How to study for the WSET Level 3 Award in wine (part 1: theory exam)

(Following from my triumphal I finished the course post…)

I thought it could be interesting to document what I did to study for future reference. If I don’t pass, maybe it’ll help me fix what I did wrong. If I do pass the exam, maybe it helps someone else!

Please be reminded that I am not an official educator and so maybe some of what I suggest might be technically wrong. These are my own thoughts and opinions, take my advice with the appropriate caution, etc.

Exam structure

While the examinations for Level 1 and 2 consist in a multiple choice exam only, the Level 3 examination is way more involved, as it has theory and practice exams.

The theory is split into two parts:

  1. multiple choice questions
  2. a series of questions that require written answers (the questions are split into variable length sub-sections).

The practice exam consists in blind tasting two wines that you have to systematically describe.

Each of those parts requires quite different skills, but there’s something you’ll absolutely need to succeed in any case: practice!

If you practice enough, you won’t panic or hesitate during the exam, and will remain calm and focus on understanding the questions and providing the right answer. Otherwise you might get confused and answer with something that while still true or correct, won’t address the question—and get 0 marks.

How to study for the theory exam

You can approach the course trying to be a sponge and absorbing everything you can, which is, to be honest, my default mode of learning: when I’m interested in something, I just want to do a deep dive and learn absolutely everything about it, which means I can end up falling into very, very, very deep research holes.

While there’s nothing inherently bad with that, it is not very helpful when you have a deadline (the exam day). If you have the same deep-diving tendencies, you need a goal and you need structure to reach the goal.

In this case, the goal is to be able to “explain” how wines are the way they are (or as the course puts it, “explaining style and quality”).

Unlike other alcoholic drinks which can be made anywhere in the world with the right equipment and input materials, wines are highly dependant on the inputs—the grapes—. The way they’re grown, what is done to them in the winery, following whichever traditions, customs, budget and laws in whichever country we’re looking at will help us explain wines.

Of course this looks like a mountain you’ll never be able to conquer because there are so many countries making wines and so many grapes in the world. Where do you even start?!

Arguably this is when you want to look at the “Specification”, i.e. the booklet that breaks the course down into units and expected learning outcomes. But I felt its structure was confusing me more than anything else!

The thing that really helped me, and I realise this is a very engineering-based approach, was to realise that at the core it’s just about inputs, processes, and outputs.

For example:

  • What are the best inputs? What are average inputs? What are bad inputs? (and why)
  • What type of processes are available to wine makers?
  • What happens when you put each quality-category of inputs through each type of processes? What are the outcomes (the outputs)?
  • Or working in reverse: what do I need to do to achieve certain type of output? How do you retrace your steps to reach this?

Or more specifically:

  • How do we make each of these types of wine?
    • White
    • Red
    • Rosé
    • Sweet
    • Sparkling
  • What’s involved in making…
    • Cheap/affordable wine
    • Premium wine
  • What do we need to do to grow grapes in different climates?
    • Cold places
    • Warm places
  • Which variables do we care about in grapes and in which cases? What is their influence on the wine? What external variables affect grapes and in which level?
    • How aromatic or not?
    • How thick is their skin?
    • How deep is their skin colour?
    • What happens to the same grape variety in different climates?
      • E.g. how does the flavour progress based on grape ripeness (e.g. green fruit -> citrus fruit -> stone fruit -> tropical fruit)?
      • What happens to the acidity? And to the sugars? And the tannins?
  • Varietal wines vs blends: which grapes can shine on their own? Which ones need support? Which are common pairs or trios of grapes that go often together (e.g. Cabernet Sauvignon + Merlot + Cabernet Franc, or Grenache + Syrah + Mourvedre, or Tempranillo + Garnacha)?
  • What are the typical winemaking styles in the world?
    • In France
    • Elsewhere in Europe
    • Not in Europe
  • etc…

My reasoning was that if I understood those, I would be able to answer pretty much any question thrown at me in the exam.

So if I were to start again, I’d probably work my way through the book in this order:

  • how the different types of wine are made (and I’d draw plenty of side by side diagrams comparing things); then…
  • look at each of the regions in France, as they’re like the “trendsetters” and/or pioneers for many of the techniques used elsewhere
  • finally I’d look at the other countries, approaching them with these questions:
    • What’s the climate? What’s the land like? What are the moderating influences (if any)
      • Or answer this but broken down in into subregions when it’s a big country or there are ‘microclimates’
    • What grapes are typically grown?
    • What type of wines are typically made?

I think this is what the educators try to convey, but in a very indirect and roundabout way.

In contrast, the “sessions” the WSET school uses in the classroom often group somehow similar wines from different countries and regions, rather than go chapter by chapter.

