More ideas and resources to study for the WSET Level 3 Award in wines exam

If you haven’t yet, make sure to read part 1 (how to study the theory) and part 2 (how to prepare for the practice exam).

This is the final set of advice and tips I can share and which didn’t quite fit the previous installments 🙂

I’ve broken it down in various sections so it is a bit more palatable.

Do the work (at home)

Read the chapters for each session before the class.

If you don’t, you’re going to get drowned in information and spend the class making notes of things… that are already in the textbook somewhere. It’s better to do the reading ahead of time and make a note of anything that feels confusing or unclear to you, so when you go to the class you can focus on listening and maybe ask questions.

My aim every week was to have read all the chapters that we were meant to cover by Wednesday. Since the class was on Saturday, that gave me time to “mentally absorb” the content, and I did not spend the Friday rushing to read everything and then risk the chance of having “wine nightmares”.

It also allowed me to take it a bit easier on Thursday or Friday and just relax and watch the additional videos as a way of reinforcing what I had studied.

Use the online resources the school offers

There’s a lot of resources you can access if you sign up for the online learning platform the school uses (Canvas).

You will receive an invitation when you sign up for the course and pay the fees. It has things such as:

  • The slide decks used in the classes.
  • Additional videos that you’re supposed to watch in your own time because there’s not enough time to watch in the classroom. For example, explaining wine law in various countries.
  • Links to additional recommended viewing (these are links to YouTube videos).
  • Exercises to practice (short and longer answers).
  • Quizzes to test yourself (some get automatically scored, so you see how you’re doing, while you have to self-mark yourself using a rubric or example answers).

English will only get you so far

One of the beauties of wine is that it is made all over the world. Unfortunately, since the course is in English and so is most of the written content that you will find, there’s this tendency to “anglicise” everything which causes the loss of much context that can help you understand and retain information.

In particular:

Learn the correct pronunciations of important terms

I heard most people trying to pronounce things with an English accent. Which while understandable, is a bit sad as you are literally throwing away all chances of remembering any geographical specifics.

For example, you can be lax and pronounce “Syrah” and “Shiraz” almost interchangeably, but turns out there’s a difference between styles, and if you learn to pronounce the right way, you hint your brain to remember what style is made where: the French use “Syrah”, pronounced “seeegah”, which sounds so very French to me. In contrast, “Shiraz” is pronounced somehow like “sheeraas” and the “SH” at the beginning reminds me of the SunSHine in South Africa, Australia, etc. And does not sound French to me. Very different styles!

Another example could be Albarinho (Portuguese) and Albariño (Spanish). I heard some horrifying pronunciations in several youtube videos which I won’t link to, where people gratuitously overdid the R and made it a very strong R, which is really unnecessary as the R between letters in Spanish is soft. You need a double R to make it a rolling R! And turns out that virtually the two words sound the same in either language, but the the “ñ” sound in Portuguese is represented with the “nh” digraph: ahl-bah-ree-neeoo (roughly; the nee has to be quite nasal).

Once you know this, you can associate the Albariño word with Spain, because Spain’s name in Spanish also has an ñ: España!

Learning vocabulary will pay off too

I felt it bemusing that some people seemed to refuse to learn foreign words.

For example, the German categories for Prädikatswine wine. People seemed intimidated by the length of the words; even an instructor did make some light fun of it… to which I say: nonsense! it actually is quite logical!

German people seem to like logical, measurable systems: while they categorise flours by the weight of ash left behind after incinerating 100 grams of dry flour, they categorise wines by how much sugar is present in the wine at harvest, measured in Oeschle degrees or “°Oe”. The more sugar that is present in the grapes, the heavier the must weight will be. Simple, matter of fact classifications!

And the logic follows: the labels for the categories relate to the type of grapes you need to use to obtain such weight levels. Less sugar = earlier harvest, with just ripe grapes. More sugar = later harvest or the sugars are concentrated in the berries somehow.

Unfortunately when some people see the names in the first column their brain shuts down and they stop processing any further 🙁

This is a pity, because except for Kabinett every other term is a compound noun, which you can break down into its constituent parts, and it stops being a scary long word and just becomes a funny long word. And you can pretend to be German and read them aloud!

CategoryTranslationWine style°Oe
Kabinett“cupboard”—the good wines that you set aside for special occasionsdry to medium sweet70-85
SpätleseSpät-lese = “late harvest”, picked about 1-2 weeks later than normal harvest time, so the grapes are riperdry to medium sweet76-95
AusleseAus-lese = “selected harvest”, especially selected bunches dry to sweet83-105
BeerenausleseBeeren-aus-lese = “berry selected harvest”, especially selected berriessweet110-128
EisweinEis – wine = Ice-wine [Note that although the method to concentrate sugar for this category is not based in picking riper grapes, they’re in this position in the table because we only care about the MUST WEIGHT]sweet110-128
TrockenbeerenausleseTrocken-beeren-aus-lese = “dried berry selected harvest”, specially selected dried berriessweet150-154

Another case where it helps to learn words from a foreign language is all the vocabulary around sherry making. And it merits an entire post on its own, but for example once you realise that the Spanish word for “floor” is “suelo”, then the fact that the closest level to the floor is called “solera” makes total sense. Likewise, “criadera” roughly translates to a place for nursing or bringing something/someone up, which also illustrates the method of aging Sherry by bottling the older, more aged wine, and refilling the older levels with younger wine. Just as each year a new intake of kids gets into the nursery and over the course of the years they progress to more advanced courses by moving between classrooms—except you don’t bottle them at the end! 😀

Learning techniques

Each of us has different ways of learning, and it seems that the more senses we use to engage with a subject, the more information we retain for longer!

So I tried mixing things up (also to avoid losing my sanity!!)

