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Wet stones and other WSET befuddlements

Published:  20 May, 2022

As a Senior Reporter for Harpers, I am required to know a thing or two about wine. This was made clear when I was appointed three months ago, after three years of working as a general news reporter for numerous titles.

I was hired, I think, because of my skills as a journalist rather than my knowledge of wine.

Since then, I have put my experience in news reporting to much use, and there has been no shortage of headlines in the world of wine, from the government’s VAT increase to New Zealand’s chronic Sauvignon Blanc shortage. 

When I heard I was going on a wine crash course to bring my knowledge up to speed, I was filled with the same dread my teenage self felt month after month arriving at the driving theory test centre, only to return home to tell my parents that I had failed once again. 

“Well, is it that much of a surprise when you don’t revise, James,” said my mum on more than one occasion. That was a fair point, and after five failed attempts, I eventually learnt my lesson on the sixth try and scraped a pass.

Aside from the obvious embarrassment, what’s the worst that could happen if I failed my Level 2 WSET exam (apparently, I can bypass stage 1)? Would I have to retake the test and taste another 43 very good/outstanding wines over three days? That doesn’t sound too bad to me. 

As I’m already aware, there’s more to tasting wine than simply swirling the liquid around your mouth and feeling a bit tingly inside. Still, I wasn’t aware how complex it all was until my WSET bumper pack arrived in the post, complete with a laminated lexicon that included aromas and flavours like “wet stone” and “forest floor”.

Several hours into my first day on the course and my nose was tired, yes, tired, like an overworked bicep in the gym, from straining to smell anything other than lemon, strawberry or alcohol. It was at this point that I received some valuable advice from my instructor.

“Class, if you are struggling to identify some of the secondary and tertiary aromas, then next time you are in a supermarket, smell the different fruits, herbs and spices they have to offer to better tune your senses,” he said.

Since then, I have looked upon fruit and veg aisles like perfume stands in airports. I now smell a lychee like I would smell a sample of Givenchy. 

I wonder who the face of lychee would be as I take in the aqueous, delicately rosy scent of the roughly-textured fruit… Florence Pugh, definitely Florence Pugh.

Day 2 and I start to distinguish between red fruit flavours and black fruit flavours, green fruit aromas and citrus fruit aromas. Believe it or not, I was even able to detect a few secondary and tertiary notes, namely brioche for some reason, but also dried fruit, caramel and honey.

In retrospect, the practical tastings were the most enlivening aspects of the course, but, educationally speaking, I wanted to know more about the winemaking process. 

To learn the game of football, for example, it is beneficial to experience it on the field as a player as well as in the stands or in the armchair as a spectator.

As a budding wine writer, I felt it was essential to understand how the wine is made, and after completing the course at a theory level, I am keen to learn how to make wine on-site in a vineyard.

The biggest headache for me wasn’t the fortified wine tastings but the omnishambles that is wine labelling/geography. 

Why is Argentina different from Spain, why is Spain different from France, and why is Bordeaux different from Burgundy? 

By my reckoning, a Rioja Gran Reserva and a Chateauneuf-du-Pape are on relatively equal footing, so why not label them both as ‘Champions League’ wines and be done with it?

Clearly, I still have much more to learn about this bizarre world of wine, but I’m excited for the future and incredibly grateful to the wonderful people I have already met along the way, all of whom have been very patient and generous with their time.

See you at Level 3 (or the Level 2 re-take).