My first experience of wine was at a neighbour’s summer garden party when I was 14 years old. Needless to say, it didn’t end well.
Here I am, 20 years later, anxiously awaiting my WSET Level 3: Award in Wines result and somewhat obsessed by wine (not in an alcoholic sense obviously…).
I wanted to write this article to discuss my experience of the course and to help any other people out there who may be reading this and thinking of embarking on the challenge! I remember coming out of my Level 2 exam just over a year ago and feeling quietly confident, but I had no intention at that point to extend my knowledge further (the exam adrenaline and nervous anxiety that came along with it kind of put me off).
It was in the pub afterwards, sipping on a beautiful glass of cool Chablis and chatting about wine with Lily, that I knew deep down I wanted to know more… my thirst for wine hadn’t been quenched!
The timing of starting a new job in the restaurant world, combined with my qualification, propelled my boss into registering me for Level 3 after a long chat about how I felt I could develop their wine list as well as food pairings and matching the middle eastern cuisine with new wines.
So, every Thursday for 6 weeks I packed up my pens and books and headed to North London to fill my little brain with as much information as I possible could.
Firstly, it was quite intense doing the course around my shifts at the restaurant. I was often extremely tired from working late shifts and struggled to keep my eyes open towards the end of the day… especially after tasting up to 14 wines!
If you are thinking of doing the course, I must stress that it isn’t easy. You have to put in nearly 90 hours of revision and, with the level of depth that the course goes into, cramming last minute isn’t an option.
Secondly, you have to be serious about wine. You have to really love it and want to learn not only about winemaking but vineyard management and viticulture, as this is quite a substantial part of the course.
At school, I absolutely HATED geography. It was probably my second worst subject after physics, so it came as quite a shock to start leaning about ocean currents, soil composition and environmental factors. But, once we started putting it into context, I started to really enjoy it.
We would discuss the climate, soil, viticulture and then taste the wines. It was an amazing selection and it enabled us to understand what effect the cool climate of the Loire, for example, had on the taste of the wine. This led to being able to distinguish an old-world sauvignon blanc to one from the new-world.
The structure of the course usually involved a practice tasting first thing (I know, drinking shiraz at 9.30am isn’t your usual breakfast accompaniment) but it was a good way of getting into the habit of analysing the wine while your brain was switched on!
We would then go over the tasting as a group, checking we all agreed on the acidity levels or tannin etc. It was great to discuss it as a group, as people would come up with descriptors for the nose of the wine that you might not have picked up on so it was opening your mind and palate. I remember one week a wine was described as ‘wet nappy’, which sounds disgusting but we all agreed that it reminded us of something along those lines! Not sure the producer would have put that on the label though.
After the tastings, we would work through the chapters in the book, from all the wine making regions in France, to Italy, Greece, Austria, Hungary all the way to South Africa and New Zealand to name a few.
The tutors were engaging, knowledgeable and, above all, honest. After our mock exam in week three they told a number of people in the group that they should not take the exam, and enrol in the next one so they had more time to learn and get a better mark. Luckily, I was encouraged to take the exam.
The exam consisted of two blind tastings of one white and one red wine, then 50 multiple choice questions followed by four short written answer questions. We all felt fully prepared as each week we were given practice questions to do.
The highlights of the course for me were trying the wines, obviously! In particular a stunning Riesling from the Rheingau which was beautifully pronounced on the nose and palate, medium to high acidity with notes of lime, grapefruit, orange blossom and some ripe stone fruit such as peach and nectarine which added to the body and texture of the wine.
Another highlight was sweet wine week and I am happy to admit that, when it came to the Tokaji, I wasn’t going to spit that out. The silky rich texture, the aromas of honey and orange peel coupled with the high acidity, for me makes it the perfect dessert wine. Also, luckily for me, one of the questions was on Tokaji too, which had me silently praying to the ceiling inside the exam room.
I’ve found the whole course so valuable, interesting and inspiring. I am more confident with customers, chatting in depth about why they should have the Australian Riesling with the prawns (maybe secretly they are just praying I will take their order and shut up) and developing the team by providing training for them.
My advice is, if you are serious about pushing your education and love wine, go for it! For me, it’s going to be a long 8 weeks until results day…