You could argue that this is another way of finding patterns, similarities and differences between wines—for example you could look at “areas where aromatic grape varieties predominate” and that’s how you end up with Alsace, Germany, Austria and Hungary in the same session.

But they sometimes felt like they’re organised for schedule convenience rather than because they’re remarkably demonstrative. For example, I would have discussed wines of the Southern Rhone, Southern France and East of Spain in the same session so we could see when do Grenache and Mourvedre shine and which grapes complements them, but instead the sessions grouped East of Spain with Northern Italian red wines and then Albariño from Galicia which… didn’t quite share a lot in common, in my view.

I listened to a podcast where one of the writers of the textbook said they had structured things the way they are so that students are forced to revise by going through the same country several times. Fair point. I still found it confusing. Maybe we need a “Textbook for square brains”, like mine! 🤖

Prove that you not only know—but can also explain!

Just reading the book won’t get you to learn. Unless you’re one of those people who can absorb information with just one reading, but I’m not one of those.

Not even reading it twice or thrice will get you there.

There’s a lot of information and there’s a lot of disjointed information because they’ve tried to condense so many facts in such a small space. Plus the structure is not always the same from chapter to chapter, so it’s really hard for the brain to get into a rhythm.

And you might think that you know the content, but how do you actually find out?

I firmly believe that you have to take an active role if you’re to learn this content. So I approached it from two sides:

  • memorising facts
  • learning to explain things

Memorising facts

I’ve always been terrible at rote memorising. Horrible! I just can’t do it. It was always very frustrating to see people in school recite entire paragraphs verbatim while I couldn’t do it.

However, you have to retain a lot of variously random facts if you’re to answer the multiple choice questions part successfully.

So I researched “ways to memorise” online (this is the great thing about the Internet), and I thought maybe using flashcards could be the solution for my needs.

The core principle behind flashcards is “spaced repetition”; apparently that’s something that plays well with the way brains decide to retain information. If something comes up often, maybe it’s important. The brain will put it in a “a bit more long term” memory and “sort of remember it”. If you then revisit yourself something you sort of remembered, the brain etches it a bit more into your memory, until it ends up being laserised into the depths of your brain forever (think how you remember your phone number, or your birthday, etc).

I was deeply sceptical initially, but I thought there wasn’t much to lose and much to gain if this method turned out to work for me.

You can buy pre-made flashcards with questions and answers for this course, or you can use online flashcard websites, but I know myself and I learn by doing and writing things. Plus there’s something satisfying about physically holding real cards.

So I got myself a stack of blank flashcards and got going. Of course I also had to learn how to make proper flashcards: they have to be very simple to answer; they’re not the place to do summaries. They have to trigger a quick fire answer once you get the “prompt”.

This is laborious, but the process of approaching each chapter with the view of breaking it down into flashcards really forced me to pay attention (i.e. an active role).

There seem to be various ways of doing this, but I had four stacks:

  1. New
  2. No idea
  3. Not sure
  4. I know this

New cards started in New.

Then during the day I would pick about 5 or 6 of the oldest cards from New, and see if I could answer them. If I more or less could answer a card, I moved it to Not sure. If I very clearly knew, I moved it to I know this. If I couldn’t answer at all, I moved it to the bottom of my current bunch, and did another pass. If after one or two passes I still did not remember or struggled with it, that was a sign that either:

  • I was tired and this was a futile exercise, it was time to stop
  • The flashcard needed breaking down into more cards or I needed to change its structure so it would make logical sense

So either I’d have a rest or set the card aside to revisit it later and decide what to do with it.

As an example, the typical cards I would have per country chapter would be something like:

  • Climate
  • Grape growing
  • Black grape varieties
  • White grape varieties
  • Facts about any of the grapes if significant or unique in the country (e.g. Torrontés in Argentina)
    • I’d try to list the expected levels in the same order as in the tasting structure: sweetness, acidity, tannins – to ensure I wouldn’t forget and also to get used to answer those per grape
  • Types of wines made with each of the grape varieties (one card per grape)
  • Law facts (e.g. types of appellation, sizes of geographical units protected by law, required aging time per type of wine, etc.)

Learning to explain things

Memorising facts is one thing. Explaining processes is very different!

Making the flashcards in a way forced me to summarise processes, which forced me to understand what they were about, and use my own words. But it is still not enough to answer the exam questions.

Fortunately, you can look at the sessions in the online Canvas system. Some sessions have online quizzes: this is the chance to prove that you know the content, as they replicate the style of questions that you get in the theory exam.

So I re-read the chapters corresponding to the sessions with an associated quiz.

Then I attempted the quiz (you can attempt them as many times as you want). The first attempt was always quite miserable, but I find that I learn from errors more than from thinking I know the content. So I would go back to the content and re-read the things I was wrong about. And re-take the quiz.

