WSET Level 3

WSET Level 3 - Week 5 Already!!

It’s week five of our WSET Level 3 course in London and we’re really getting into the swing of things. Saying Auf Wiedersehen to Germany and Bonjour to France, we head off to taste our way through Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Loire Valley.

We start off in Burgundy, where the we appreciate the effect of the region’s range of climates and winemaking practices on the two white Chardonnays we taste. The youthful Chablis Premier Cru has notes of green apple, lemon and minerality from the cooler climate in which it’s grown, whereas we taste some riper peach and even banana and creamy, buttery flavours in the Les Aigrots wine from the warmer Côte de Beaune.

The advantage (other than for our bank balances) of visiting these regions through our wine glasses rather than physically trekking out there there is that, with the pop of a cork, we jump from southern Burgundy to the Atlantic coast and Loire Valley.

Here, we taste two famous examples of white grape varieties, one Sauvignon Blanc and one Chenin Blanc. The Pouilly-Fumé delivers on the expectation for a flinty edge accompanying its notes of gooseberry, grapefruit and blossom. Not to be outdone, the Vouvray sec we taste is a fine example of a wine from its region and grape: dry, with hints of stone and citrus fruit alongside a deliciously toasty, coconutty note. To ‘very good’ wines and, unusually for a white, the latter even has ‘potential for ageing’ (if you can bear the wait).

Finally, with a hop, skip and a jump down the coast, we’re revelling in the deliciously balanced sweet Sauternes wine we try: its deceptively high acidity keeps the sweetness in check, allowing us to relish its deliciously complex array of flavours, which range from fresh grapefruit and quince to gingerbread, honeysuckle, marmalade and even a hint of mushroom. Sound like a strange mix? Try for yourself, it’s irresistible and has a Melanie-approved assessment of ‘very good’. Not bad for a Monday evening in February.

Here are a few of the things we cover in this weeks WSET Level 3 programme

 

Bordeaux

Bordeaux is the biggest wine-producing region in France in terms of both volume and value. A few, premium wine producers can claim responsibility for its prestige, but the bulk of production is designed to be simple table wine.

Bordeaux has a moderate, maritime climate that benefits from the warming effect of the Gulf Stream, and is divided into two main areas: the Left Bank and the Right Bank. However, just like us London commuters, winemakers struggle with the problems brought by ‘inclement weather’ (in this case rain and humidity), which means that each vintage varies greatly. As a result, most wines from Bordeaux are blends; it’s too risky for winemakers to rely on a single variety, as a heavy shower could ruin the whole crop in one fell swoop.

The main black varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot. White grapes do offer one exception to the ‘blends’ generalisation, with Sauvignon Blanc increasingly found alone. The other main grape, Sémillon, is susceptible to noble rot and thus often used for sweet wines. Finally, Muscadelle supports both sweet and dry wines with its floral, grapey flavour.

 

Burgundy

Burgundy is at once very complicated and easy-as-pie: it is home to enough appellations and producers to give you the kind of headache only a Burgundy Premier Cru will clear, and yet only two grape varieties predominate throughout: Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.

It’s continental climate ranges from cool in the north (hence the green fruit and high-acidity of Chablis) to moderate further south (where you’ll find riper fruit flavours in wines from Mâcon). The soils in Burgundy are as varied as the weather hazards winemakers face (which range from a wet growing season and spring frosts to dystopian-sounding summer hailstorms). The best sites are located on south or east-facing slopes where they’re protected from the worst of the weather and gusty westerly winds.

Burgundy’s heartland is the Côte d’Or, which splits into two main areas. For the full-bodied Pinot Noir of your dreams head to the Côte de Nuits, or if it’s a wonderfully expressive Chardonnay you’re after, follow the Massif Central down south to the Côte de Beaune.

The Loire Valley

The crucial stretch of France’s longest river is the last few hundred kilometres before it reaches the ocean. Why? This is where the Loire Valley’s most important vineyards are located, loosely grouped into the four sub-regions: the Central Vineyards, Touraine, Anjou-Saumur and Nantais. As you move from the inland Central Vineyards towards the Atlantic, the climate changes from continental to maritime.

The Central Vineyards is the place to go for Sauvignon Blanc, the grape in the famous Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé wines. The best examples of the former are known for being particularly expressive, whereas the latter are said to have subtle smoky notes, as the name suggests (‘fumé’ means smoked in French).

