A Wine Novice Takes the WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) II Course
About twelve years ago I took a basic certificate course on wine and wine tasting, and became fascinated with the history and science of winemaking. On trips to the US, South Africa and Australia, and visits to our Okanagan wine country [ (A Taste of the South Okanagan) and (Destination Kelowna)] I enjoyed visiting wineries and vineyards, and amassed quite a collection of tasting glasses from vineyards all over the world.
Sometime after I began my second career of on-line reviewing and writing, I realized that I needed, and wanted, to learn more about wine. Lacking the patience and discipline to attend weekly courses over many weeks, I signed up for the WSET level I intensive held over two weekend days, with the exam at the end of the second day.
Having had a lot of fun doing the level I and having learned just enough to realize that I wanted to know much more about wine, and needed plenty of practice in the art of tasting, I decided to take the Level II course. Again I opted for the weekend day long sessions.
When I first looked at the course workbooks which arrived by mail several weeks in advance of the course, I realized that this was not something I could take lightly, especially I chose to do the course over three full days rather than in three hour classes over 9 weeks. I visualized myself trying to remember which varietal was used in Burgundy and which in Bordeaux, while my brain was in an alcoholic haze from tasting wine. And yes, I know we are supposed to spit not swallow, but I remember being quite mellow after the level I course days. So I started reading early.
I also had to buy a set of the ISO tasting glasses - the glass has a rounded bowl large enough for swirling without spilling, tulip shape to concentrate aromas, and the stem so one can hold the glass without warming the wine. Which got me thinking about the stemless designed Riedel glasses that were supposed to be the new great thing in wine glass design a couple of years ago. The pouring size for tasting is 50 ml or just about 1 and 2/3 oz.
The First Day
A varied and interesting group of wine enthusiasts gathered in a classroom at BCIT for the first day of the Level II intensive course. there were several people from the hotel or restaurant industry, some of two with vineyard connection or wine marketing or importing, and a lot of people there because "they just love wine."
Our instructor Lynn got right down to business with a review of the various ways of training in wine knowledge through the WSET levels and then we began to review the principles of tasting.
The first two wines poured were white wines. Lynn took us through the wine tasting steps and then we were asked to decide what we thought they were. I had no difficulty in deciding that one was an Alsace style Riesling, and the other was a German Kabinett style Riesling, from the Mosel or the Rhine.
"Hah! Piece-of-cake - or maybe sip-of-wine" , I thought to myself. "I can ace this course". I felt my perfectionist, competitive streak inexorably bursting through the layers of "relaxed, laid-back, everything's-cool" that I have been trying so hard to cultivate. See. there I go again - "trying so hard!"
Fortunately for my new attitude to life, when I came up against the red wines a little later, I realized acing the course might be easy in theory, but tasting the flavours of red wines was really hard for me, a die-hard white wine habituee.
I was happy we started with Rieslings as this was for a long time my favorite varietal. Now it competes for my affections with Sauvignon Blanc (New World style) and Gewürtztraminer.
Tasting and evaluating wine: we went through the steps of evaluating appearance, nose, palate and conclusions, setting the process that we were to follow throughout the three days of tasting.
Then Lynn moved on to a brief discussion of wine faults; cork taint, oxidation or wines that have just been kept too long or wrongly stored.
Next we talked about terroir, an all-encompassing word that includes soils, climate, slope and aspect that affect the grape.
To illustrate, the next two wines tasted were Chardonnays. The first was chardonnay grown in a relatively cold climate in Chablis, compared to a chardonnay from warmer climate California.
The difference was staggering- from the dry, acidic, citrussy, mineral Chablis, to the buttery tropical and lower acidity California wine. I was reminded of the film "Bottle Shock" when the California chardonnay won a blind tasting in Paris.
We then moved on to taste a White Zinfandel from California, a Zinfandel from California, and a Beaujolais (Gamay).
I generally like a slightly sweeter wine but I think the California White Zinfandel is what put me off rosé wine for a long time till I tasted some great rosés in Provence. So I can imagine what effect it had on those who really prefer very dry wines.
Our last two wines before lunch brought us to a discussion of wine from France, specifically from Bordeaux.
That was when I realized I really would have to go home and study. All those villages in Bordeaux and Burgundy, with so many Saint- this and Saint-that!
Next we tasted a red Bordeaux from Haut-Medoc on the left bank of the Gironde estuary (Cabernet Sauvignon), and then finished with a botrytis affected Sauterne. I just could not spit out that one and nor could a couple of my table mates.
Lynn discussed more about wine styles, quality and prices. We needed food badly by then and we broke for lunch.
I realized I should have brought my lunch with me as there was basically fast food stops in the immediate vicinity. In the end I joined one of my class mates and we stopped in at a Tim Horton's round the corner, where I enjoyed a reasonably priced Black Forest ham and Swiss cheese on multi grain.
Scheduled for after lunch was information on understanding the labels on wine bottles, as well as more about four classic varietals - Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. So we would learn about where they varietals were typically grown and how they were used.
We would also be discussing Matching Food with Wine. Sadly it would be a theoretical discussion only as there was clearly not going to be any foie gras to go with our Sauterne.
The group reassembled on time and we got going on theory before we started on the first of the 9 wines we would be tasting in the afternoon.
The most complicated of the labels to understand at first were those from Germany, especially because of their sweetness ratings. But once one remembered the order of the names (the village then the vineyard) and sorted out Kabinett, Spätlese, Auslese, Beerenauslese and Trockenbeerenauslese (!) it was quite easy to decipher them. I like the amount of information you get from a German wine label, and as I have been drinking those wines for a long time, I found it no problem.
The languages are similar, well sort of, so you get English - white, German - weiss, French - blanc, Italian - bianco, Spanish- blanco and Portuguese- branco. It is a bit like learning a routine in rhumba and then in chachacha. The steps and the names are sort of similar but to dance them - different speed, different style and so easy to mix up your routines.
We touched on the various acronyms for QWPSR (Quality Wines Produced in a Specific Region.) France - AOC, Italy - DOCG and DOC, Spain - DOC and DO and Portugal DOC but the Ds, the Os and the Cs are different words in each language. My brain was beginning to close down but then we turned to our tasting.
We started by tasting two more Chardonnays, one from France (Chassagne-Montrachet in Burgundy) and the second, a "critter label" chardonnay from S.E. Australia for less than a quarter the price.
We talked about old and new world regions where Chardonnay is grown and different styles of wine-making.
Then we moved onto Pinot Noir, tasting two French wines from Burgundy and a Pinot Noir from the Willamette Valley in Oregon.
By the time we got to Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, I was barely capable of identifying the wines as red wines - really - well, not really, I could see that they were red. But as for differentiating varietals , never mind tasting black currant, raspberry or what ever, there was not a chance.
As I was beginning to realize my future as a wine taster was looking increasingly grim, Lynn reassured us all that red wines were much harder to work with than whites. Add to that the fact that socially I almost exclusively drink white wine, and I began to feel a little better.
My four table mates also were looking a bit bleary-eyed, and agreed that the red wine tasting was much harder than the whites.
Although I really was not drinking the wine, just the fumes as I inhaled were enough to make me feel sleepy and by 5 PM when the class was over I was quite ready to call it a day.
I packed up my ISO tasting glasses and my notes and books. My bag was quite heavy so I walked up to the Canada Line to catch the train back to Yaletown, instead of walking home. My brain was spinning with all the new information but I thought it was a really fun day and I was looking forward to the next day's session.
Watch for :
WSET II day 2. Oh those reds! (wines of course)
WSET II Day three. Will my memory cope with fortified wines?