Before you start reading, take into account that I took my exam in January 2019 so some of the information about this unit can be outdated. It is always best to check the newest WSET Diploma Specification.
D3: Wines of the world is, without a doubt, the hardest part of the WSET Diploma. It takes about 6 months of studying, thousands of flashcards, books, articles, YouTube videos, and mock questions. Oh, and countless wines blind tasted. And it all finishes with an exam where you get to taste 12 wines and answer 5 theory questions. Sounds like fun? Well, it’s not. At least not while you are going through this experience. It becomes fun when you pass this exam and look back at this part of your life a few months later.
D3 is the heart of the WSET Diploma, it deals with all the topics not covered by the other units. It’s much easier to say what’s not included in this unit than to say what’s in it. In this part, you don’t have to worry about sparkling and fortified wines (e.g. if there is a question about Chardonnay and you start writing about Champagne you get 0 points, not because you are wrong, but simply because this is not in scope for this exam). However, the knowledge from D2, Wine Business, is very useful here – it can show your understanding of the wine markets around the world.
In my case, the whole D3 exam was done in 1 long day – started with the tasting, and finished with the theory questions. The current version of this exam, however, takes 2 days, and tasting happens on the second day. What stays the same is the number of wines to taste. You get to taste 12 wines in total, in 4 flights, 3 wines per flight. And you have 3 hours to get through the tasting, divided into two equal parts of 90 minutes. There can be any still and non-fortified wines in the glasses, however, the exam usually follows a pattern:
- The first 3 wines have the same grape variety (or varieties) in common. For example you may encounter 3 times Cabernet Sauvignon, one from Margaret River, one from Chile, and a Cab-dominated blend from Bordeaux. You need to taste and described every wine using the WSET Level 4 Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine. And at the end you need to say what grape variety is common for all the wines, and why you think so. An exemplary form for this flight can be found HERE.
In my case, I got to taste Kalfu Kuda Leyda Valley Pinot Noir 2017, Gevrey-Chambertin ‘La Justice’ 2016, Valli Bannockburn Vineyard Pinot Noir 2016. It was not too hard to discover that all the wines were made of Pinot Noir. However, finding the correct regions that they came from was much harder. It also made me feel quite stupid because Valli’s Bannockburn PN is on elf my favourite Pinot Noirs from Central Otago. Well, I told you that the exam was hard, didn’t I?
Can you prepare for this part of the exam? Yes! Even though, you can get any variety in this flight, in practice, there is a small number of grapes that show up here. Focus on Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Chenin Blanc, Riesling, Viognier, Pinot Gris, Semillon, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache, Merlot, Syrah. Make sure you focus on the classic example of those grape varieties, and you should be well prepared.
- The second flight includes wines from the same country or region. For example, you can encounter Chianti, Vin Santo and Brunello. This time the tasting finishes with the question about the origin of these wines and your guess of the grape varieties. In my exam, I got wines from Australia – Journey Wines Yarra Valley Chardonnay 2015, Freya Eden Valley Riesling 2016, Majella Cabernet Sauvignon 2013. This time my identification was much better. Chardonnay and CabSav were quite easy to identify. Riesling was the only wine that I had troubles with. However, with a minute to focus, I was able to nail this one too. But what about discovering where all of these wines came from? There is at least a handful countries where you can find these grape varieties. However, if you think about it, there are only 3 countries where these grapes have classic status – France, Australia and (maybe) USA. The wines were too polished and ripe to call France. USA is famous for its Chardonnay and CabSav but what about Riesings? Not so much. So I was left with Australia, and I was not wrong.
After the first 6 wines, we have a short break to rest and refresh our palate. When we come back we have another 2 flights to deal with,
- Wines number 7, 8 and 9 are there to check how we can deal with the assessment of quality. Usually these wines are from the same country/region, however, you are not asked about it at all. What matters here is your evaluation of quality as each bottle represents different quality level. For example, you could get Beaujolais Nouveau, Beaujolais Village and Beaujolais Cru to taste. In my exam, I had 3 Soave wines to taste – Alpha Zeta Soave 2017, Pieropan La Rocca Soave Classico 2016, Inama ‘Campo Dei Tovi’ Soave Classico 2017. I must admit that I was quite sure that I was tasting three Chardonnay-based wines. Fortunately, I was only asked about quality assessment and I was able to say that the first wine was good, second was outstanding, and the third was very good.
- The last flight is a mix bag, and you usually get a very random set of wines. In my exam, I got Domaine Gaujal Picpoul de Pinet 2017, La Rioja Alta 904 Gran Reserva 2009, Château Cos Labory 2010. The first wine was the biggest puzzle for me, mainly because I have never tried Picpoul de Pinet. I thought it was a South African Chenin Blanc. I was able to recognise as a gran reserve from Rioja. And my guess for the last wine was Argentinian Malbec.
All the wines from my tasting exam can be found HERE.
How important is it to identify all grape varieties and places of origin? Not so much after all. You get most of the points from your tasting note. So if you focus on describing the wines, and your quality conclusions, you should be able to get the majority of the available points. And while guessing the details is very exciting, don’t allow it to dominate your exam experience.
