Saturday 27 April 2013

Marking a Milestone

This March, two years after starting Éclaircissage, the hours of study and tasting over said period were validated when a letter came in the mail stating that I had successfully passed all the exams required for the WSET Diploma. The journey has had its share of ups and downs, the high point being invited to judge at the Decanter Asia Wine Awards last September.

For current and future Diploma candidates, this post serves to provide some insight into what is required to pass the exams. The tips contained may not be effective for everyone, and doubtless most will find their own path to navigating the Diploma requirements. Those who are fortunate enough to be taking the Diploma in a wine producing country, or one that has a thriving wine scene will benefit from natural advantages.

The Diploma consists of six modules as listed below:
•    Unit 1 – The Global Business of Alcoholic Beverages
•    Unit 2 – Wine Production
•    Unit 3 – Light Wines of the World
•    Unit 4 – Spirits of the World
•    Unit 5 – Sparkling Wines of the World
•    Unit 6 – Fortified (Liqueur) Wines of the World

Units 1 and 2 are pure theory based examinations which do not include any tasting component. The units do not need to be taken sequentially, and for most students Unit 2 will be the first paper, consisting of 100 multiple choice questions. This is the easiest paper, and may trick some candidates into thinking that the Diploma is a breeze, which it is most assuredly not. Unit 1 consists of a research assignment and a closed book case study. Many candidates struggle with this unit, but for those who put in the necessary hours of research it should not be too difficult, even for those not working in the wine trade. The remaining units comprise of essay-based theory exams and practical tastings. For Units 4, 5 and 6, it is possible to pass the unit if the aggregate mark of the theory and tasting papers is a pass. For Unit 3, the candidate must pass both theory and tasting papers separately.

The theory and practical examinations require distinctly different skills. The strategies to pass both are listed below.

Theory Examinations


The Diploma specification suggests a minimum of ten hours of study per week. This is not an exaggeration; it really does demand a continued, persistent effort to memorise all the facts and numbers that you will be called upon to regurgitate in a very limited span of time.


The National Library of Singapore has a top-notch collection of electronic resources and wine books. Although the Oxford Companion to Wine will be sufficient to pass the theory papers for Units 3, 5 and 6, Unit 1 will require substantial research and an extensive list of references. For Units 2 and 4, the relevant texts will be supplied in the study pack that is sent to you at the beginning of the Diploma.


If you travel extensively (as most wine people are wont to do), the ability to access the Oxford Companion to Wine online via a subscription to Jancis Robinson’s Purple Pages is a boon compared to carrying the 3 kg book around. Combine this with Sean Welch’s online links to the relevant entries in each unit (available at and you will be able to sneak in study time whenever you are free by using your mobile device. The articles on are also mighty useful in keeping up to date with happenings in the wine world.


While the pass rates can make for pretty grim reading, it gives candidates an idea of what examiners are expecting, as well as the format of the theory questions. Under exam pressure, the most basic of mistakes can be made, including answering more questions than necessary, or failing to grasp key points in the question. I myself fell prey to this when I misread the compulsory question for Unit 3 and as a result wasted fifteen precious minutes redrafting my answer. 

Practical Examinations


It may be possible to taste all the wines required for the Diploma by oneself, but apart the substantial cost, I am almost certain that drinking several bottles of wine at one go would be detrimental to one’s well-being. A pleasant circumstance of pursuing the Diploma was the many acquaintances I have made both within and without the wine industry, people who have freely shared their opinion of wine and who have helped calibrate my palate.


It is incredibly tempting, during the tasting examinations, to form a conclusion as to what the wine is immediately and to force the tasting note to reflect the characteristics of the assumed wine. As difficult as it is, a candidate should not attempt to even think about what the wine is until the rest of the tasting note has been written. Relatively little marks are given for correctly guessing the grape variety and region, as compared to the other characteristics of the wine. An important section is the evaluative part of the paper, where candidates may be asked to either judge the quality of a wine, or the potential for further aging. Although these are the two most common questions, candidates may also be asked to explain the production method or climatic influences. It is not enough to simply provide a one-line answer, the rationale must be clearly argued.


Although spirits is covered briefly in the Advanced Certificate, in the Diploma much more attention is given to this topic, and a candidate cannot obtain the Diploma without completing this unit. Surprisingly, I found Unit 4 to be less challenging than the others, one of the reasons being that the different types of spirits are fairly easy to tell apart. Even within the same category, e.g. whisky, the notes of a bourbon are very distinct from an Islay whisky. Those minibar sized bottles that are easily available from liquor stores were extremely helpful. Spirits do not oxidise as fast as wines, so you can taste over the course of several days to get the flavour characteristics firmly imprinted in your palate memory. It is worth noting that the lexicon for describing spirits differs somewhat from that of wines, and the unit requires that a candidate taste a wide range of spirits to be familiar with the many categories.


Putting aside the kind of tasting notes that are published in wine magazines, the WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine is unbending when it comes to the terminology used in exams. For example, straw is not an accepted colour for appearance in white wines even though some would equate it with lemon. Tawny and amber are descriptions for red and white wines respectively, using one in place of the other would gain nil points. Points are also assigned to the various characteristics of a wine; if a candidate fails to list one attribute, that mark cannot be regained elsewhere. So even if a candidate has a complete and descriptive list of aromas, if the candidate has not described the intensity of those aromas a perfect score would not be possible. The examiners’ report has extensive examples of what differentiates a poor tasting note from a good one.

The WSET Diploma is probably one of the most challenging qualifications one can attempt, but it is truly an enjoyable and rewarding achievement. To view it as purely a paper qualification is to miss the point, it offers fantastic opportunities to meet people and an introduction into an exciting and dynamic industry. All the best to those who chose to take up the gauntlet!