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Studying for the WSET with Fortified Spanish and Portuguese Wines

wsetAbout 3 years after bagging the certificate – I have no idea how the time flew by so fast – I finally signed up to the WSET diploma late in 2008. My first two exams were in March 2009. One about viticulture and vinification in what my father likes to call the “multiple-guess” format. The other was a case-study with a batch of questions needing essay-style answers. The old grey cells are not what they used to be and I am notoriously bad at writing essays under pressure, so I was very suprised (and pleased) to pass both exams, especially the second. I’m still half-convinced the “I’m sorry, we sent you the wrong results letter” will appear at any moment.

Trying to jump through all the WSET Diploma hoops from a distance can be a little complicated, especially the tasting side of things and particularly in southern Spain. Very long legs are necessary. Wine merchants, in the British style, as I know them, don’t really exist and the selection in supermarkets here is orientated towards pile-it-high-and-sell-it-cheap Spanish wines (although, to be fair, there are a lot of gems lurking on those shelves). The third exam, which I wrote last week, covered fortified wines. I am lucky to live in the middle of Sherry country, so one of the three classical fortifieds can be covered with ease. Madeira is difficult to come by around here, Port less so but try getting your hands on something like Mavordaphne of Patras or Marsala in little old Jerez! It amuses me that the three best know fortified wines all come from Iberian countries and yet are so difficult to find, in Iberia, and not far from where they are produced. The last time I was in Oporto, the receptionist at the hotel had never heard of Sherry. Didn’t have the foggiest! Knowledge of Madeira here in Jerez is at similar levels.

tasting-010An the certificate stage, I found the tasting questions much easier than the written or multiple-choice ones, but for the diploma, the tasting notes are lot more comprehensive and demanding. An enologist friend here in Jerez, who has years of experience making wines all over the world suggested we form our own little tasting group of two. So one evening we gathered as many bottles of fortified wines as we could and lined them up on his dining-room table. There were Vins Doux Naturel, a wine from Samos, that Mavrodaphne of Patras I struggled to find, various Madeiras and a satisfyingly large offering of Ports and Sherries of all the necessary styles. It was so good to taste wine with someone else, bouncing ideas off each other and learning to “calibrate” my palate. We also had a bit of fun. A bottle of 1967 Sandeman Port was decanted, but only after the cork broke, was pushed into and then fished out of the bottle with a bit of string. After all the excitement it was a slightly disappointing wine, even a day later and despite not being tainted by the cork. We voted the best wine of the evening a Cockburns 20yr old Tawny Port, which had been cellared for a further 15 years. It was delicious! I’m sure we’ll be organising another tasting soon, and I hope we can recruit some others to join us.

There is only 1 mark for identifying the wine in WSET exams – and a lot more marks for getting things like colour, body, acidity and alcohol levels correct. This is fortunate because I got all wines three wrong. We were given a Muscat de Beaumes-de-Venis, a 10yr old Sercial Madeira and a Fino Sherry. I said they were Muscat de Frontignan, a sweet Amontillado and a Manzanilla Sherry! I struggle to tell the difference between Beaumes-de-Venis and Frontignan VDN Muscats; and trying to differentiate Finos and Manzanillas blind is like trying to split hairs (perhaps a Fino vs Manz evening should be organised) but I’m still kicking myself about the Madeira.

Any other WSET exam anecdotes out there? I’d love to hear about them in the comments section below.

Hasta la proxima

Justin Roberts

  • Just got back from Diploma’s Unit 3 exam in London, and it actually felt good to do. Not really sure that I passed, since Unit 3 means “say everything that’s possible to know about nearly anything in the wine world”. Anyway, only a few exams to go (Spirits, Sparkling and a re-sit of my Unit 1 Closed Book assignment). Best of luck to you…

    • Justin

      Thanks Bernardo.I still have that U3 on the horizon… Good luck to you too!

  • Justin, I have just discovered your article. I just wanted to say that you are not alone in your choice of wines. I put my answers as exactly the same as yours. I chatted to a few people outside the exam hall afterwards and most thought that the Madeira was a sweetened Amontillado. All I hope is that you are right in that this is just one mark blown! Good luck for the next stage. Ben

    • Justin Roberts

      Thanks Ben! I’m glad I’m not alone. On reflection the acidity in the Madeira should have been the give-away. It’s a few notches higher than sweet Amontillado. I had a bottle of the H&H Sercial at home so should have known better! The others two impossible to tell.

      I assume you are moving on with U3 now? Good luck to you too!

  • Having just had my very last result back from my Diploma studies – a Unit 1 essay, I’m feeling a sense of relief it’s all over, a real sense of achievment I’ve actually done it but also a little disappointment that I have nothing further to aim for in improving my wine studies. The Diploma is a great course and I’m so glad I did it.

  • John L

    I just came across your posting for the WSET exams. I’m actually sitting outside my exam room waiting to take the Unit 1 exam (cork vs. screwcap). It was refreshing and calming reading your post. Thank you!
    I made the mistake of signing up for Unit 6 and Unit 4 exams today as well. Fingers are crossed hoping I do as well as you.
    I can also understand you’re frustration with not being able to find the wines. I live in Rhode Island, USA and we have a very limited amount of wines. I take class in Boston but the selection is pretty limited too.