After two hours of tasting, we had a short break and started 3 hours of writing answers to the theory questions. In 2019 (it might have changed by the time you read this – check the WSET Diploma specification), we were given 7 questions. The first question was obligatory to answer, and we had to choose four more from the other 6 questions. We had 180 minutes in this part. This meant roughly 35 minutes for one question. If you think that it’s plenty of time, I am afraid you are mistaken. Time goes very fast during the exam, and it’s quite hard to write everything you want to write. Moreover, the aim is not to write everything you know but to answer the question. And this means spending some time planning your answer to make sure you cover all the parts of the question. If you read the examiners’ reports you will see that the examiners’ main complaint is about the students ignoring the question and simply writing all there is on a given topic. Let’s look at an example from my exam:
With reference to grape growing and winemaking, explain how and why the following wines differ in style and price.
a) Chablis Premier Cru AC
c) Mâcon Blanc AC
It is very tempting to start writing about Chablis – where it is located, how big it is, etc. But that’s not what the question is about. It’s also not about the details of the cru structure. What’s important is that Premier Cru encompasses 784 ha of the designated vineyards – this means that the price of the vineyards is rather high (the questions asks directly about the influence of price), the density of plantings is high (this means the lower quantity of grapes increasing the price, and helping with the concentration and complexity of the wines – the question also asks about style).
When I was doing my mock exams, the most common remark was about the lack of a clear connection between my answer and the question. Let’s look at other examples:
- The lowest score I got (52 points out of 100) was for the following question: Discuss the various options for blending in the Bordeaux region (50% weighting). For each option, explain why each of these might be used (50% weighting).
The comment from the examiner was:“I am sure this result does do not do justice to your knowledge of the subject.”
You can find my answer HERE together with the comments from the examiner. You can easily see how the beginning of my answer was useless and got me no points.
- And here is another examiner’s comment for a different question: My overall comments are that a) you have provided some thoughtful commentary on the two issues and b) the Paper doesn’t answer the questions posed in a specific enough manner. Always read and re read the questions and keep them in mind whilst writing. The first question is about Production. So firstly consider what elements comprise an answer on production. Amounts produced, number of acres or Ha under vine, types of production methods, use of oak, battonage, type of packaging etc. Second question is about likelihood go commercial success. Again what are the key elements and give an opinion as to success probability.Well done on use of examples and try and increase these. Look out for spelling errors!I think you will do well if you can bear in mind the above suggestions – And HERE is my answer, together with all of the comments.
OK, let’s go back to my exam and see what questions I was dealing with:
- With reference to grape growing and winemaking, describe the production and resulting style of wine for each of the following:
a) Pomerol AC
b) Inexpensive California Chardonnay
c) Rheingau Riesling Trockenbeerenauslese QmP
- With reference to grape growing and winemaking, explain how and why the following wines differ in style and price.
a) Chablis Premier Cru AC
c) Mâcon Blanc AC
- With regard to the wines of Rías Baixas, describe the following:
b) vineyard location
c) grape growing
e) commercial appeal
- Discuss wine production in Canada with regard to regions, climates, grape varieties and resulting styles of wine.
- With reference to the wines of Europe, write about FIVE of the following:
b) Blaufränkisch / Kékfrankos
e) Grüner Veltliner
f) Silvaner / Sylvaner
And I skipped these two questions:
- Discuss how factors in the vineyard contribute to the style and quality of the wines of Mendoza.
- Why has Syrah / Shiraz become such a popular grape variety in the vineyard, winery and marketplace.
How to prepare for this exam?
You need to get 55% of the available point to get a pass, 65% to get a merit grade and 75% for a distinction. However, in the case of this exam, the theory and tasting were considered as two separate parts so you could not compensate poor tasting with great theory answers, and vice versa.
WSET suggests that you need to spend a minimum of 300 hours to be prepared for the exam. I had 6 months to get ready. This meant 50 hours a month, and around 12 hours every week. And I think that it was about right in my case. With a bit more studying time in the last two weeks before the exam.
What can help? Book, a lot of books! Make sure you have access to Oxford Companion of Wine – either buy the book or subscribe to the Purple Pages (I chose the latter). Make sure you also read the materials available in Guild Somm, and Wine Searcher. During my preparation, I also read Complete Bordeaux and Barolo and Barbaresco: The King and Queen of Italian Wine. I was also going back to many of the books I had read before. Podcasts are also invaluable sources of knowledge and revision – check out THIS blog post for suggestions of podcasts.
And obviously, the WineUni app was a great way for me to keep testing my knowledge every time I have a minute or two.
It took over 3 months to get the results but the waiting was totally worth it. Overall, I got Pass with merit for this unit, which was above my expectations, and made me super happy.
And since this was my last Diploma exam, I also got the final grade of Pass with merit. Later I’ve learned that I was very close to getting an overall Distinction, however, I was short of a couple of points from the Unit 3 exam. Still, getting a merit in a situation when I don’t work directly in the wine business, was an amazing reward for my efforts.