Saturday 18th and 25th January, 1st February 2020 – WSET Level 2 in Wine
So as some people will know last year (2019) I turned 60 and a group of my friends clubbed together to pay for me to take at least one of the Wine and Spirit Education Trust wine courses, the WSET Level 2 Award in Wines, which is aimed at professionals and amateurs alike. It took a while to find a suitable set of dates to do the course which can be done in evening sessions or full days but I finally settled on three full days of instruction with the North London Wine School, which runs its courses at the London Irish Centre in Camden, a 20-30 minute walk from Euston, the mainline station I would come into to get there.
I’d already established that doing the Level 1 Award would be a waste of time and money for me, so Level 2 it would be.The description is promising: “The WSET Level 2 Award in Wines is the ideal course for beginners wishing to learn about a wide range of wines, as well as those seeking to build on the introductory knowledge gained with the WSET Level 1 Award in Wines. You’ll gain knowledge of the principal and regionally important grape varieties of the world, the regions in which they are grown, and the styles of wine they produce. Through a combination of tasting and theory, you’ll explore the factors that impact style and quality and learn how to describe these wines with confidence.”
It sounded good to me! I was the first person there on the initial day having wanted to avoid the sort of problems than can beset anyone trying to travel by train at a weekend, mostly cancelled/late running trains, and had enjoyed a walk along the Regents Canal towpath to get there rather than having to walk along the main roads with their pedestrian-unfriendly pollution levels, so I was raring to go.
My fellow students were all around half my age or even younger, but proved to be a friendly bunch, with most of them just interested in wine, rather than looking to make a profession of it (though one of the young women was about to go into hotel management and felt it would be useful for her). Beth, the instructor, was engaging and entertaining, and had the answers to pretty much anything anyone could ask after a career as a sommelier prior to becoming a specialist teacher. She knew her stuff and she knew how to teach.
We started with some introductory stuff and she quickly established how much people did or did not know before we launched into some tastings and an explanation of the very handy “WSET Level 2 Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine®(SAT)” which we were helped to understand and to use. We also got stuck into a handful of what WSET considers to be the eight principal grape varieties. Some writers will argue there are more than that but for our purposes, eight was quite enough to be going on with. Of the eight (Chardonnay, Pinot Grigio/Gris, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Pinot Noir and Syrah/Shiraz) we would work our way through four on the first day, along with a lot of information about the style and quality of wines made with these grapes (and others). We got through Pinot Grigio, Riesling, Chardonnay, Shiraz and Pinot Noir during the course of the day and by the end of it we were probably all wondering if any of the information being handed to us was ever actually going to sink in… I know I was!
The technical stuff, about the way in which environmental factors, grape-growing, wine-making and maturation options influence the style and quality of the wines. Some of it I was already familiar with anyway after our various tours of places like Alsace, the Mosel, Baden, Porto, Champagne and Bordeaux which put me at a slight advantage over the youngsters, most of whom were London-based and thus financially crippled by having to find their rent on a monthly basis.
By the end of Day 1 we’d covered three of the six learning outcomes for Level 2 in some detail. These were:
- Learning Outcome 1
Understand the environmental influences and grape-growing options in the vineyard and how
these will impact the style and quality of wine.
- Learning Outcome 2
Understand how wine making and bottle ageing influence the style and quality of wine.
- Learning Outcome 3
Understand how environmental influences, grape-growing options, wine making and bottle ageing influence the style and quality of wines made from the principal grape varieties.
We had also touched on Learning Outcome 6, which is to “understand the key principles and processes involved in the storage and service of wine, and in
the pairing of food and wine”. This was especially interesting as we tried wine against various food items including a slice of Parma ham and a slice of lemon, to demonstrate the effects of fatty, salty food on wine, and of acidic food on wine.
We would learn more on all three of these on the following two days as well, but we’d made a pretty convincing start.
