Before you start reading, take into account that I took my exam in November 2017 so some of the information about the fortified wines exam can be outdated.
After the D1 exam (Previous Unit 2 – Wine production) I had about 2.5 months to prep for the next exam. This time it was D2 (previous Unit 6) – fortified wines. We got a month’s worth of online tasks that covered both theory and practice. Additionally, we had 2 face-to-face workshops with our tutor. Obviously, there was almost no way to pass the exam without regular tasting group meeting, and I was fortunate enough that every week we had a group of 6-8 people who were keen to try wines and practice writing tasting notes.
It needs to be said that the theory part of the exam did not include all the possible fortified wines so it was good to check what regions were included in the official specification for your exam (e.g. Commandaria and Greek wines used to be there but were not there anymore when I was taking my exam). In our case (November 2017), I had to learn about Porto, Sherry, Madeira, Rutherglen, and some of the VDN appellations. It does not sound like a lot, does it? Yes, this was the easiest unit to grasp, however, you should not think it was not challenging. Every region had to be researched in-depth, including its climate, soils, grape varieties (with their characteristics – skin thickness, vigour, sugar levels, etc), production methods, ageing requirements, famous producers and the market information. Dry facts are never enough in these exams, WSET Diploma requires the skills of analysis and logical thinking. When you write about Fino Shery, you need to be able to say how the climate, soil, and production methods make this wine taste the way it does.
An additional factor that made this exam much more difficult than WSET Level 3 was the lack of a comprehensive study guide. We only got the basic information in the study guide and we needed to do most of the research on our own. This might have changed for the current student though. If it did you can count yourself lucky 🙂
How did I study then?
I used 3 main books:
- Sherry by Julian Jeff
- Port and the Douro by Richard Mayson
- Madeira: The Mid-Atlantic Wine by Alexander Liddell
I did not read the whole books though, I skipped most of the chapters about the history and I focused on the chapters with the information about current production practices and the markets. Moreover, I used all the online resources I could find, especially when it came to Rutherglen and the VDN appellations.
One cannot forget about the crucial element of the exam preparations – reading and analysing the examiners’ reports from the previous years. These reports include comments and examples of good and bad answers. This allows the students to see what level of knowledge is required and how answers should be structured. The last element can be especially hard for non-native-speakers (like myself), who did not have a chance to learn how to write British essays. Exemplary examiners’ report can be found here.
The biggest obstacle for me was learning the producers’ information. This part was tricky as WSET did not specify which producers could be used in the exam. My way to deal with it was to focus on the producers that were included in the previous exams. I researched their websites, reviews of their wines, and some blog posts of people who visited them.
What questions did I have on the exam?
In relation to fortified wines, write about each of the following:
a) The role of climate in Sherry production
c) Tawny Port with an indication of age
To answer the whole exam paper (theory + tasting) we had 1 hour and 5 minutes and it was a good practice to reserve 30 minutes to do the tasting and 35 minutes to write the answers to the theory questions.
In the answer to the 1st question, I wrote about the Mediterranean climate, rainfall levels, temperature, winds, irrigation (or rather lack of it), how climate impacted the Palomino grapes and the harvests. I also added a couple of sentences about climate influence on the ageing process, for example how the cooler and wetter climate of Sanlucar encouraged flor development.
Nervous and chaotic writing characterised my answer to the second question – there were four VDN appellations from Languedoc-Roussillon that were included in the official specification, and this meant 2.5 minutes to write all I knew about every of the following AOCs: Muscat de Saint Jean de Minervois, Rivesaltes, Maury and Banyuls – when they were created, their climate, soils, grapes, wine styles, ageing, and main producers.
The last question was the most troublesome, partly because my hand started to hurt after 50 minutes of super-fast writing. I wrote about the difference between tawny and ruby port, how towny tasted and how its taste changed with ageing, how much it costed, when was it introduced to the market and who made it happen.
Other exemplary questions from previous years:
In relation to fortified wines, write about each of the following:
– Viticulture in Madeira
– Sweetening in Sherry production
– Fortification of Port
– Maturation in oak
– The role of climate in Port production
– Gonzalez Byass
– Madeira grape varieties
As you can see, some of the questions can be very open-ended, e.g. maturation in oak – when you answer this question you should write not only why maturation in oak is important and how it works but you also need to include specific examples and results of oak ageing from Port, Sherry, Madeira, Rutherglen and VDN appellations.
Oh, and you need to write it all in 10 minutes. On the other hand, some questions can be very specific, like Sweetening in Sherry production, which require very specific and detailed knowledge – you need to have enough knowledge to be able to write about this topic for at least 10 minutes.
This was the hardest part of the preparation for me. Mainly because I rarely drink fortified wine and some of the wine styles I was trying for the first time, e.g. Palo Cortado, Pale Cream Sherry, 20-y.o. Porto Tawny or Madeira Boal. In the preparation process, I tried 62 wines and spent over 20 hours writing tasting notes. And obviously, the wines did not come for free. Fortunately, I was able to split the costs with the group of my fellow students.
The tasting exam included 3 wines, which we needed to taste blind, assess their appearance, nose, and palate, according to the WSET Diploma level Systematic Approach to Tasting.
Moreover, we got additional questions, like:
Country of origin
Assessment of quality
Readiness for drinking
Style within the category
Explain how maturation defines the style of this wine
What did I taste in my exam?
- Blandy’s 10 Years Old Sercial
- Valdespino Tio Diego Dry Amontillado
- Stanton & Killeen Classic Rutherglen Muscat
Guessing the style of wines, which seemed to be the biggest fear of every Diploma student, was not so hard in this case. Amontillado has characteristic aromas and taste, however, I must say that for a few seconds I was considering calling it Oloroso. Rutherglen Muscat was easy to confuse with Sherry PX, however, it was not heavy enough and had some typical floral aromas. The only mistake I made was with the Madeira. Somehow I could smell some flor in this wine and missed the high acidity, as a result, I made a call that it was Pale Cream Sherry. My only excuse was that in New Zealand there was only 1 bottle of Sercial available so I did not have many chances to taste it 😜
Here are some examples of wines from the previous exams:
– Tio Pepe Fino
– Mas Amiel Maury Vintage 2014
– Ramos Pinto Quinta de Ervamoira 10 Years Old Tawny
– Domaine de la Pigeade Muscat-Beaumes-de-Venise 2015
– Croft Triple Crown Port NV
– Fernando de Castilla Antique Pedro Ximénez NV
Did I pass?
YES! After about 11 weeks I was delighted to see the following message in my inbox:
As you can see, the exam was not too easy. And even though I spent about 10 hours every week learning the theory and tasting, I was able to get only “Pass with merit”. Unfortunately, WSET did not provide detailed comments so it was hard to assess what mistakes I had made and/or what I had missed in my answers.
I must admit that initially, I was not very excited about this unit. As mentioned before, I rarely used to drink fortified wine. However, the preparation for the exam changed my approach. The more I learned about these wines, the more I started to appreciate to craft and effort involved in making these wines and their stylistic diversity. And these days it is not hard to spot me with a glass of Fino Sherry or a Tawny Port.
How is your preparation going? What is the hardest part for you? Have you found any useful information here?