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WSET Diploma: How to survive D3 without losing your mind (completely)


If you've come here because you're panicking about the WSET D3 module, I've got you. Take a deep breath and just know you are not alone. Everyone is drowning in the same sea of pain, but just keep your goal in mind and keep the faith. YOU CAN DO THIS!


The WSET Diploma module, 'D3 Wines of The World' is a notorious beast. Worth 50% of your mark, it dwarfs all other modules into insignificance. Honestly, I'm not sure I've ever studied so hard for anything. However, the pain and the sacrifice were worth it for the sweet relief and satisfaction of the result: I managed to pass the theory with a merit, and the tasting with a distinction. 6 weeks out from the exam I truly, deep down in my bones, did not think this would be possible. But if I can do it, you can too!


So, here are some strategies that got me through, and things I wish someone had told me:


Additional Resources:


Save this post for later: Exam Day Hacks and How To Prepare Your Palate for D3 Tasting Exams


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WSET DIPLOMA D3 STUDY TIPS


1. Quit comparing yourself

First up, sanity check.

When you're looking to other students (be it the group WhatsApp chat, the classroom, or the (insufferably triggering) things you see on social media) anxiously thinking 'But they know so much more than me, I don't know anything", imagine an overlapping Venn diagram. There's what you know and what they know. Then there's stuff you both know. Yes, they might be better on a certain aspect or region than you, but you are probably more knowledgeable than them on another aspect. It just depends on your own personal journey, travels and experience in wine. So, ignore them and focus on running your own race.


2. Don't underestimate the power of exam technique.

It sounds obvious, but make sure you really understand what they are looking for in the question; you actually want to write quite a boring answer. Nothing is too obvious to state. When you've been drowning in the text book, you can miss the wood for the trees. Those facts that seem so obviously common sense and basic to you now, to the point you might neglect to mention it in your answer? Trust me in 6 months you'll have forgotten! Imagine your examiner knows nothing.


Keep it simple: Do not attempt some beautifully worded piece of writing or focus on obscure techniques from some producer you once visited thinking you'll get brownie points. Short sentences, linking back to the question as much as possible. ‘This means that...'. 'As a result of this...'.


Practice: Take every opportunity to do the mock exams and get the marker's feedback even if you're woefully unprepared. Valiantly failing these is really helpful. (I failed the first two mock written exams miserably). With your student cohort, consider setting up a shared drive where you can all share your marked answers with the marker's feedback. This all helps you see what good and bad looks like, and get inside the examiner's head.

Don't Knowledge Dump:

Do NOT waste precious time writing down information that the question hasn’t asked for. If it hasn’t asked about the factors in the vineyard, don’t talk about it. It sound obvious but it’s SO easily done in the panic of the exam when you see the questions and think, 'Yesss! I know some stuff about this region! '

There will be NO marks allocated for it in the examiner's marking key, so you cannot, and will not, get any credit for it, even if the examiner took a shine to your paper and wanted to. You’re just wasting your own time.


3. Engage your SPATIAL MEMORY by building 'Memory Palaces'

My main worry was how on earth do you tackle this MOUNTAIN of information that you’re expected to retain?


Two words: SPATIAL. MEMORY. If you can engage your spatial memory you have a much better chance of retaining information. There’s a concept of ‘memory palaces’ (or 'Method of Loci') where people can retain loads of information by imagining a (familiar) physical space and placing all the things inside it, visualising it all spatially. This is how people win crazy memory competitions. OK, so WSET is obviously not just a long list of random things to remember for a game show. However, in those 'dark night of the soul' moments, take comfort that by using your spatial memory you CAN retain insane amounts of information. (This is where making your own maps can really help!)




4. Create context by bringing regions to life imaginatively

Try as much as you can to not allow regions to remain abstract concepts - look them up on Google Maps and situate it against what you already know. Look at photos of the region. Look at a key producer website. (giving producer examples is like free points). How far of a drive is it from that city you once visited? Which airport would you fly into to visit? Anyway you can, create context, context, context against concepts you already hold comfortably in your mind.


You need to take the information in the textbook from being black and white abstract words on a page, to visual and vivid, internalised concepts that feel familiar. But how?