Using flashcards

I had not used them properly before, perhaps because when you study engineering there’s very little to memorise, and much to understand! Cue page after page of formulas and equations…

But people swore by them, so I decided to just buy some spare cards and try making my own.

I think it’s very important that you make yours rather than use cards someone else has made. It’s the process of synthesising the data and turning it into card-sized information that helps with retaining information. Again, very similar to understanding and retaining the names of the German wine classifications: you need to stop and understand in order to retain.

I found this article useful: 8 better ways to make and study flash cards

Not wanting to repeat myself: I described how I’d make flash cards in part 1.

In a way, I found that writing flash cards was like writing presentations and speeches: your brain remembers better when things flow and follow naturally.

Spreadsheets

In addition to cards I also made a few spreadsheets to track what I had studied or tasted, or to look at the same things but in different ways (using pivot tables).

For example I had a spreadsheet listing countries, regions, grapes and styles of wine made with the grapes. A pivot table turned that on its head and listed grapes, then countries and the styles of wines which the grapes were turned into. This was specially interesting with popular grapes such as Cabernet Sauvignon which are made into lots of different styles around the world.

This isn’t the place to explain how to use a spreadsheet, but I figured it would be worth sharing the idea and maybe it inspires you! (my spreadsheet is not in sharing condition!)

Mindmaps

Another tool that I used sometimes to sketch hierarchies quickly without actually writing things down was MindNode, a macOS app. Although you can probably find mind mapping software for other systems, as this idea has been around for a while now!

For example I’d use it to try and capture all the typical descriptors for Merlot depending on the country and style of wine (so a bit like what I did with the spreadsheet I mentioned above).

This was helpful to see parallelisms and be playful in moving nodes around. Some written exercises were easier to answer once you had made a mind map. For example, listing high quality wines made in a French style but in Australia or the Americas.

Podcasts and other materials from ThirtyFifty

There’s a wine education company called ThirtyFifty, which apart from teaching the Level 3 course too, also has a podcast that covers topics related to Level 3. Some episodes cover only materials that are in the course, but other episodes include more content than you’re actually meant to know to pass the exam.

I found the podcast a nice complement to the lessons, and I would listen to it when going on walks in the park, so now each time I walk some areas of Regent’s Park I can’t but remember some of the episodes I listened to while walking there! Apparently your brain can retain a lot more information if you’re walking while listening, so maybe that’s why.

There are some really good episodes such as the one on how to do the blind tasting, the one on Gamay and carbonic maceration, or the ones covering specific grapes, because he takes content from multiple country chapters in the book and then puts it together side by side. So it’s another view onto the same data, which can be refreshing.

The “bonus” chapters are very interesting if you’re a knowledge sponge like me, because Chris interviews people such as producers and asks them questions from a Level 3 point of view, which ties nicely with the theory you’re meant to know.

This company also offer a set of wine samples for Level 3, which was really useful to practice additional tasting at home at my own pace. You can buy it separately from them even if you’re not enrolled on the course with them, which is what I did.

Wake up and smell the… actual things

I noticed that various teachers recommended this: get your hands on as many “examples” of the actual descriptors as you can, and smell and taste them.

For example, I got a selection of dried raisins, figs, dates, sultanas, plums, apricots, etc, and tried guessing which one was which with the help of Devvers who selected and handed them to me while I kept my eyes closed.

I also tried to do the same with fresh fruits, although it took me a while to source actual gooseberries and some of those “exotic” English berries such as blackcurrants which aren’t normally available in supermarkets (I got them from an vegetable delivery store).

In general, my advice would be to try to smell as many things as possible and try to “fine tune” your nose and tongue as much as you can, firstly because once you put a name to a smell/flavour it’s hard to forget it, and secondly because it’s fun! You’ll be surprised at the amount of smells you can pick up in other food and drinks—I’m in particular amazed that I can pick up “savoury” smells both in red wine, sake, mushrooms and coffee!

Get deeper into geography

At some point I just ended up taking maps from the slide decks available in the online resources and printing the maps of each wine region of France, because I struggled to remember all the domaines and chateaux and cities and towns and villages and oh my god France why do you make so much wine everywhere?!?!?! So I stuck them to the wall and I was looking at them all the time. ALL THE TIME.

That was a way of remembering details, but although the text book has some maps and the work book has some slightly bigger and detailed maps none of them are zoomable to move between contexts, and also their elevation data was a bit unclear to me. In addition, the text book often vaguely references geographical features such as the “sand dunes” next to Bordeaux, which are not marked in the map, but would clarify lots of things for students if these were shown and pinpointed clearly. So, anything that I could not locate in the map or was unclear to me? I would look for it in the internet and then added a “pin” to my Apple Maps—I made a collection called “Wines” so I could refer to these features in context!

In this case used Apple Maps out of curiosity (also trying to avoid Google knowing everything about me), but Google Maps are perhaps more powerful, specially if you pair it with Google Earth to see mountain ranges in 3D-ish and etc. That said, both were equally crappy at finding names of things in the local language.

I still wish Google Earth rendered the elevation of mountains and gorges and etc a bit more exaggeratedly so you could use it in a more educational manner, but it’s still better than the maps in the workbook (for example, to locate where the lakes and rivers are), and the ability to see satellite imagery was super insightful. You can really see how the vineyards switch locations for example around the Rhein river to maximise exposure to the sun.

Of course I can’t finish this list of helpful resources without mentioning Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s The World Atlas Of Wine, whose 8th edition I have, signed by the one and only Jancis, and which I consulted frequently to get overviews of regions and wines in a more colourful and animated way than the ultracondensed, spartan text book version. Little did I know when I went to that event that I would go on to study this course!!

I will admit that I considered that book as my good luck omen all throughout the course! 🤓

And with that, I wish you good luck if you’re studying for this exam!

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