Last minute tips
I'm writing this one week ahead of a WSET Diploma exam session. At this late stage, students tend to fall into one of two groups:
The well-prepared reviser, now focusing on the the detail
The under-prepared panicker, trying to remember the big stuff
The extra time that is built into the exams for the new Diploma is designed to allow students to show that they can make the links between different areas of the syllabus. It is not about allowing more time simply to regurgitate facts.
So whichever kind of student you are, it is worth spending time now evaluating (by which I mean assessing advantages and disadvantages) the main categories of wines of the world. You need to go beyond the variety, climate and wine-making to really look at where those wines sit in the market.
So, for example, if you are evaluating Chenin Blanc in South Africa, you need to look at the advantages and disadvantages of the variety not only in terms of style, but also in terms of who buys it and why. It is more valuable now to form your arguments around such broader topics than focusing on the specific technical details of each district, region or ward. Of course the more technical detail you have, the more likely you are to achieve a Merit or Distinction in the exam.
If you are struggling to take in any more new information, then make sure you have locked in the stuff you already know. Why not combine it with tasting practice and explain to anyone nearby why the wine looks, smells and tastes the way it does. Describe the target market for that wine and why the wine succeeds or not.
These sorts of activities are quick, simple and fun, but make you think in a Diploma way.
It may sound silly, but make sure you answer the question
As in any exam, answering the question you really are asked is key. Make sure you pay particular attention to the verb that is used in the stem of the question. Words like ‘define’, ‘describe’, ‘explain’, ‘analyse’, ‘compare’, ‘evaluate’ and ‘conclude’ are telling you exactly what the examiner wants to read from you.
Five steps to ace your Diploma exams
I’ve got five great study tips (and a cheeky sixth suggestion) for anyone working towards the WSET Diploma. Be a good friend and forward these to anyone you know who is currently studying for it.
I’m using Fortified wines as the example here, but this is how I would approach any of the Diploma units.
Following this template takes work, but it makes sure that you cover the whole topic and enjoy it at the same time. The key is to get on with it and use your time effectively.
One - Start now!
Refer to the course materials always.
The examiners are using only the Diploma materials and specification to write the questions you will be answering in your exams. So those should be your main study guide. There’s no need to worry about other sources at this point!
Don’t read the materials aimlessly, set yourself start and end points so you have a sense of accomplishment.
Two - Keep calm!
Don’t freak out at the thought of all the wines there are in the world. Have a look at how many are covered by the unit - it might not be as many as you think.
The Fortified unit, for example, looks at:
France: Vins Doux Naturels (fortified Grenache, fortified Muscat)
Portugal: Madeira, Port
Now jump to the specification for the course to see what you are expected to achieve in the exam. For the unit we are taking as the example, D5, Fortified wines, this is:
Understand how grape growing,winemaking, maturation, wine law and wine business influence the style, quality and price of the fortified wines listed above.
Three - Structure your notes
Now you know what materials to use and where to look it is time to be systematic and start building your study notes.
Here is a ready-made structure for your learning and revision work. I am using Fino Sherry as an example – the points I have set out in the template below are based on the Diploma assessment criteria. In other words these are what the examiners can ask questions on!
It’s best to build your notes in an electronic format as you will need to go back and forward adding to each section as you expand on the topic.
Describe the style, quality and price of Fino Sherry
Describe the natural factors, grape growing options for growing grapes made for Fino Sherry.
Describe the winemaking and post-fermentation options involved in the production of Fino.
Once you have described the options – go back and then explain what the impact of each of the production stages is. Write this down then try to explain it to a willing victim!
Now go back and evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of each stage of the grape growing and wine making process.
Look back through your wines and see if you can compare and contrast them. Alcohol or fortification level, sweetness and oxidation are a few examples of characteristics you might focus on in relation to fortified wines.
Take the list of industry associations and labelling terms from the course specification (link above) and use a flashcard app (CRAM or Quizlet) to learn them off by heart and be able explain what each of them means and their importance. You could also follow the companies and associations on Facebook and see what they have to tell you.
Finally look at the advantages and disadvantages of different ways of getting the principal fortified wines to the point of sale. E.g. retail v. on-trade by the glass. Also think about the current versus potential target markets.
Four - Time to reflect
Go for a walk, listen to a podcast or look at some other materials to give yourself a rounded perspective. Sometimes just reading the same information presented slightly differently can help retention of information
Here are some useful sources of information on fortified wines.
Five - Teach each other
Get together in your study group and teach each other a tricky part of the syllabus. I found this incredibly useful with my own study group. Industry Associations, Banyuls, Maury, Madeira are often the sections skipped by students so tackle them head on.
Six - Masterclasses
To really maximise your chances, join a Global Wine Academy Masterclass!
