WSET Level 1: beginning to learn about wine

Posted by Mirela Mart

After a year’s break to soothe my ego after the fiasco of my first attempt to taste wine in a professional way, I decided to go and learn more about wine with WSET. This article is a look back at the first course I did – the WSET Level 1 Award in Wines.

Introducing the Wine and Spirit Education Trust

The Wine and Spirit Education Trust is the UK professional body that offers qualifications in wine and spirits for professionals and enthusiasts like me). My first thought was that I was only going to do the first two levels, but then the knowledge bug got to me and made me continue with the studies and wine exploration.

wset logo

So, here I was, in September 2014, going for two Saturdays to attend Level 1, a level that doesn’t teach you much of the nerdy wine wisdom you hear from Oz Clarke and other wine experts, but introduces some essential concepts about tasting and food pairing.

It was also funny to have the wine tasting class as a session before the multiple choice exam! Yay! They didn’t let us have wine before exams when I was at school.

What did I learn?

  1. There is a systematic approach to evaluating and tasting wine. Tasting wine professionally is different than drinking and spitting is required.
  2. Personal preference in the style of wine is irrelevant. One can still judge a wine objectively even if that wine is not their cup of tea.
  3. Food pairing changes the characteristics of wine. Some wines, especially the ones high in tannin can rarely be drank by themselves and they require pairing with food.

WSET Level 1 systematic approach to tasting

The concepts introduced during the WSET Level 1 course were quite simple, but they are the backbone of understanding the professional language of wine and what to get out of a wine tasting note. Now that I’m at Level 3, these concepts are still in play, albeit in more details.

Let me try to summarise below some of them. They’re useful for anyone who is interested in wine.

Colour: red – rose – white

Colour is self-explanatory and we can all identify it when looking at the glass. Of course, there are variations in colour which can give hints about the age of the wine and the grape varietal, but this is more advanced knowledge.

Condition: clean – unclean

You can check the condition of a wine by looking at it and smelling it. Unless you have ordered a wine you expect to be cloudy, for example an unfiltered ‘natural wine’, if it is not bright and clean-looking, you should send it back.

A bit of sediment is completely fine, typically in an older bottle. Also, small, transparent tartrate crystals won’t affect the taste or quality of the wine.

On the nose, if the wine smells like vinegar, rotten eggs or (especially) damp cardboard, is almost certainly faulty and should be sent back. Yes, it’s okay to send back wine if it is out of condition.

Sweetness: dry – medium – sweet

The majority of the wine on the market is dry, as this is what consumers seem to want. (They’re wrong, of course, an off-dry or even a sweet wine can be a delight.)  When all the sugar in the grape juice turns into alcohol, the wine is said to be ‘dry’.

Wine tasting for beginners CTA

Body: light – medium – full

Wine textbooks use the comparison with milk to explain the concept of body. A light wine will have the texture of skimmed milk, a medium bodied more like whole milk, while a full-bodied one will be like milk with cream. For me, if the wine is almost watery in my mouth, I would say it is light bodied. If it is heavy, rich, coats the inside of my mouth and I feel like I am drinking something more concentrated, I would call it full bodied.

Aroma and flavour characteristics

You can often find fruits, flowers, spices and other types of aromas and flavours in wine. We did not go into too many details at this stage. The details can come later. I agree. Most cheap plonk does just smell ‘like wine’ with vague aromas and tastes. That’s fine. But more expensive, more interesting and better-made wine can have extraordinarily complex flavour characteristics. Even if I don’t always ponce about discussing ‘hints of blackcurrant leaf and pencil shavings’ and all those other wonderful wine words, one of the delightful things about studying wine is opening up to these subtle flavours and (slowly) learning to detect and enjoy them.

Wine aroma wheel

For a preview of some of the wonderful language of wine, here is a helpful table of wine aromas. Original Source: Wine Aroma Wheel by Wine Folly

Others: acidity and tannin

Acidity is the sensation of mouth-watering and tartness while chewing/ swirling the wine in the mouth. The analogy used most of the time is lemon. If you feel that after you drink the wine your mouth produces a lot of saliva, that wine is high in acidity.

Tannin is the bitter, gripping sensation in your mouth. Like the tannin in a strong cup of tea, tannins in red wine can be harsh or pleasant, fine or coarse. The way one can experience tannin is through the mouth-drying sensation around the gums, similar to drinking black tea or eating dark chocolate.

Where next after WSET Level 1?

WSET Level 1 is very much an entry-level qualification. It takes a couple of days’ study at WSET or you can do the course at one of many other providers. After that comes Level 2 which gets into more of the details of grape varieties and countries. Level 3 is a professional course that requires a considerable investment of time. Then comes the diploma and finally – for a dedicated, expert few – the Master of Wine.

Update 29 December 2019: Mirela and I went on to complete our Diploma this year and we wrote a more comprehensive guide to wine tasting for beginners.

Wine tasting for beginners CTA