If you're preparing for your WSET D3 exams you might be feeling a little overwhelmed right now. Aside from the mountain of information you're trying to retain, there is the physiological aspect to the tasting exam which can seem daunting. The good news is that just a little bit of mind-body preparation can help you turn up match fit and give yourself the best chance to shine. This definitely isn't the exam to turn up to dehydrated, high on coffee and red bull after an all nighter of cramming!
So here I'm passing on a few common sense ideas and tips that might help you feel well prepared, relaxed and in control:
Also check out my post on passing D3 Theory without losing your mind
How to Prep your Palate in the days before your WSET Diploma exams:
- A few days before be extra careful and aware with hot drinks or food to avoid burning your tongue. I very often seem to burn my tongue on takeaway coffees or an impatient 'chef's perk' taste-test of my dinner - so just keep that in the back go your mind and be kind to your taste buds!
- The day and night before the tasting, avoid raw onion, lots of garlic, very heavily spiced or flavoured foods.
- For a few days before, DO NOT USE MOUTHWASH and absolutely no Corsadyl or Chlorohexadine-based mouthwashes which affect your sense of taste.
Calibration the morning of the tasting exam:
- On the morning of the tasting have your coffee and breakfast early. This is to make sure there's lots of time between brushing your teeth and the exam (at least 2 hours I reckon) or if that's not possible, don't brush them, just rinse with water or if you absolutely have to and you're getting close to the exam, use wine as a mouth wash several times to renormalise your palate. Just don't tell your dentist.
- A while after breakfast, coffee etc, calibrate your mouth with a high-acid white wine. And then do it again. Do NOT allow the exam wine to be the first, or even second wine, your palate meets that day.
- Don't go mad with last minute calibration and frantic practice on the day, as you will fatigue your palate. Perhaps consider just a low-acid + a high-acid white wine that you have educator-approved calibration notes for. Tannin will also build up on your palate so go easy on any last minute reds, if you choose to do any.
Be prepared with appropriate food to keep your energy up
- Bring a very neutral snack to keep your energy up if you need to between exams, but don't overeat. Bread, butter, plain crackers for example, avoid anything claggy and mouth coating like peanut butter or cheese, or too sweet, salty or flavoured. Hunger keeps a sharp palate, but your brain needs fuel too! (Treat yourself to something amazingly delicious as a reward afterwards!)
Avoid coffee temptations
- Don't drink coffee between/before tasting exams. It may be tempting and feel appropriate but don't do it yet! You don't have much time anyway. Head straight outside into the fresh air, away from everyone (see below about not listening to anybody), do some deep breathing and have a drink of water.
- Bring some high acid wine (decanted into a small bottle for example) so you can rinse your mouth again in the bathroom before you go back in, especially if you had a snack.
WSET Exam-day hacks to make your life easier
- Have the clean, neutral smelling clothes you're going to wear earmarked already. One less decision for the day, and you don't want to be sitting in the exam room and suddenly realise you can smell the woodsmoke from Sunday's pub lunch, or perfume residue, fabric conditioner, or your friend's dog etc etc.
- Bring a chalk pen or wipeable board marker pen so you can number your glasses. 6 wines is a lot of samples to have in front of you and the desks are TINY in the exam hall. You do NOT need the extra stress of worrying if you've mixed the samples up!
- Bring 12 glasses for D3. You don't want the stress or time suck of having to wash and dry glasses in the crowded loo in the short break. This also helps you avoid hearing people discuss what they wrote (See below!).
- Bring a LARGE spittoon or have a couple of them for D3. You can ask for more of the sample to be poured so don't hold back. We had a really tough flight of Mosel Rieslings with quite subtly different levels of sugar; people were asking repeatedly for more wine to be topped up and I heard of a few people having to swallow because they ran out of spittoon capacity!
