Unit and exam. I originally had this all worked out before we moved down to SoCal – my father-in-law (the infamous T-Bone) was going to be my spirits study-buddy and Hubs and Mom-in-Law (aka Authorista) were going to foot the (bar) bill. T-bone and I would frequent local watering holes to sip and study and then head back to our respective homes for our daily nap.  Win-win for everyone. Well, two of us anyways.

However, since Spirits soon won’t be part of the Diploma program, I struggled with whether to try and tackle this Unit or not. I eventually opted for not.  Sorry, T-Bone. Sidenote: don’t actually feel sorry for him.  I’ve been stocking his wine “cabinet” (underneath his bathroom sink) with Oregon Pinot and Washington Syrah since we moved down here.  He’s fine.

Unit 5 – Sparkling Wines of the World.

See Below.

Unit 6 – Fortified Wines of the World.

Unit 6 is being offered in early September and the exam is on the same date as Unit 5.  I know several candidates that are tackling both Units together – and I considered this for about 5 seconds . . .

Bottom line is – I’m not in a huge rush to finish the Diploma.  And, like much of what I do in life, would prefer to methodically and systematically go through my studies as opposed to frantically cramming it all in.  I am a true ISTJ.  So, I opted for the Unit that interested me the most – the shiny object of the Diploma – Sparkling Wines of the World!

Champagne books
Unit 5 – In-Class Experience.

After registering for Unit 5 the day after my Unit 2 exam (seriously – I am Tracy Frickin’ Flick!) I did a little prep work by starting in on some of the suggested readings.  Class itself was one very intensive, very full day in early August.  Other WSET providers spread Unit 5 in-class time over two days (Napa Valley Wine Academy), or three weeks plus a practice exam (Capital Wine School).  WSET Unit 5 manual

My class was a broad overview of sparkling wines – from different production methods, to Champagne sub-regions, to common labeling terminology.  We also tasted through 11 different sparkling wines in class.  Although, unlike Unit 2, this wasn’t blind and there was quite a bit less class discussion on them as well.  Maybe this was because there were more students in class (10 compared to my 3 in my Unit 2).  Or because it was a sunny summer Saturday and people wanted to skedaddle. Although, this is SoCal, almost every Saturday is sunny.

Whatever the case, to me – this portion felt rushed.  Actually – the entire day did.  Covering all sparkling wines of the world in one day is not my ideal way to learn. It’s just way too much information all at once. But on the bright side, I suppose this is good practice for the MW if I’m able to pursue that in the future since that program is practically all self-study. So until Unit 5 exam day – November 7th – I’m on my own.

Unit 5 – My Study Plan.

I started out with a detailed study plan (I realize this is not shocking).  But then with all my travel in August – I quickly had to revise it. I got wrapped up with visiting my beloved Washington state and attending the fabulous Auction of Washington Wines.  And then visiting my awesome Bestie and travelling to New York’s Finger Lakes region.  In my defense – both were wine related travels, so some degree of “research” was done.

So – here’s my revised Unit 5 study schedule.  As I did with Unit 2 – I’m aiming to do some degree of studying daily.  I think of my brain like a balloon – I’ll add a little bit more information each day, not too much so that it explodes, and not too little (or too much time off) so it deflates.

Unit 5 – Exam.

Unlike Unit 2, the Unit 5 exam is not multiple choice.  It consists of a tasting portion and a theory portion.  Both of which must be completed within 65 minutes.  I think it’s 30 minutes per section, and then a 5 minute freak out session in between.

Tasting.  Candidates are poured three sparkling wines from anywhere in the world and have to write tasting notes on each one in the approved WSET format.  Past exams have included a trio of Cava/Vintage Champagne/Prosecco and a NV Champagne/Sekt/Vintage Champagne.  After describing the wines, candidates are then asked a “conclusion” question like “discuss the quality/readiness for drinking/country of origin” of the wines.

Theory.  Here candidates are asked to write about 3 topics related to sparkling wine.  These questions can be ANYTHING!  Past exam topics have been: Tank Method, Franciacorta, Pinot Noir, Côtes des Blancs and Prestige Cuvées.  So, basically, you’re asked to regurgitate everything you know about these subjects.  And quickly – you’ve got about 10 minutes per question.  I’m going to need to work on my timing here because at times I can be a bit verbose.  True story.

And on that note – I’ll quit writing about the exam and get to studying! 😉

Italian Bubbles: Moving Beyond Prosecco

When it comes to Prosecco, I believe there are three types of people: those who love it, those who turn their noses up at it, and those who will drink it . . . but only if Champagne isn’t available. I fall pretty firmly into the last category.  Given a choice, I’d almost always opt for Champagne – unless I’m mixing my sparkling wine with orange juice (Helllooooo Boozy Brunch!!)

