Earlier this year I took the decision to learn more about wine and to gain a formal qualification. After some research I discovered the Wine and Spirit Education Trust (WSET). They run several courses, suitable for beginners and wine experts alike.
Why WSET Level 2?
The most suitable one for me was Level 2 in Wine and Spirits aka WSET Level 2. It’s 3 days and an exam at the end of it. It gives a good grounding in wine tasting, wine history and wine appreciation including learning how to read a wine label. It’s suitable for wine and spirits novices (like me!)
Taken from the WSET website “this qualification explores the major grape varieties and important wine regions in which they are grown. You’ll learn about the styles of wines produced from these grapes as well as key classifications and labelling terminology. A basic overview of the key categories of spirits and liqueurs will also be provided. Upon successful completion you will receive a WSET certificate and lapel pin, and will be able to use the associated WSET certified logo.“
If you’d like to find out more about the course the full specification is here.
Where to do the course?
When doing my research I found out that there are different ways of doing the course and several different companies who run them in the south of England.
After much deliberation I decided to go to the Plumpton College Wine Centre in East Sussex. It’s an easy drive from where I live and there is a winery onsite which is visited as part of the course. I also liked the idea of making local contacts.
Pre-course homework and to take with you
A couple of weeks before the course started I received a pack of information in the post with some homework to be done before the course itself. There’s a workbook, a laminated copy of the Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine and a reference manual.
It recommends 28 hours of study time, before/outside the 16 hours of classroom time and personally I highly recommend that you do this if you are a beginner (also see tips below for online study/podcasts hints).
A spittoon is required – I found a suitable spittoon (you spit out most of the 40 wines/spirits you taste otherwise you would get extremely inebriated) however some people used large plastic bottles.
The course itself
Their course runs over 3 consecutive days with the one hour exam on day four. Then it’s a wait of a month or so for the exam results.
Each of the three days is a mixture of learning about wine and wine tasting. Over the 3 days we tasted 30 (20 red and 10 white) still wines, 4 sparking wines, 2 sweet wines, 2 ports and 2 sherries. I discovered I really don’t like sherry, port is ok and I prefer white to red wine. At the end of the day we all got to choose wines to take home with us.
It’s multiple choice and 50 questions in 1 hour.
Ensure you take the practice exams in the handbook and redo any you don’t get right after rechecking your notes/handbook/reference book.
I found it ok, everything was covered in the course. There was however a lot to remember so knowing your wines/wine regions really helps.
Tips for success
- I visited several vineyards prior to the course and gained some understanding of grape growing and which grapes are used in which wines (e.g. English sparkling/Champagne is generally Champagne/Pinot Noir/Pinot Meunier or one of more of these grapes)
- I listened to several podcasts from ThirtyFifty (so called as this is the location of grape growing across the world). They also do the WSET Level 2 course in London.
- I sat practice exams several times so I became more familiar with different wine types (Tokaji or Trockenbeerenauslese anyone?). Search online to find practice exams.
- Take a look at the wines you have at home or in a supermarket/wine merchant. Inspect the labels and notice what information is on there. I took photos of the wines on my wine rack and then used what I had learned to assess them. It may help to visit a wine merchant or supermarket and look at the labels in between the days of the course. It certainly made a lot more sense when I did this after the course.
- When attending the course do not wear perfume/aftershave/anything strong smelling as this may affect the wine tastings. Also avoid strong tasting foods as they will affect your palate.
- Make notes in your workbook and in the reference book that came in the pack. Use a highlighter pen and post-it notes so you can find things easily.
- Don’t judge yourself against other people on the course. There will always be people who have more experience than you. The wine tastings are your own personal palate and what you like someone else will dislike and vice versa. Personally I found the dry sherry tasted like petrol but other people loved it.
I really enjoyed doing the course at Plumpton for several reasons:
- Knowledgeable tutors (thanks Paul and Lindsay) who went beyond the scope of the course and shared lots of extra information with us
- A permanent wine tasting room with individual booths.
- Loads of interesting people on the course (around 20 of us) including a couple of local vineyard owners – thanks to Kieran from Sedlescombe Vineyard who brought some of his organic wine for us to celebrate after the exam.
- The tour of the winery explaining how everything works.
- The fabulous location (set at the foot of the South Downs and with wonderful views)
- The opportunity to do other/further qualifications in wine
A Pass with Merit (72%), a certificate and a lapel pin. Very happy!
WSET Level 2 is disappearing
This course is only available until 31 January 2020. After that it splits into separate Level 2 qualifications for Wine and for Spirits. Find out more on the WSET website.