What it’s really like to take the WSET Level 2 course
The Wine and Spirits Education Trust (WSET) is a mecca for anyone who wants to know more about vino, but what is it really like to go to wine school? Edith Hancock takes one for the team.
I will not pretend to be a complete novice in the world of wine. We grow Pinot Noir (with mixed success) in the back garden at my family home in Essex, and I’ve been reluctantly helping with the harvest for the past six years.
I’m no Robert Parker, though. I am more of a beer drinker, and until recently I had stubbornly shut my ears to wine appreciation. Nothing would make my blood boil more than hearing someone at the dinner table compare the smell of a glass to licking a tennis ball.
But earlier this year, I secured a reporting role in the drinks industry, so it was time to see what all the fuss is about.
In October, I applied for a WSET Level Two Award with the East London Wine School. The curriculum was spread across three Sundays, starting from 10:30am – 5:30pm.
One online form and £360 later, I was registered. Within a week I was sent an email telling me that my application had been accepted. I was going to wine school.
So, without further ado, here’s what I learned when I took the WSET’s Level two course.
Note: This is not a sponsored article. We weren’t invited to review the WSET. This was funded by the author and is a frank look at the course.
Week 1 — Introduction
1. Wine pairing
2. Tasting and evaluation
3. Factors affecting growth and quality
6. Pinot Noir
The East London Wine School operates out of a conference room in the City’s Chamberlain Hotel. This was to be our classroom for the next three weeks.
At the start of our class, we were handed our textbooks, a workbook, and a list of key phrases to use when entering our tasting notes.
Our teacher did admit that the lexicon wasn’t as comprehensive as it could be, but it was deemed accessible enough for students taking the level two exam. Although there is an introductory level you can apply for at most UK wine schools, you don’t need to take it to enrol in the level two course.
In the first two hours we were taught the absolute basics; the key wine growing regions (which sit on latitudes 30-50 according to the industry body), how different climates affect the quality of a grape harvest, the wine-making processes for red, white and rosé, how to read a bottle label.
The most important thing to remember about wine tasting, according to our teacher, is the balance between sugar and yeast.
Alcohol is made when yeast is introduced to sugar. As yeast reacts with the sugar, it raises the alcoholic volume of the liquid. Wines grown in hotter climates often have higher levels of alcohol because the grapes themselves are able to ripen more than those grown in cooler areas.
So far, so straightforward.
After a quick run-through on storage and glassware, it was time for our first taste-test.
This would have been great if not for the fact that I was suffering from the worst cold in living memory. No amount of Sudafed would free my olfactory receptors from their cattarhy binds. Nevertheless, I soldiered on.
To test a wine, you need to do the following in order:
- Hold the glass at 30 degrees against a white surface (this is to make sure the wine is clear, and without impurities).
- Smell the wine — DO NOT swirl your glass yet. This called the “first nose” and allows you to smell for oxidisation, as well as checking the flavour notes of your wine.
- Swirl your glass and sniff again — swirling draws oxygen from the air into your wine, allowing more complex notes to shine. This is the second nose. If your wine has been aged in oak, this is when you should start picking up on toasty, smoky notes in your glass. The more complex your wine’s production, the more notes you should detect post-swirl.
- Take a small sip, and draw air in while you’re at it to maximise the flavour potential of your wine. This is a technique that takes a while to master, so be careful. Red wine stains are very difficult to remove from white clothing, as I later found out.
- Spit — we were provided with spittoons in order to get rid of any leftover wine. Spitting is optional, and the majority of us chose not to. We wanted to get our money’s worth.
We were provided with a selection of wines ranging from the inexpensive to the extraordinary, including an Italian Pinot Grigio, a Chardonnay from New Zealand, a beefy Barolo and a glass of Sauternes.
Next, we each took a handful of skittles, a lemon wedge, a piece of cheese, a nugget of brioche and a square of dark chocolate, and were left to experiment with food and wine pairings.
Sucking a lemon on its own was obviously disgusting, but pairing it with the Pinot Grigio suddenly made it tolerable. The Barolo turned unpalatably bitter when served with the cheddar, but nibbling it alongside a sip of Sauternes transformed it into a fine dining experience.
On the WSET’s course, you learn by doing. The interactive element of the lesson helped concepts to stick with us after the class was over. One classmate told me he’d started buying a lot more wine since we started (for revision, of course).
Once we had covered the basics, it was onto learning about grape varieties themselves. First up were Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.
For this part of the course, our teacher walked us through the characteristics of the grapes, and how growing vines in different parts of the world can drastically change the type of wine you get at the end of the production process.
Chablis, for example, has a cool climate with limestone-rich soil, and so produces drier wines with high acidity and green fruit, citrus and mineral notes. The Côte d’Or, meanwhile, is slightly warmer so is perfect for making Chardonnays with a fuller-body. These are more likely to be aged in oak, and carry more tropical fruit notes than their cooler climate counterparts.
I powered through with my malaise, but by the end of my first day I was suffering from severe “nose fatigue” — the technical term for too much wine sniffing.
My neighbour turned to me and said he preferred drinking the Chablis to the Pinot Noir anyway.
I agreed. Half an hour before the end of the class, we poured ourselves a drink and made the most of it.
Week 2 — Varietals in-depth
1. Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot
2. Sauvignon Blanc
3. Syrah & Grenache
5. Less common white grape varieties and white wines
6. Less common black grape varieties and red wines
By week two, I was beginning to recover from the Lurghy, and just as well because this time we got stuck into the nitty gritty of varietals and blended wines.