This kind of context can come from the most bizarre comments or associations. For example, Okanagan is extremely continental so it has a short hot summer and cold nights, and the lakes are essential for irrigation as it's so dry with less that 300mm rain. When teaching us about Okanagan Valley, Michelle Cerutti-Kowal MW mentioned how it's so dry there they can leave their cushions for their outdoor furniture out all night in summer. This random throwaway comment she made stayed in my mind. I visualised a chi-chi wine country hotel with a beautiful insta-friendly outdoor terrace (where the cushions stayed out all summer) where you'd want to rug up in the evening by the fire pit (big diurnal range). Random, but it helped me put context and colour to a region for which I had absolutely no frame of reference. From there, you can layer on extra information.


Another example, I’ve never been to Salta in Argentina, but I have been to high altitude, mountain regions of Bolivia. When you look at Salta on the map, it’s not a million miles away and when you look at photos of it, (think cactuses and Llamas) you see that it’s very similar landscape. So when I was reading about Salta I would imagine it being round the corner from where we were in Bolivia. I remember well the ultra-intense harsh sunshine, the strong winds, the arid landscape, the freezing nights. All of which is relevant to understanding it as a viticultural region. I visualised the winemaker chewing coca leaves to help with altitude sickness, and having a pet Llama. All of this information which I’d already internalised from non-wine related life experience helped me to remember what Salta was about almost as easily as if I’d been there first hand.


5. Get your colouring pens out

Of course, the best luxury is to have visited the region; to have planned a trip and internalised information like the fact there’s a whopping great big mountain range between Napa and Sonoma which screws up your itinerary planning. If you have a canvas of the region in your mind already, it’s so much easier to attach concepts and remember information.

But the good news is, you don’t need to have visited every region to achieve this! For me, as a visual person, (and for whom the sight of an array of coloured pencils and felt tips makes my heart flutter) the following technique worked:


Get a nice big sketchbook and trace out the regions. Doesn’t need to be totally accurate - just something between schematic and proportional to reality.


Or Download my Printable Study Maps for Colouring In for just 99p

These are versions of the maps I made for myself which are simplified, schematic versions of the 'official' maps.


Print the blank versions first and fill out the appellations either from memory or from your study materials.


The act of transposing it yourself forces you to really study how it all fits together geographically. If you get lost, use my full colour maps as reference, but I'd suggest only after you'd given it a red hot go from the from the study materials to really engage your brain and build those pathways.

Annotate them. Choose what information you put on there - I had a mixture of things like key climate factors, key grapes, producers and soil types, and tried to make it all as visual as possible.


Then, I would practice sketching them very, very roughly again from memory - to check if I could recall it all. What appellation comes directly east of Muscadet, and is Sancerre left or right of Pouilly-Fume? Etc. I found after spending the time making the initial drawing, after 1, 2 or max 3 times of trying to recreate the map in my mind's eye, (most often standing in the shower drawing on the shower screen #showerthoughts) I could do it, with each time getting easier and needing to refer back to my notes less. It's a good way of working out where your hazy, blurry spots are too. With each attempt the picture in your mind gets clearer and more confident.


Remember one step is understanding, and the map drawings will really help you master the understanding, and the next step is recall. Sometimes when you can't remember it, it's actually because you don't really understand it or how it all fits together yet.


Example of one of my downloadable maps - blank outline and full colour.


Examples of my original maps, I found these an invaluable study method and tool.



6. Stay analogue


There is some research to say that the act of handwriting notes connects into memory better than typed notes. Your exam will also be handwritten so prepare to go a bit analogue and get those handwriting muscles working. For me, I think making visual notes definitely helped engage my spatial and photographic memory.


7. Don't be afraid of numbers - embrace lists and charts!


I am NOT a numbers person, so things like rainfall, yields, altitude, latitude... I just glossed over when I first read them. Don't do this. As you go through, get them into a list or a chart on your wall.


The walls of my room were eventually covered in these charts and it really helped me visualise and put everything in context, as I added a new data point onto the board, seeing where it fitted in comparison, TopGear Leaderboard style. Building them out as I worked through the text also gave me a reassuring sense of progress and a reason to stand up and move around and not just passively read words in the textbook (and probably fall asleep!)