There are still spaces available for our Fortified Tasting Masterclass on the 17th of October 2019 where we will pick apart how to taste effectively, improve your exam technique and expose you to 15 different Fortified wines so you get the chance to compare a broad range of wines in one day.
You will also sit a mock exam and I will send you your marks and feedback after the class. Masterclasses have a maximum of 10 people so we really have time and space to work on your particular needs. .
See what students have said about my Masterclasses, course click here
Here are some of the things I did to prepare for my Diploma exams
Step 1 - Flash those cards!
Start with Level 3 - Take your Level 3 Award in Wines textbook and use it in conjunction with your Level 4 Specification - write a very simple flashcard (using Quizlet or CRAM) on each of the entries. Don’t go in to Diploma detail straight away otherwise you may run out of steam. First focus on climate, varietal characteristics, wine style, winemaking, any other points of interest. It will take you about two weeks to create all the basic cards but you need to do this NOW!
Once you have them sorted then you can start revision, you will need to do at least an hour a day on flashcard revision. I would do 20 minutes in the morning, at lunch and in the evening (a commute is perfect). This will mean you are constantly revising and becoming familiar with the regions and varieties that you may have forgotten.
Step 2 - Add detail
One full day a weekend or two half days you need to reserve for flashcard updates - keep adding geeky facts relating to size, yield, AC requirements, notable producers and trends that can maximise your marks in the exam.
Step 3 - Tackle the real questions
Add in explanatory/analysis questions e.g. Why is Carbonic maceration used in Beaujolais? What are the main human and natural factors in the Loire and South Africa that produce different styles of Chenin Blanc?
This is the final step and these are the sorts of questions you really need to to grips with. You cannot take the time here unless you have done the previous two steps well. At this point your one hour a day revision is going to be much more in-depth and you will retain the information much more easily than diving straight in with too much detail from the start.
Step 4 - Make your house a revision post-it note palace
Think about the regions/countries that you are less familiar with. Take dark coloured post-it notes for red wine areas and yellow for white and get posting. It is a different approach and will stop you from getting bored with revision.
Italy, Chile and Greece were my weak points when I was studying the Diploma, I made the outside of my wardrobe Chile and the inside Italy, my kettle, tea caddy etc became Greece. I made wine associations on my notes. So, for example, under the heading Assyrtiko I wrote ‘a higher alcohol fruity Chablis’. Mendoza Chardonnay had ‘Similar to Pouilly Fuisse but a bit brighter in terms of the fruit character’. So take what you do know and extend it. These simple connections won’t be sufficient for the Diploma but they are a good starting point.
Step 5 - Social media can help you revise!
Turn your procrastination in to study time. Get a list of the top wine brands in the major areas (Barefoot, Concha Y Toro, Jacob’s Creek etc) and ‘like’ them on Social Media, do the same with the Generic Bodies or events e.g. Wines of South Africa or RAW. They will be delighted to promote to you the current trends in their specific areas over the next twelve weeks.
Step 6 - Subscribe
Get a subscription to the trade press, simple as that. Well researched and well-written articles that you will find in The Drinks Business Reports or Decanter Magazine are invaluable for a different perspective on the regions.
Step 7 - Taste, taste, taste!
Taste the main wine styles frequently and consistently. It is a mistake to walk around a wine festival all day, try 200 wines and think that will improve your tasting. You might feel like you are doing a good job but you are at risk of overload.
You need to get your hands on the main styles and re-taste them consistently. Use either a coravin or a vacuvin vacuum system. Try the same wines in the morning and evening and get someone to pour them for you, even though you will know what wines you have purchased it is essential that you strengthen your muscle memory so that the aromas and flavours are more easy to identify and you can work quickly under exam pressure.
Next: More tasting and research
To succeed, you must taste widely and frequently, so immerse yourself from now on!
There are always lots of large wine fairs across Europe in the Spring. They are a great opportunity to test your palate. Make sure you go with a friend who can pour you samples or at least grab two glasses on entering so you can compare and contrast similar styles.
Comparison and challenge build skill. Tasting 100 wines one wine after another alone just makes you drunk!
Can you get out into a vineyard? Sometimes speaking to a someone who works directly with vines or wine can help fill in some of the inevitable blanks, it is also a fun thing to do and so will keep that passion going.
Six great Diploma preparation wines
To prepare for Diploma exams you need to be tasting the main styles regularly. Here are six from the Wine Society to get you started. I released my calibration notes on 1st May 2019.
You will need to add more examples in here to make sure you cover the full sweetness, acidity, alcohol and tannin range. Of course, you don’t need to be studying for your Diploma to taste along too!
By the way, the Global Wine Academy does not receive any reward for featuring particular wines in our free tasting notes or in our masterclasses. We choose them on the basis that knowing and understanding them will help Diploma students and delight wine lovers - we pay for them all ourselves too.