Moving west to Touraine, you’ll find the bulk of less-premium Sauvignon Blanc, along with some excellent examples of Chenin Blanc and Cabernet Franc wines. Finally, a whiff of sea breeze tells you that you’re in the Nantais region, where the early-ripening and frost-resistant Melon Blanc predominates.

Our WSET Level 3 Course continues.........

WSET Level 3 Week 4

I think week four of our WSET Level 3 course might have been my favourite so far, as whilst technically we spent the evening in South London, virtually we went on a trip to the regions that produce some of my favourite wines – Germany, Austria and Alsace. I even discovered a new wine region that I’d never even heard of before – Tokaj in Hungary.

Having road-tripped through the Mosel Valley this summer, I realised what a good excuse this course is giving me to go on more ‘educational’ wine-drinking holidays. Having tasted the wines in situ, enjoying the spectacular view of neat rows of vines beside the meandering river Mosel, Melanie’s explanation of how the steep slopes and reflected sunlight from the river make this region the producer of world-famous Rieslings really came to life.

Moving on to Alsace, we learnt how the Vosges Mountains protect the wine-growing region from rain-bearing, westerly winds, and how this, combined with the prevalence of sunlight and steep slopes, gives rise to the Alsace Grand Cru wines – the region’s best. We taste a Riesling from this area, whose characteristic high acidity and good intensity of stone and citrus fruit flavours, with a certain roundness to it, earn it a ‘good’ assessment from our class, with a ‘drink now: suitable for ageing or further ageing’ (Riesling is a white wines that can develop well with age).

We round off our session with a sweet Tokaji wine – confusingly with a different name to that of the region where it’s grown (Tokaj). Whilst German Rieslings haven’t quite shaken off the association with being sweet’n’cheap, from when the UK used to bulk import such wines in the 1970s, Tokaj is renowned for its sweet wines, which are top quality and anything other than cheap – a shame, because the 2011 example we taste is absolutely delicious and leaves me wanting to explore more of what Hungary has to offer…

If you are interested to learn more about German Wines, visit the wines of Germany webs-site, dedicated to raising awareness of German wines in the UK.

WSET Level 3 - Week five

It’s week five of our WSET course and we’re really getting into the swing of things. Saying Auf Wiedersehen to Germany and Bonjour to France, we head off to taste our way through Burgundy, Bordeaux and the Loire Valley.

We start off in Burgundy, where the we appreciate the effect of the region’s range of climates and winemaking practices on the two white Chardonnays we taste. The youthful Chablis Premier Cru has notes of green apple, lemon and minerality from the cooler climate in which it’s grown, whereas we taste some riper peach and even banana and creamy, buttery flavours in the Les Aigrots wine from the warmer Côte de Beaune.

The advantage (other than for our bank balances) of visiting these regions through our wine glasses rather than physically trekking out there there is that, with the pop of a cork, we jump from southern Burgundy to the Atlantic coast and Loire Valley.

Here, we taste two famous examples of white grape varieties, one Sauvignon Blanc and one Chenin Blanc. The Pouilly-Fumé delivers on the expectation for a flinty edge accompanying its notes of gooseberry, grapefruit and blossom. Not to be outdone, the Vouvray sec we taste is a fine example of a wine from its region and grape: dry, with hints of stone and citrus fruit alongside a deliciously toasty, coconutty note. To ‘very good’ wines and, unusually for a white, the latter even has ‘potential for ageing’ (if you can bear the wait).

Finally, with a hop, skip and a jump down the coast, we’re revelling in the deliciously balanced sweet Sauternes wine we try: its deceptively high acidity keeps the sweetness in check, allowing us to relish its deliciously complex array of flavours, which range from fresh grapefruit and quince to gingerbread, honeysuckle, marmalade and even a hint of mushroom. Sound like a strange mix? Try for yourself, it’s irresistible and has a Melanie-approved assessment of ‘very good’. Not bad for a Monday evening in February.

 

A great example of Austrian Wine from Sonnenmulde - an exclusive wine to ByChix, sold at Vintage1824 in Herne Hill

A great example of Austrian Wine from Sonnenmulde - an exclusive wine to ByChix, sold at Vintage1824 in Herne Hill

WSET - Week Three & the blind tasting!!

As I made my way to The Wine Parlour on this rainy Monday in South London, I wondered what Melanie had in store for us this week… it is already week three of our WSET Level 3 course! Never failing to surprise, when we arrived we were confronted with our first ‘mock exam’ – two wines to taste and describe on two, very blank, pieces of paper.