Pro-tip: Remembering the exact yield (or rainfall or altitude) will not be necessary for passing the exam obviously, but knowing how this fits in context is super helpful: do you have a feel for if it's massively high, medium, low or even uber-low? Do you have a feel for how it compares to other appellations in the region and comparables in other countries? These are the big picture concepts to help build the context in your mind that will help you see the wood for the trees. Diploma questions often require linking back to quality, price, and style and so regurgitating that Bandol has a max yield of 40 (Level 3 vibes) is not so important as being able to write, ‘low average yields lead to excellent concentration in the grapes, and contributes to a high quality wine with pronounced aromas, as well as a higher price point'. If you can remember the exact yield - even better - but it won’t be worth much unless you can link it back to the question.

Let's do a Deep Dive into how your lists will help you:


MAXIMUM YIELDS: Everytime you read a maximum yield in the textbook, get it into an excel sheet. Eventually you can filter this and put all the numbers in context - the crappy Italian regions with whooping great yields over 100hl/ha - Frascati at 105, Pinot Grigio Delle Venezie IGT at 126 - versus the premium French regions in the 40-50hl/ha. You can then draw interesting comparisons; for example, you see that the Italian Kings - Barolo and Brunello are both at 54, less than Margaux and fellow left-bank heavyweights at 57, but nowhere near as low as ambitious relative newcomer Priorat DOCQ at 39.

RAINFALL: Draw a big scale (made from a few bits of paper taped together) and add the average growing season rainfall whenever it comes up in the text. Draw a circle around 500mm to 700mm which is roughly how much water the grapevine needs naturally. Below that, you better hope for water-retaining soils (Limestone/calcareous? Chalk acts like a sponge, or maybe some nice thick clay?), or you must be irrigating, in which case, what's the source? Above 700mm, you better hope for free-draining soils (gravel, sand etc).


This all helps you FIND THE THREAD that helps make everything click:


For example, you see that it doesn't get much lower than 200mm: Santorini is 50mm, hence the wind-breaking (to avoid excessive transpiration), sea-breeze-condensing-basket-trained vines that are famous here. Elqui in the Chilean desert is 80mm, hence the move to the lush, green south to Itata and Bìo Bìo. And you realise, wow, 1,200mm and beyond is bucket loads, potentially problematically high (like Jura, Yarra Valley, Rias Baixas). It follows that those regions will have big disease pressure and all the ensuing factors - harder to do organic viticulture; greater selection pressure at harvest, which either adds cost or reduces quality. It helps you retain other bits of information because they now have CONTEXT: it's not a coincidence that Rias Baixas has lots of free-draining granite soil and that Albarino is very disease-resistant. Meanwhile, no wonder drought-resistant Grenache (it's isohydric so can close its stomata when it gets water stressed) is a big hitter in McLaren Vale at only 200mm.


You create the context and the common sense follows. Suddenly you're not memorising random facts by rote so much as discovering a thread that makes perfect sense.






8. How to avoid death by soil

Soil types will get very confusing and feel like an endless list of types as you go through the text book. Decomposed this over weathered that, with a bedrock of some other. Argh! The key thing for viticulture is - is it free-draining or water-retaining?


If you can understand and remember that, it’s the key to unlock lots of other connected bits of info.


SOIL TYPES - I had groupings stuck up on the wall that I’d add to as I went through the text book. Limestone. Sand. Clay. Granite. Every time the text mentioned the soil type of a region, if I could I'd assign it to its group. Of course it's not always black and white, but it helped me make sense of it all and I could almost see these groupings in my mind's eye when I was in the exam.


Limestone soils (free draining):

Barolo

Limari, Guantallary

Coonawarra

Cote D'Or, Chablis

Rueda, Ribera del Duero

etc

Get things falling off the tongue

Then I’d also write out phrases so that those concepts would become fused in my mind. By Diploma level, it's likely you will already hold some famous combinations very comfortably in your mind, like "The Kimmeridgean soils of Chablis", "The clay-limestone soils of Burgundy", "The gravels of left bank Bordeaux". These ideas are already nicely internalised, they seem obvious to you now, like the fact that grass is green; they've moved into your System 1 brain (unconscious, easy autopilot), from System 2 (laborious pilot mode).


So I tried to make more combinations 'famous' in my mind, and get these combinations fused and rolling off the tongue:


"The granite soils of Beaujolais".

"The terrarossa soils of Coonawarra".

"The terres blanc of Sancerre."

"The Schist of Anjou (Savennieres)"

"The Galestro of Tuscany"

"The Ponca of Friuli"


9. Podcast your heart out

Start listening to podcasts until you are abso-bloody-lutely sick of the sound of them.