For many, sparkling wine is a commodity – completely interchangeable.   And that’s totally fine.  Others (present company included) are a bit more selective about their bubbles.  For me, I really like what autolysis* brings to the party so, if Champagne isn’t available I’ll look for a label that says “methode traditionalle” or “methode champenoise” – which indicates that the wine was made in the traditional method* – in other words, the same way that Champagne is made.  Prosecco, on the other hand, is produced by what is referred to as the tank method.*

*I realize that these terms are total winespeak for any relative newbies who might be reading this, so if you’re not exactly sure what those corkdorky terms mean – here’s a (very) quick debrief:

Traditional Method.  Once the base wine is finished, it undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle.  To accomplish this, a bit of yeast and sugar are mixed together, added to the base wine, and then the bottle is sealed up.  As in the first fermentation, the yeast consumes the sugar and produces alcohol and CO2 – but since this is happening within a sealed bottle, there’s nowhere for the CO2 to escape to.  So it remains in the bottle – creating the sparkle.

After the sugar is consumed, the yeast dies 😦 but its work is not yet done!  Dead yeast cells are referred to in winespeak as “lees.”  The wine “rests on the lees” for a period of time after the second fermentation is complete and this is where autolysis occurs.  Autolysis is essentially the enzymatic breakdown of dead yeast cells . . . and if your eyes just glazed over by reading that sentence you’re not alone!  I’ve been trying to wrap my brain around this myself.  Yet another scientific concept that I’m struggling with. :-/  The duration of autolysis can be anywhere from a few months to several years – the more time spent, the more yeasty/bready characteristics in the resulting wine.  Usually, lees aging needs to be at least 18 months in order for the wine to show any autolytic characteristics.

Tank Method (aka Charmat Method).  With this method, the second fermentation takes place in a large pressurized tank as opposed to inside the bottle.  The tank method is cheaper, faster and requires less labor than the traditional method.  It’s also used with more aromatic grape varieties like Glera (the primary grape of Prosecco) and Riesling (used in German Sekt) since there isn’t the degree of lees contact – which can overwhelm the delicate fruitiness of these varietals.  While you still get bubbles with the tank method, the resulting wine is much more fruity and fresh.  You don’t get as much (or any) of those yummy bread dough, brioche aromas that you do with the traditional method.

While Prosecco is Italy’s best-known sparkling wine (and best-selling at over 220 million bottles a year!), the country also produces a handful of sparklers made in the same method as Champagne.  And, typically, at a fraction of the cost.  Here are three traditional method Italian sparkling wines that are great alternatives (NOT substitutes, because in my opinion – there is none!) for Champagne:

Franciacorta DOCG.  This region released its first traditional method sparkling wine relatively recently – 1961.  Since then, Franciacorta has enjoyed immense success with their wines and is currently producing over 17 million bottles annually (with the bulk of this being consumed by locals – only around 20% is exported).  In 1995, Franciacorta became the first DOCG in Italy exclusively for traditional method sparkling wine.

Franciacorta is located in Lombardia and has a significantly warmer climate than Champagne.  This translates to riper fruit flavors in the glass and a lower overall acidity.  (Tip: look for “brut nature” or “zero dosage” versions of Franciacorta if you want to maximize acidity).  Interestingly though (to me anyways!), non-vintage Franciacorta is required to spend a minimum of 18 months on the lees – which is 3 months longer than Champagne’s minimum requirement!

The grapes used in Franciacorta are Chardonnay, Pinot Nero (aka Pinot Noir), and Pinot Bianco.  The latter is being used less frequently as it doesn’t add much longevity or energy to the wine.

For more info – here’s my outline on Franciacorta.

Trento DOC.  These wines hail from the Trentino region located in northeastern Italy.  Sparkling wine production started here in the early 1900s here thanks to Giulio Ferrari who believed the area had the potential to compete with the wines from Champagne.  And while these wines are produced in the same method and use the same grapes as Champagne (the holy trifecta of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier) they taste incredibly different.  You’re likely to get aromas of peach, apricot, candied lemon and orange peel from Trento sparkling wines – with maybe a hint of biscuit character if they’ve been aged longer than 3 years. They tend to be fuller bodied with a level of richness to them.

Compared to Prosecco and Franciacorta, Trento DOC has a rather small production – 8.5 million bottles in 2010 (of which the Ferrari house produced nearly 60%) and the bulk of it is consumed locally.  Which might help explain why I haven’t been able to get my hands on one of these . . . yet. 😉

Alta LangaAlta Langa DOCG.  This area is becoming increasingly important for traditional method sparkling wines produced in southern Piemonte.  Although it is a large appellation overall, the actual area under vine is just over 250 acres (roughly 1/3 the size of Central Park).  And Alta Langa production is quite small – just over 600,000 bottles per year. Both planted acreage and production are expected to increase, however, as popularity of this region’s wines has soared in recent years.  And with good reason – they have some pretty strict requirements as far as what goes into the bottle and, as a result, are producing some delicious bubbles! 

Alta Langa vintageAlta Langa DOCG wines are made from a minimum 90% of Chardonnay and/or Pinot Noir.  And, unlike Champagne and the other regions mentioned above, there is no “non-vintage” production here.  All Alta Langa wines must be vintage dated and spend a minimum of 30 months on their lees.  So you’ll definitely find more of those yummy bready aromatics in wines from this region. 

I hope next time you’re thinking bubbles you’ll give one of these a try.  If you do, please let me know what you think! 🙂   Want to learn more about wine and bubbles?    Click the link to the right and subscribe to this blog!!!