I’m now past the halfway point in my journey through WSET level 3. I’ve begun studying for the exam (50 multiple choice questions, 4 short answer questions and 2 blind tastings – one white and one red) but am still waiting for my confidence to show. I had a similar problem with the last class I took – it wasn’t until the last few weeks of class that I finally started feeling like ‘hey, I think I can do this!’. Hopefully that feeling comes to my WSET studies soon. Better late than never, I suppose.
Tasting the WSET Way
One of the things I’m having the most trouble with is WSET’s systematic approach to tasting, or SAT. You’d think after 33 years I’d know how my senses worked, right?
A good portion of time spent in each class is on tasting and ‘calibrating’ my palate to the teacher (a Somm in her own right), who will do the blind tasting with us on exam day. The idea is that, by practicing tasting together, we’ll eventually start to pick up the same things in the same wines, so when it comes time to mark the tasting notes there should be enough on my sheet that matches my teacher’s to be able to show that I know some things about some wine things.
Sounds very systematic, right? Something that could be figured out pretty easily with a bit of practice?
What WSET doesn’t really acknowledge is that, even with the SAT, tasting wine is still incredibly subjective. My sense of smell, taste and touch are not like anyone else’s. What I think is cedar could be someone else’s pencil shavings. My honeysuckle could be their elderflower. This has lead me to start writing down what I get from a wine as well as every other word I can think of that people typically use to describe the same characteristic. Ham-fisted, yes, but hopefully it’ll prove successful come exam time.
Primary, Secondary, Tertiary – What?
In addition to tasting for the things that make up a wine’s structure (alcohol, acidity, tannin, body, sweetness) the SAT also asks you to think about the wines in terms of primary, secondary and tertiary aromas and flavours. Before this class if you had asked me to describe what that meant I would have said that primary aromas and flavours were things that came to the forefront when you were tasting something, and secondary ones were things hanging out in the background.
That is not at all what WSET is getting at here.
This is what they mean, according to the WSET Level 3 SAT:
- Primary – Aromas and flavours that exist through fermentation. These could come from the grapes themselves or from the fermentation process.
- Eg. Red fruit, black fruit, minerality, florality, etc.
- Secondary – Aromas and flavours that come as the result of winemaking methods after fermentation.
- Eg. vanilla, cedar and baking spices from oak aging; biscuit and dough from lees treatment; yogurt, butter and cream from malolactic fermentation.
- Tertiary – Aromas and flavours that come from age.
- Eg. Nuttiness from oxidation, honey in white wines, forest floor and dried fruit in red wines.
I know, right? Totally different. This is where the learning curve started getting a bit steep.
Youthful vs Developing – My Whack-a-Mole
The thing that challenges me most in my tasting for this course is determining the age of a wine. On every tasting sheet I have to say whether I think a wine is youthful or developing.
I do have a slightly easier time figuring this out with white wines, maybe because so many whites are made to retain freshness and meant to be drunk in their youth. The reds are proving so tough though, and for one big reason – some tertiary characteristics are really varietal characteristics in disguise. The jerks!
Let’s take leather. On my handy little SAT sheet leather is listed as a marker of bottle age in red wines. Sounds logical, right? Except that leather can also be a varietal indicator for a ton of different wines. Primitivo, Malbec, Grenache – they can all have leather aromas and flavours in youth. Come on guys, give me a chance!
And then, just to make my head really ready to explode, leather can also show up in a wine because of a bacteria called brettanomyces. It’s gotten to the point where I feel my stomach drop when I smell leather on a wine because I know it’ll just complicate that youthful vs. developing question.
This is really unfortunate because I love wines with leather on them. And tobacco. I call them my cowboy wines and they are delicious.
Sigh. I’m getting there. But it’s kicking my butt.
Have you ever tried to systematically taste a wine? How did it go?