Wine for Normal People has some great ones. She does region and grape overviews and also some interesting producer interviews which can really help bring a region to life and therefore make it easier to remember. I would sometimes listen to the region overview ones even twice; once before I learnt about the region, because it would start to give you a vague feel, and then again after I'd studied it, and I would find it finally made more sense.


Jim Gore compiled a useful list here as part of his Global Wine Academy. (Who's courses I highly recommend!)


Make use of the forward skip button where needed for ads or filler chit-chat and play them speeded up!



10. Know your producers for free points!


On producers, there are marks for being able to name relevant ones. So get familiar because this is potentially easy bonus points. Ideally you’d be able to name a couple of producers per region.


11. Trust 'The Bible'


With the new Diploma format, you have the huge advantage that everything you need to know is in the text book. I highly recommend getting a printed copy, WSET may now offer this, but I downloaded the (huge) PDF and got it printed and bound in a level arch file via https://doxzoo.com. It pained me to do so, but it was worth every penny of the £100 or so it cost me. The online e-books drove me mad.


12. Don't overwhelm yourself (but let yourself be inspired!)

There are loads of other books available which can seem really overwhelming. Try not to allow these extra volumes of books panic you. You do not NEED to read them, but DO let them help and inspire you! The textbook has everything you need to pass the exam, but it's hella dry. Let these much more visual, narrative books bring places and grapes to life and give you little nuggets of context and memorable storytelling. See them as helpful, entertaining raconteurs to turn to, rather than scary enemies you need to conquer (i.e. the textbook!).


The World Atlas of Wine will have you wanting to book trips everywhere and remind you why you love wine. It's amazing at bringing regions to life with beautifully vivid yet concise language and great visuals and in depth maps, where the textbook is so utterly dry.


The Oxford Companion to Wine is great when you just can't get your head around something and you need Jancis' reassuringly clear and matter-of-fact exegesis.


The Sommelier's Atlas of Taste (covers key European regions only) is beautifully, narratively written and really brings regions to life through personal stories, and has stunning photography.


Oz Clarke Grapes & Wines will have you thirsty, dreaming of a glass at the end of a hard day's studying.


I admit I didn't read any of the many "The Wines Of..." published by Infinite Media. It seems there is one for every single region now. I did not have time (or did not start on it early enough).

13. Anthropomorphise everything - get creative and absurd!


Come up with personalities for grapes. Make up mad stories. Invent ridiculous aide memoires, the more absurd and entertaining the better!


Here are two examples from my strange brain:


The grapes of Valpolicella:


Corvina has main character energy. He does the heavy lifting, he's thick skinned (NB thus good for drying) - he's vigorous, dependable, high-yielding. He brings high energy (acid) and is perfectly suave i.e. low/med tannin, and all the charisma of violets, red cherries, red plum and herbal notes. His hero's flaw is susceptibility to mildew, botrytis, esca, drought and sunburn. Loves a nice cool, shady pergola.


Corvinone is the Diva. She dries like a dream, she has huge tannins, red cherry lipstick, but she's temperamental when it comes to ripening so needs hand-picking, adding cost. Such a diva!


Rondinella is good old reliable Rhonda. She's reliable, productive, can grow in a range of soils, has good disease resistance, she's good at drying. She can be a bit Esca prone. She's pretty neutral and has a bit of a sweet tooth - she accumulates sugar fast which makes her great for Recioto.


Molinara is the ethereal, slightly flakey one. Pale in colour, decreasing in plantings. High acid, red fruit and lightness.


And here's another absurd example:


Viognier, Marsanne and Roussane are key white grapes for the Rhone. But Viognier and Marsanne are NOT included in the permitted grapes for one of the most emblematic wines of the Rhone - Chateuneuf du Pape, Aka "The Pope's New Castle". (This was his new 'summer palace'). This is a great example of a maddeningly tricksy but potentially important fact that makes you want to lose your mind. So I thought: Viognier and Marsanne (say it in a horribly anglicised way) I imagined them as a pair of unfashionable, flabby, spotty girls (because they are both lower in acid and kind of 'oily') who are not invited to the Pope's new summer party house.


Meanwhile Marsanne's friend Roussane, (if you say it with a French purrr) sounds like a much fancier, sexy French girl so she got the invite.


