WSET Diploma Fortified Wines: This was a Sticky* One

I know we’ve all got a lot on our minds right now, and most of these things have absolutely nothing to do with wine studies. But I also know that if you’re passionate about learning about wine – either you’re still cracking open your textbooks, or you’re hoping to do so in the near future.

After weeks of being surrounded with negative statistics and bad news, I recently received some much needed GOOD news: I passed my WSET Diploma Fortified wine exam!  Several months ago, I mentioned in a post how receiving a “Pass” on an exam wasn’t exactly something I wanted to celebrate.  Well, times have changed and I will embrace this Pass like a finding the last package of extra strength Charmin toilet paper in my local grocery store.  Funny how a worldwide pandemic puts shit in perspective, isn’t it?

Unfortunately, WSET no longer publishes past Diploma exam questions for students to review.  And while I haven’t replicated the questions verbatim here, a quick read will give you an idea of what was asked on my exam – and perhaps what to expect on future exams.  So, for those of you planning to take the Fortified wine exam in the not-to-distant future – here are some exam tips that worked for me:

Before Even Reading the Exam Questions: Write WHY at the Top of Your Paper.

At the Diploma level, it’s not enough to only give the WHAT as your answer. We should fairly easily be able describe the WHAT when it comes to a question on, say – patamares.  In order to succeed on an exam, we also need to explain the WHY.

Imagine the WSET Examiners are incessant, annoying 3 year olds.  After reading your responses to the exam questions, they should NOT be able to still ask: “but WHY“?

I wrote WHY on my scratch paper to remind myself to go beyond a basic explanation and to give details as well as specific examples to back up my answer.  So, in addition to describing what patamares are – I also explained WHY they are a better (or worse) vineyard layout choice, WHY they can lead to uneven ripening, etc.

Make a Quick List to Trigger Your Memory.

For me, this was the 9 factors impacting style, quality and price of fortified wines.  Did I have these factors memorized?  Yes.  Did I NEED to write them down?  Absolutely not.  But doing so helped me get my brain calmly flowing into an exam mindset instead of frantically jumping into the questions.  And truth be told, this list came in mighty handy for a theory question on comparing two different wine styles.

Ok, so now that you’ve written WHY and your key points – get going on the exam for fuck’s sake! 😉  You can start with either the Tasting or Theory section – but I highly recommend picking one and following it through to completion.  Don’t bounce back and forth.  Think of it like oxidatively aging Sherry . . . once you make that choice, you can’t go back.

Remember that Skittles Commercial “Taste the Rainbow”?  Think of Fortified as an Adult Version of this.

Skittles rainbow

Since color is a major clue with fortified wine styles, what I found helpful during my study prep was to group similarly colored wines together and taste them side by side.  By practicing tasting this way, I was eventually able to identify possible wine choices just based on sight.  For example, if I was lucky enough to get a very pale lemon colored wine for one of the exam wines (spoiler alert: didn’t happen), I knew I could quickly narrow it down to a handful of possibilities: White Port, Fino or Manzanilla Sherry, or Muscat.

The day before the exam, I poured almost every single bottle I had open at home and reviewed the rainbow.  This helped solidify in my mind where certain wines fell on the color scale – from pale lemon to medium amber to deep ruby. On my actual exam, all three blinds were deeply colored – ruling out about half the rainbow immediately.

Fortified rainbow
How I spent the night before my Fortified exam . . .

Familiarize Yourself with Both Expensive – and Inexpensive – Fortified Wines.

If you think the Examiners wouldn’t splurge on a Vintage Port on an exam – think again.  One of our blinds was a 2016 Sandeman Vintage Port – and this wasn’t the first time a Vintage Port has appeared in an exam lineup.  We also had an el cheapo Basic Ruby Port for one of the blinds, which unfortunately I hadn’t tasted at home.  This wine screamed Grenache at me during the exam – it was all sweet, juicy red cherries and plums.  Which brings me to my next bit of advice . . .

Don’t Freak Out if You Misidentify a Wine!

WSET releases the blinds a couple of days after the exam is finished.  So,  you can either celebrate that you called a wine correctly, or freak out if you missed one.  I correctly identified 2 of the 3 wines (the Vintage Port and the Rutherglen Muscat) but mistook the basic Ruby Port for a Banyuls.

This wasn’t horribly off base – both styles are similarly colored, sweeter, and are protected from oxygen – showing juicy red fruit aromas and flavors.  So even after the wines were released, I was confident that I would still earn marks for several of my descriptors.

What also helped me not panic was past experience because I had misidentified one of the wines on my Sparkling wine exam last year.  I thought the Roederer Estate from Anderson Valley was a NV Champagne and I still passed that exam – with Merit.  Fortunately, WSET cares more about your analysis as opposed to whether you “nailed” the wine.

Speaking of the Sparkling wine exam – as I mentioned with that exam’s tips: budget your time. Thankfully, I learned my lesson and with the Fortified exam I didn’t spin my wheels on whether an aroma was dried blackberry or dried black plum – I picked one (or just put them both down!) and moved on.

After finishing the tasting portion of the exam, I was thrilled to have left myself more than half the allotted time to complete the theory portion of the exam.  There were 3 essay questions – weighted 30%, 50% and 20% respectively.  Most exams will have something similar where the questions aren’t equally weighted.

So . . . which one do you answer first?  Again, here’s what worked for me:

Answer the Essay Question You’re MOST Confident About First.

Now, other people may suggest tackling the question worth the largest % first. And I completely understand that line of thinking.  However, for me, answering the question I’m most confident about gets me in a rhythm and helps give me a “Hey, I’ve got this!” mentality for the remaining essays.  On the flip side, tackling a question I’m not confident about stresses me out, raises my heart rate and gets my hand shaking (less of an issue than on previous exams, but still there!)

So on this exam, I chose the question focused on comparing Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venise and a Grenache VDN – even though this was the second highest weighted at 30%.  However, since I was confident in my knowledge about this topic, I mentally budgeted less time to it, cranked it out, and moved on to the second question.

Of the Two Questions Left – Answer the One Worth the Highest Marks.

Unless you know absofuckinglutely nothing about this question, I recommend answering the question worth the highest marks next. Leaving this question until last will likely cause rushing, sloppy handwriting and brain dump as you try and throw in anything remotely related to the topic to get credit.  I’m speaking from experience here.

The question on blending in Sherry I thought was rather vague – but seeing as it was worth 50%,  I answered it second.  I wanted to answer the 20% question because I was more confident about patamares, but knew that leaving 50% to the last would only end up causing me additional stress.

And finally – Study Madeira.

Especially if your exam is coming up soon.  My exam didn’t have one damn question on Madeira! Chances are – the next one will for sure. 😉 Here’s my outline on Madeira to help you out!

Best of luck with your studies!

*Sticky is a style of Australian fortified wine . . . I simply cannot write a post without at least one wine pun!