So far, we’ve had Melanie prompting us about what we need to describe and, of course, giving us clues as to what we might be identifying in the wine. But apparently there’s no time like the present to give it a go alone and so we got peering, sniffing, swirling and sipping and spent 30 minutes scratching our heads and changing our minds.  The WSET Level 3 exam has a separate blind tasting element to the exam, so this experience is very valuable.

Whilst going solo was an unnerving experience, it taught us the kind of valuable lessons you only learn by making the mistake yourself. For example, don’t forget to state the wine’s development in the nose section (we’re not at WSET Level 2 anymore) and… be strict about time keeping! Half an hour disappears surprisingly quickly when you’re deliberating just how much saliva your mouth is producing after a sip (an indicator of acidity) or peering into your red wine glass and wondering whether you can see the stem clearly enough for its colour to be described as light rather than medium.

Finally, Melanie rewarded us with our cheese and charcuterie platter and a detailed account of the winemaking process: once they are harvested, the grapes are taken to the winery, where they will be treated, fermented and left to mature in accordance with the kind of wine that the winemaker wants to produce. Whilst some elements are common to the process of making any wine, some choices – for example length of skin contact or the kind of vessel used for maturation – can be used to achieve a certain style of wine. The grapes have not quite reached our glasses yet, but they’re certainly getting closer…

 

Week Two For Our WSET Level 3 Students

In week two of our WSET Level 3 wine course, our focus shifted from describing the wine to learning about the beginning of the grapes’ journey from seed to becoming the wine in our glass, with our topic of natural factors in the vineyard. The important factors are the soil, grapes, climate and the weather (in case, like me, you wondered what the difference is, the former doesn’t change from year-to-year, whereas the latter varies on a daily basis).

The influence of these factors can be detected in the wine, and it turns out that they provide further clues as to why the wine tastes the way it does, and Melanie gave us an exercise to demonstrate how this works in practice. Firstly, we described the colour intensity, tannins, acidity and flavour characteristics you would typically expect from four grape varieties. Then, she gave us two red wines to taste. The task? Identify which grape the wine came from.

This turned out to be just as difficult as identifying aromas, although with our helpful flipchart of typical characteristics, once we’d written our tasting note it was something of a game of mix and match. It would have been too easy if everything had fit perfectly though, so in the end it was put to the vote – with a narrow, but justified, win for Merlot. Both wines were high in acidity (not medium as you’d expect of Merlot) and this had set some of us on the wrong track; a good lesson that wines don’t always give you the flavours you’d expect from a grape.

Some characteristics didn’t lie though, with the riper fruit of the Napa Valley bottle expressing the hotter climate in California. Most importantly of all, I could genuinely taste the prune! One step on from week one and things are already starting to make more sense…

Our Latest WSET Level 3 Course Begins!

Session one of the WSET Level 3 course kicked off on a cold January evening in South London last week, with Melanie welcoming our group and going through the course programme. Our journey will see us taste 60 – 70 wines and learn about the factors that influence style, quality and price, with visits to some of the world’s major wine-growing regions along the way.

At Level 3, students learn how to taste wine and assess it using the WSET’s standardised technique. This means that we’ll be able to take a few sips of any glass of wine and give a precise description of how it tastes, an explanation of why it tastes the way it does, as well as a reasoned – and objective – evaluation of its quality. A step up from the Level 2 course is that we’ll also learn to determine whether a wine is ready for drinking and/or has potential for ageing, another vital skill for anyone investing money or anticipation in a cellar full of wine!

Exciting as this prospect is, on day one it certainly feels as if we’ve got a long way to go to reach our destination… “time to get drinking”, you might think. But our teacher Melanie is no walkover, and before a drop passes our lips, we need our ‘phrasebook’ – the vocabulary defined by the WSET to describe a wine’s appearance, nose and palate. This is what we’ll use each time we taste a wine and so it’s vital we become comfortable using the terms on the (helpfully laminated) tasting card we’ve been given.   

Finally, we hear that long-awaited ‘phut’ of a cork being removed from a bottle and we’re on our way… with Melanie’s guidance, a taste of four wines shows us how we can apply the technique and reach an assessment. We certainly need her to hold our hand for the moment, but we’ve taken our first steps and will be back for more next week…