Stitch and Bear

A long-running Irish blog with reviews of the best restaurants in Dublin and throughout Ireland. Some wine and cocktails thrown in for good measure!

Saturday, April 16, 2016

[Opinion] My experience with WSET Level 2 Wine and Spirits

At the start of 2015 I had had been toying with the idea of taking formal wine classes for a while and had indeed already completed several casual wine tasting courses. I finally decided to bite the bullet and enrol for the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET) Level 2 Certificate in Wines and Spirits. There is a foundation Level 1, but it's entirely possible to go straight in at Level 2 if you already have a reasonably good knowledge of wine. 
There are several accredited teachers in Ireland, which you can find listed on the WSET website, but when I did my research, one name was consistently mentioned again and again. I therefore found myself in the very capable hands of Maureen O'Hara from Premier Wine Training. The classes took place at night, over the course of approximately 8 weeks, lasting 2 hours per class. I paid €440 which covered all classes, textbooks and study materials, a set of tasting glasses and the exam itself.



The course its described as being suitable for passionate consumers (a very kind term for passionate drinkers like myself) and people working in the hospitality or wine and spirits industry. My class of about 15 consisted of chefs, wine traders, off-license staff and restaurant waiters. For these people, it was part of their professional development, and I assume sponsored by their employers. I was initially a little nervous about sharing a class with professionals, but I quickly learned that we were all in the same boat.

The theme of the course is "Looking behind the label" and it's all about equipping you with the knowledge to interpret wine labels with confidence. The curriculum covers all major grape varieties, the geographies in which they are grown and how the final wine is influenced by climate. For instance, the widely grown Chardonnay grape will be crisp and flinty when coming from Chablis, but will show more tropical fruit flavours when grown in a warmer climate such as California. And this is before you even start to consider the influence of oak in the final product!

Each class featured about 6-8 wines for tasting, where we learned the WSET systematic approach to tasting wine. Trying to determine whether a wine is "lemon" or "golden" in appearance was a bit of a struggle at the start, but eventually terms like acidity, body and length started to make more sense and I found myself applying them with more understanding and consistency. When it comes to tasting wine, it really is true that practice makes perfect! We tasted a wide range of wines, from mass market to high-end, giving us a broad perspective. Let's just say that the Champagne and sparkling wine class was a firm favourite.

The classes flew by every night, and then it was time to study for the final exam. Even if you are a knowledgeable amateur, there's a fair amount of material to cover for the exam. Being the competitive high achiever that I am, I actually looked forward to the exam as a chance to test everything that I had learned. The exam itself went well, with a few tricky questions, and eventually I was thrilled when the envelope arrived with my results - Pass with Distinction - and a little lapel pin to announce my status.

What did I learn during the course

  • I now like red wine far more than I did. The course challenged my perceptions and got me interested in tasting wines that I would previously have walked past. A good, well-made wine will always be a good wine and I have learned to appreciate that, even if it's not to my personal preferences. This Christmas I chose a Saint-Émilion Grand Cru to accompany our turkey, and it was superb. I simply would not have chosen that wine before the course.
  • I now like oaky wines - As a person who started to drink wines in the late 1990s / early 2000s, I was put off by the heavily oaked white wines of that era. I now understand the use of oak in wine making and have come to really enjoy the buttery, toasty charm of a good Burgundy.
  • I now have confidence when the wine menu arrives at the table. In the past, my choices were based on past experience and I stuck with wines I knew I would like. I didn't fully understand the difference between a Burgundy and a Bordeaux; a Chablis or a Chardonnay. Now that I'm armed with a good basic knowledge, I frequently strike out with new wines. 
  • I learned to have confidence in my tasting. Once you learn the basic vocabulary (red fruit, black fruit, stone fruit and so on), you'll find yourself adding words that mean more to you. I think my high point was nosing a white wine and immediately thinking "blue cheese". It turns out that Women of Reproductive Age are naturally better tasters than men, so ladies, enjoy the benefits of a naturally enhanced nose.
  • Make sure to rinse out your tasting glasses when you come home from a tasting or a class. There's nothing worse than opening up your tasting glasses and finding dried-out wine at the bottom. 
  • I learned lots about the various wine regions and I've already visited Bordeaux. Next on the list will be Burgundy, the sherry bodegas of Jerez or perhaps the steep slopes of the Riesling-making Mosel region. Holidays have taken on a whole new dimension
  • I've met other like-minded, wine-loving souls, and have attended professional and private wine tastings. The more you taste, the more you learn, and these tastings are a great way to learn more about wines and the winemakers. For the average consumer, I really recommend the regular O'Briens wine tastings and fairs and the Ely wine events.
  • Be prepared for your passion to grow as this is a slippery slope. I had one small wine rack before this course. I now have two large wine racks, and I've started to buy wine in cases.
  • I have only just started my wine journey. I really want to take the Level 3 course, which is much more intensive and involves an exam with blind tastings. At the moment, I'm travelling lots for work, so it's not really possible, but you can bet your last bottle of Petrus that I'll be enrolling as soon as I can.
If you are thinking of studying for the WSET Level 2, or simply have a wine question that you want to ask, please feel free to comment below. I'm more than happy to share my experiences.
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