Day 2, the following Saturday, saw us doing more group quizzes, and then getting stuck into rather a lot of tastings, including a blind tasting first thing. Again, there was a lot of interaction, Beth was again fun, engaging and informative, and we got to take an open bottle home if we wanted to (I snagged a Rioja). We were now progressing inexorably towards the third day and the dreaded exam, so we spent the last hour working through practice questions and starting to panic about what we didn’t know yet!
We were, by now, pretty sure we’d covered Learning Outcome 4 though (“Know the style and quality of wines produced from regionally important black and white grape varieties”) given the number of wines we’d tasted. It’s intended to include “the style and quality of wines made from 22 regionally important grape varieties and produced in over 70 geographical indications (GIs) around the world, and I think it’s fair to say we’d worked through quite a lot of them, if not all of them. We still had a handful left for Day 3 (mostly Italian for some reason).
Day 3 also saw us cover something that I did know quite a lot about in advance, even without reading the relevant sections of the text book. I’m pretty confident on sparkling wines and fortified wines, given our time in Champagne and in Porto, though there was still stuff to learn on “how the production process can influence the styles of sparkling and fortified wines”. Somehow, having been to some of the regions made it easier to grasp what we were being taught.
Finally, after tastings of sherry, port and sparkling wine (interestingly around half the group really didn’t like the sherry, a rather nice Manzanilla) though they mostly loved the 10 year old tawny port, we were chased out of the room while it was set up for the exam.
We would have to answer 50 multiple choice questions and would have an hour to do so. Eventually we were allowed back in and seated at our individual desks, the question paper in front of us. I knew I was going to struggle a little with some of the grape/wine style questions, but was reasonably optimistic about a lot of the technical stuff. My game plan was to go through the paper for the first time answering the questions that I absolutely knew the answers to, and then go back to the ones I wasn’t sure about.
In the end I was able to answer at least 40 of the questions straight off the bat, no hesitation or doubt or guesswork at all. That left me with 10 questions to tackle. A closer look and around 3 of them became obvious. The others I had to try and access the old RAM in my head to try and pull the answers to the front of my mind. I did my best, then did a double check to make sure I had marked the answers I wanted to give in the correct space on the answer paper. When I looked up, satisfied that I’d done all I could, there were still 40 minutes left! I knew if I started to mess with my answers, I risked second guessing myself, so I managed to catch Beth’s eye. We’d been told we could leave the room after 15 minutes had passed, so I was escorted to the door, my papers collected up by Beth.
I sat outside on my own for another 20 minutes before anyone else came out, hoping I hadn’t freaked the others out too much. Eventually, everyone was out, and we drank the leftover wines from the day to celebrate finishing the course, before heading for home to await the results.
And when my email came through I was delighted to be told: “I’m so pleased to let you know you passed your WSET Level 2 exam with 90%, Distinction!” Yes! To celebrate I bought the Level 3 book so I could start working on it, with intent to do the course some time in 2021. I’d recommend the North London Wine School wholeheartedly after my experience with them.
There were a couple of downsides, though one was relatively minor. The other possibly not so minor as we only got handed the textbook and workbook for the course on arrival, which wouldn’t have been a problem were it not for the bit that said “You will be expected to have read the provided textbook prior to commencing the course – this will be sent to you upon booking.” It wasn’t so we hadn’t, though it would have been helpful if we had been able to. The end result was a lot of mad catching up by reading and making copious notes every evening, along with two days holiday prior to the final day where I went through the entire book again, making notes and more notes and then notes on notes as I tried to make everything stick.
The other – very minor – issue was that we got less tastings in than if we’d done the course at WSET’s premises, but it was also consequently quite a lot cheaper so you’ll get no complaint from me about that. I am happy to have saved a sum towards Level 3!
Oh, and if you do go there, here are a couple of recommendations for food in the area. Some of us discovered the very friendly, very Portuguese cafe across the road from the centre, the Temptation Coffee Bar, where lunch was cheap and very, very good (I recommend the bitoque, a tender steak with a fried egg for £10) as was the full breakfast I had on the final morning (£6 including coffee). On days 2 and 3 we went en masse to the equally good, though slightly more expensive, Casa Tua, where a good plate of pasta can be had for around £12-£15 a fairly substantial portion.