The interesting thing is that the questions on these quizzes also ask you questions about how the wines are made. The answers to those questions aren’t normally on each country’s individual chapter in general, but in the earlier chapters about grape growing, grape handling and wine making. This is why I said that if you start from really understanding how wines are made, then it’s easy to answer many of the exam questions.

Read to yourself

I would very often also read out my answers.

If they sound like they flow (i.e. do they sound natural if I read them out?), then it’s likely they will stay in my brain because they have clear language.

I often did the same to make sure the flashcards were memorable. This is especially important for us speakers of English as a second language: simple language is easier to remember!

An image is worth 1000 words

Speaking of clarity, I also found many of the sections in the textbook didn’t have enough pictures for me to interpret what they meant without a picture, specially the chapters about winemaking processes. How does pumping over look like? How does pressing differ from crushing grapes? Etc…

Fortunately, there’s a lot of wine enthusiasts writing about wine in great detail online, and also there are lots of great videos put online by wineries demonstrating things such as how do automatic riddling and disgorgement look like, for example.

I found seeing the processes in action helped me understand and retain the information better than if I tried to memorise and recite a description for a mechanical process I didn’t understand.

There are also some linked videos from the sessions in the canvas system. I sort of enjoyed watching them after studying and doing the quizzes, as they were a way to see the theory put into practice! I would make myself a tea and sit back and relax while the narrator showed things to me 😃

Do the homework

The more I used all these modes of learning the more I could retain information and the better I could answer the quizzes, so I felt more confident and less like I had a colander for brain.

And then half-way along the course we were given “homework”, which was actually to be marked by the tutor when we submitted it online.

This was helpful as it sort of made you accountable and “serious” about what you entered, and the corrections, although brief, were more specific and highlighted things I didn’t notice when self-marking with the sample answers, as I had been doing with the online quizzes. I wish we had done more of it and earlier, though!

To make it more similar to real exam conditions, I would write the questions down on a piece of paper and then set up a timer for 15 minutes. I then answered the questions on the paper, all by hand and without consulting any reference, to force my brain to engage with the information it might hold, and also to get used to the pace of the exam questions.

What is the specification actually good for?

One of the teachers said the first day that “anything in the textbook is fair game to be asked in the exam”.

Well, that’s not actually true.

  • In the specification:
    • Anything on a single column
    • Anything in bold on more than one column
  • Anything in bold in the textbook

is fair game!

The authors have tried to code the importance of things that way, which can make it very bewildering when you’re reading the book. Why are two out of three grapes in bold in this paragraph? It makes no typographical sense. It was driving me bananas!

It wasn’t until I listened to some podcast that explained how to use the specification and materials that I heard these facts and then things started making sense.

Not that I would use this method personally, but at least it gave me an idea of what to ignore. I really love to absorb knowledge, but you have to be strategic for the exam.

And… did it work?

I don’t know for sure yet! Maybe I messed up badly, but I had things to say about most of the questions 🙂

You are given 2 hours for the theory exam.

I answered the multiple choice section in about 10 minutes. I was unsure about 10 out of the 50 questions (they would have gone to the “No idea” stack of my flashcards!). I don’t think I got all of the other ones right, but I was confident enough to answer them quickly!

I then spent about 35 minutes on the rest of the exam. First I read the questions to get an idea of how difficult they would be. Then I moved to answering.

Out of the four sections, I was decently knowledgeable about three—the one I didn’t know much about was mostly about Chenin Blanc and for some reason I had not paid enough attention to that grape while studying.

But I had done so many of the practice quizzes and homework, that I think I had already seen and answered either the very same questions, or very similar questions in my pre-exam practice, so I mostly knew what to say and how to answer.

I spent the rest of the time making my tiny, fast scribbly writing a bit more readable, and adding a couple of details here and there, for completitude.

There are some key factors to keep in mind when answering:

  • wrong answers won’t lose you marks in the multiple choice section, so you should answer everything even if you’re not 100% sure
  • it’s important to answer the right question (this is why it’s important to practice so you’re calm, and have time to double check you understand the question before jumping to write an answer)
  • since each top question is subdivided into smaller sections, it’s not all or nothing – you might still get a portion of the answer right, and get some marks
  • the person marking the written answers will use a rubric to see if you cover the right elements of the answer. Again it won’t be all or nothing; you might get parts right. Try answering as much as possible! (although this might not work when you’re asked about facts, those you either know or not; you can try to wing it but only to a certain degree…)
  • this isn’t an English test so don’t stress if your language is a bit “simple” or rustic, as long as you state the right facts and processes, etc

This is very long already, so I will talk about the practice exam and share the resources I found in another post!

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