Taste-testing Cab Sav and Merlot at 11am? Well, if it has to be done…
Just like our modules for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, our teacher walked us through the characteristics of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes (both black, but the latter has lighter tannins, more body and higher alcohol), the key growing regions, and how the two grapes are often blended together or with Grenache to produce more complex flavours.
We also went over the key regions for the two grapes across the world, from Bordeaux to Hawke’s Bay.
Then, of course, it was onto the tasting. We noted the difference between the red wines today and the lighter bottles made with Pinot Noir last week.
By this point, I was beginning to see why spittoons were laid out for us. I avoided practicing my spit technique to avoid trashing my clothes again, but my handwriting and the quality of my notes began to suffer instead.
— Edith Hancock (@Edith_L_Hancock) November 26, 2017
We also looked at Syrah and Grenache, in particular those grown in the Northern and Southern Rhône, before moving onto something completely different, Riesling.
To finish, we had a crash-course in “other”, less-common types of wine, which for some unknown reason included Pinot Grigio, Rioja, Zinfandel and Malbec.
Granted, the level two course is just an overview, but it seemed strange to lump some grape varieties and wines together as “other” when they are already so popular with a global market.
Despite feeling rushed at times, we had a chance to taste a broad variety of wine styles and get to grips with the basic principles of how climate and production can affect the end product.
My favourite part of the day was learning about Sangiovese, the principal grape variety used to make Chianti. Rather fortunately, I attended a Chianti Classico show in West London the Wednesday before the class, so I already had some background knowledge.
“Can you get those vegetal notes? Wet leaves?” asked our teacher while we sniffed a sample of the prestigious varietal.
“It’s more like dung, don’t you think?” I heard myself say this in a sort of out-of-body experience, but it turns out I was spot-on. After spending years eye-rolling at references to horse-sweat and tennis ball fluff, I was starting to see what the oenophiles were on about.
But the best part about the WSET? At the end of the class, you can take home whichever leftover bottles you like.
My housemate and I enjoyed two-thirds of a bottle of Chianti Classico, paired with Sainsbury’s Basics salami.
Week 3 – Exam day
1. Sparkling wine
2. Sweet wine
3. Sherry and Port
I’ve long held that my best essays at uni were written after a couple of beers. My whole dissertation was fuelled by half-pints of wastage ale at the taphouse an ex ran in Nottingham.
We celebrated completing the course preemptively with a quick run-down of sparkling wines. The Russian gentleman I sat next to in week one had some trouble telling the difference between Champagne, Prosecco and Cava. He had a few dozen goes of tasting each while we went through our notes, but still couldn’t make his mind up even after four glasses of Cordoniu.
Diligent as ever, he didn’t let this get him down, and continued to run his own taste-tests while we moved onto the sweet wine category.
Muscat and Sauternes, for those who aren’t aware, are made sweet by their alcohol content rising above 15% before fermentation is complete. This can be done in a number of ways, including starting off with an extra-sweet product (a grape with a higher sugar content, for example), or adding pure alcohol to the mix during fermentation. Suffice to say, it’s stronger than your usual stuff.
The pre-exam jitters were starting to set in, and despite being encouraged to spit ahead of the quiz, downing my glass was the only sensible course of action.
Right before we broke for a pre-exam cram, we finished, Sherry and Port and spirits.
Sadly, but unsurprisingly, they didn’t let us taste spirits before the test.
I appreciate that the WSET’s workbook appears to go in-order of how popular a type of wine or grape is, but asking us to spit out Champagne, Sauternes and LBV Port on our last day seemed unnecessarily cruel.
The exam comprises of 50 multiple-choice questions, and we had an hour to complete it.
The morning before the exam, I took a practice quiz and scored 46/50, which I was pleased with.
But when it came to the test itself, the questions were far more in-depth than those found in the book. I struggled to answer many, particularly as they focused a lot on the wine varieties we learned about in week two.
I think I’ve passed, but I don’t think I’ll be getting a distinction. I handed back my paper, turned my back on the examiner, and walked out. I was free.
Some of the course material is old-fashioned. At level two at least, the WSET only recognises latitudes 30-50 as key wine-growing areas. The UK sits on Latitude 51° and, not only is the English wine industry coming on in leaps and bounds, French Chateaux-owners like Tattinger have started planting vines in Kent to capitalise on our calcium-rich soil and Reims-like climate.
At times, the course felt rushed. There was a lot of information to take in on week two, and I personally would have liked the course spread across four weeks instead of three.
We may have struggled with some of the basic principles, but fortunately the WSET’s tutors are extremely knowledgable and passionate about their subject. Samantha had a wealth of knowledge from years of working in the wine trade, and was only to happy to share her pearls of wisdom.
Taking the WSET was a lot like being back at school. It was structured, easy-to-learn and interactive, three things which make for a great lesson. I may not be Robert Parker just yet, but I learned how to appreciate wines that I’ve never liked before simply because I understand how they are made, and what to eat with them.
I was also glad to learn more about Pinot Noir, as I can now take my knowledge home and make better decisions in our production process.
Taking the course allows you to meet people from all walks of life, both in the wine trade and out. Some of my classmates were servers at an upscale bar in Covent Garden who had been sent there by an employer. Another worked in IT, and had simply enrolled because of a long-held passion for German wine.
Overall, it was an extremely worthwhile experience. I look forward to level three in 2018.