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WSET - back to school (#3)

Updated: Apr 28, 2020

Writer: Charlotte Gordon 

Hey wine lovers!

Have you ever thought about taking your passion to profession and studying wine? Well I say do it! Read on to see how my education journey started…

Back to Devon and as soon as I hit legal drinking age, my bosses sent me on my first WSET (wine and spirits education trust) course. I started at level 2, rather than level 1 as I’d been around wine for over 3 years at the pub already.

At this stage I knew the basics in that Merlot was red grape variety, and Pinot Grigio hailed from Italy. Well, a bit more than that I’d like to think, so I was advised by my course provider that level 2 was the course for me. Some weeks after enrolling, I remember my study book arriving and suddenly feeling very nervous. While flicking through the pages in my study book I thought ‘Wow’, there’s a bit more to wine than it tasting nice and pairing well with food! At level 2, there was a strong focus on each of the primary grape varieties in detail, Countries of production, viticulture (in the vineyard) and vinification (making wine). I was anxious to attend the first session and was now worried I wasn’t as advanced as I thought I was.

My sessions were to be held at the snazzy new wine bar in town – very exciting stuff. I was amazed walking through the door at all of the bottles on display and technical Enomatic machines that allow you to taste a glass of wine without spoiling the bottle - thanks to the use of inert gasses. The bottles plugged into this machine were sometimes upwards of £100! My eyes were opening fast to the prestige around certain bottles, producers and wine making techniques that push prices up. I knew everything I thought I needed to know about the New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc or Chilean Pinot Noir on my wine list, but I now realised there were far bigger and better bottles to explore than what I thought was the tops!

The class started with introductions to the other candidates. Restaurant managers, older wine enthusiasts with impressive wine cellars, and mixologists were to be my study buddies over the next three days. Little did I know at the time, but this was my first taste of the fiercely strong and passionate wine community, of which I still speak to a couple of classmates now over 8 years on!

The class itself was hard. Really hard. WSET really focuses on palate and nose calibration and learning to assess wine using the SAT (systematic approach to tasting). At this level, it’s not enough to say, ‘this wine smells like strawberries and cream’. I had to learn a new language, a new format of assessing quality and be aware of everything I could smell on a day to day basis to build up my ‘smell bank’. This was serious stuff and I was totally hooked from day one. A standout moment for me happened while assessing an aged Riesling from Alsace. When asked informally what we could smell, I had a battle in my head. I smelt an elastic band, and very distinctly, but I can’t possibly say that out loud to a room full of impressive ‘wine people’, that just couldn’t be right? What fruits can I smell I begged my brain, any oak maybe? Flowers, spice – any thing but an elastic band! With no one being able to offer up an approved answer, I finally plucked up the courage and explained what I could smell, albeit I was sure I was wrong. I cringed waiting for rejection from the teacher, only to be told that yes – that’s the perfect answer and she doesn’t normally have students at this level pick out that tricky aroma. We then went onto learn that Rieslings, and especially when aged tend to pick up petrol or rubber like aromas and this is a distinctly unique characteristic of this variety. Cool I thought – maybe I am good at this!

I distinctly remember feeling drained driving home from my first ever wine lesson. My brain throbbed and ached from fatigue but was also alive and buzzing with all of this new information I had learned. I couldn’t wait to arrive home and get stuck back into my study book. This was the first subject I truly felt obsessed about. I was excited. I was ecstatic really! I truly felt like I belonged to a secret underground organisation that you needed a golden ticket to enter. Why did I not know before that wine could be a profession? I guess it’s not something they advertise at school! From that first session, I knew all I wanted to do was to make other people feel the way I did in that initial class. And all this time later, I’m now a certified WSET educator myself! Dreams really do come true…

For those interested in taking your studies further, here is a simple breakdown from WSET’s website to explain the differences in course levels.

  • Level 1 award in wine - For individuals new to wine study, this qualification provides a hands-on introduction to the world of wine. You’ll explore the main types and styles of wine through sight, smell, and taste, while also gaining the basic skills to describe wines accurately and make food and wine pairings. (1 day course)

  • Level 2 award in wine - This qualification is intended for beginners wishing to learn about a wide range of wines or those seeking to build on the introductory knowledge gained with the WSET Level 1 Award in Wines. You’ll gain knowledge of the principal and regionally important grape varieties of the world, the regions in which they are grown, and the styles of wine they produce. Through a combination of tasting and theory, you’ll explore the factors that impact style and quality and learn how to describe these wines with confidence. (3 day course)

  • Level 3 award in wine - For individuals seeking to delve deeper into the world of wines, this qualification provides a detailed understanding of grape growing and wine making. Upon completion you will be able to assess wines accurately and use your understanding to confidently explain wine style and quality. (5 day course)

  • Level 4 Diploma in wine - Building on the knowledge and skills gained from the WSET Level 3 Award in Wines, the Diploma deepens your understanding of how and why wine production and business factors influence the style, quality, and price of wines. Your expertise is built both theoretically, through comprehensive study of a large number of wine regions, and practically, by developing your wine tasting skills to an expert level. Successful graduates acquire exceptional analytical skills and proficiency in evaluative wine tasting, gaining global recognition as authoritative wine specialists. Should you wish to progress to the Master of Wine programme, you will be well-prepared. (3 year course)

Please note – You need level 3 to qualify to study the level 4 Diploma, you’ll need level 2 to be able to study level 3, but you can study level 2 without a level 1 award. I would advise those that have been in the hospitality industry to jump in at level 2, and those looking to have wine as a hobby with no prior knowledge to start at level 1.

On my next instalment I’ll tell you a little about my big career move. From Country Pub to London Sommelier!

Follow me on Instagram for posts about Champagne, wine, food and drinks – @charlottedrinkschampagne


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