Sense-check your tasting order:
If you suspect a wine is sweet (e.g. from colour or viscosity), dip your tongue in first rather than kill your palate. Our flight of off-dry Mosel Rieslings was followed by a Pinotage, Malbec and Hunter Valley Semillon in the mixed bag. It would have made sense to do the tongue-tip 'dip test' for all the whites, and gone completely backwards - the sweet whites even after reds. Sometimes that can freak you out in the exam, but just stay focused, you don't have to do things in order, just make doubly, triply sure you write the correct wine notes in the correct bit of the exam paper!
WSET D4 Sparkling - Do the theory before the tasting:
The fizz has to be served chilled so it doesn't explode everywhere (CO2 is less soluble in warmer liquid) and this will make it really hard to do the tasting. Trust me, do the Theory questions first and let the wines sit there and warm up. The fact that you get to do theory and tasting in one sitting is actually a gift for this reason, though it doesn't feel like it at the time! A truly complex wine will hold its own and have evolved in the glass, while a basic wine may be less likely to fool you that first superficial flush, and show its one-dimensional colours more clearly.
Don't listen to ANYBODY!
Leave the exam venue immediately in the break! Don't hang around agonising and listening to everyone's take. Don't let others influence you - keep your game face on. Half of what people said after the first tasting exam were wrong calls.
I overheard several people say the Sauvignon Blanc variety flight was Chardonnay, which sent me into an unnecessary panic. After D4 I overheard people say that what was a Cava was charmat method Prosecco and others be very confident that the Sparkling Shiraz was definitely Lambrusco. All of this was wrong but it still sent me into a panic and had me questioning myself when you need to stay focused and confident.
After the country flight, the very clear consensus in the frantic hallway discussions seemed to be Australia. Cue relief for those who had 'called' Australia, (to use the terrible somm Americanism). I had gone into a blind panic and put Portugal. God knows why. Turns out, we were all wrong, as we discovered 48 hours later, when they published the list. It was France. At best, you might feel slightly reassured, safety in numbers, but at worst, you can be completely misdirected and falsely impact your thought-process in the next exam, so it's just better to wait. NO good can come from it! And you really, really do get more credit for your quality and structural assessments - despite being way off the mark with my panicked conclusions in that country round, I still got a merit for that flight and a distinction overall.
Remember the tasting is a game:
It's a logic puzzle. Your job is to spot the clue in each flight. There will be one obvious 'banker' wine. So ask yourself, which one is it? It's there, they are not trying to trick you. The wines are carefully, painstakingly picked to be almost caricatures of their intended style. As tutor Russell Dent says, "If you hear hooves, think horses, not zebras". If you can't see the wood for the trees, take a step back. Where is the cluel? I failed to do this in the country flight because I started to panic when I didn't immediately have any instincts on the flight. I disregarded the big clue I'd already written down: one of the wines was pale ruby, so it had to be Grenache or Pinot Noir. From there I could have triaged on alcohol + acidity (Grenache = lower acidity, higher alcohol vs Pinot Noir = higher acidity, med alcohol) and got to the clue.
What to do if you have a nightmare and start to panic:
Make sure you get SOMETHING down, don't leave any blanks, even if you feel like you're clutching at straws - just keep writing! It is terrifying when you sit there thinking - 'Oh my god, I can't believe this is happening to me, I have literally no clue what/where this is'. It feels so disconcerting and you might start to feel the panic rising. But DO NOT let this throw you off! You can still score really highly picking up points from your aromas, flavours, structural characteristics, quality assessment and supporting argument. Take a deep breath, dig deep and keep writing and powering through. Is it an oaky, aromatic, or crisp white? Very broadly what sort of red wine are you dealing with? Simple or complex? Trust your instincts - is it evolving nicely in the glass? Do you think you're dealing with a fundamentally good, complex wine?
I hope these points give you some idea about how to feel calm and in control. Let me know your thoughts in the comments or if you have any tips to add!
Good luck and happy studying xxx