Random, but it got me through!





14. Prepare to nail the 'banker' questions


There will likely be a D1 winemaking question in there in disguise so practice writing a solid 40 minute, handwritten answer for an uber-premium red, that covers off each of the following 14 steps, and explains what choices the winemaker will make and why at each stage - i.e. linking back to quality / style / price:


Harvest (e.g. grapes will be hard harvested by an expert team following a stringent selection criteria, in small buckets, in order to avoid crushing the bunches and avoid oxidation. This is slower and more labour intensive than machine harvesting which adds to cost but maintains high quality.)

Transportation,

Grape reception,

Pressing,

Adjustments,

Must clarification,

Hyperoxidation,

Yeast for fermentation

Vessel / temperature for fermentation

Malolactic conversion

Blending

Maturation (lees? battonage? wood?)

Finishing (tartrate stabilisation, fining, filtering)

Packaging - screw cap? cork? Wooden box?


Some steps will have more to say than others, and sometimes you'll feel like you're writing a lot of obvious stuff. But there may be points in the marking key against every single stage so the aim of the game is to briefly cover everything off, explaining the impact on price / style with minimal words.


Sometimes this will feel painfully obvious 'which adds costs but maintains high quality' so don't linger, but in other sections it will be more relevant and nuanced. You'll be making very different points when you explain what and why for the blending stage if you're writing about a high-volume Chilean Cab Sav (volume, faults, price, house style etc) vs a First Growth St Estephe (complexity, style, age-worthy, house style etc).


- Make sure you can do the same for a more basic unoaked red.

- Make sure you really REALLY understand what and why for the different types of carbonic maceration, (think of it like making a wine that has a taste profile more like an easy-drinking white, but just happens to be red)

- An aromatic unoaked white

- An oaky premium white

- A rosé wine (covering the different methods)

- Sweet wine via ALL different winemaking methods (passito / noble rot / ice wine / + Tokaji styles).



If/when you see the D1 style question, just be sure to really read the question and make sure you don't just rush in to repeat something you practised, double check the stages the answer is asking you to cover.


If the question uses any power verbs like assess, evaluate, analyse, or like a SWOT, don't forget to include a conclusion with your point of view!

15. Visualise your goal and kill the distractions.


We're only human and I am a master procrastinator when left to my own devices. I moved all my social media and news apps into a folder on my iPhone called 'Distraction from life goals!'. This probably worked for about a week. I have since discovered you can set screen time limits for specific apps through your iPhone settings and there's also an app called Opal where you can set self-imposed limits.


Why do we procrastinate? It's the avoidance of negative feelings. And studying is boring, hard on the brain, tiring, painful. It can also be scary, overwhelming and panic-inducing. Understanding why you procrastinate can help you avoid doing it.


So ask yourself - do you want to have to resit this absolute b*stard of an exam? Or how good would it feel to have it done and out of the way? Channel that emotion! Visualise getting the results email and the relief, the joy of passing the finish line. Remind yourself, in a few weeks this will be over and I can move on.





16. Have a moral support group but also, like, totally ignore everyone else

It's brilliant to have some fellow students in a WhatsApp group for moral support, gallows humour and resources-sharing. But bear in mind, when you speak to fellow students, you might start to panic and think they know loads and you know nothing, or they are studying way more than you. But remember the overlapping Venn diagram - things that you know, and things that they know; those circles will never perfectly overlap and how awfully boring would wine study be if they did?


17. How to know when you are ready

Be sure to shift from recognition mode to recall mode. Pretend you are teaching someone. If you can shift into 'broadcast' mode rather from receive mode, that is also incredibly helpful. Talk to yourself in the shower. When you go for a walk, pretend you’re speaking to someone on the phone and telling them about the region.


If you can talk confidently about the 7 factors for every main region, (Climate. Soils. Topography. Grapes. Viticulture. Winemaking. Market) you are equipped to pass really well. The result required to pass is 55%. So, in my book, that means if you can half remember stuff about each factor then you're going to be ok!


18. Do Not Postpone Under Any Circumstance

Whatever you do, don't postpone the exam. Yes, the idea of failure is horrendous. But you will lose momentum. And the exam itself is the best kind of preparation and practise even if you don't pass. Most people pass the tasting portion anyway so at least when you resit you're only doing one part!



19. HAVE FAITH!!

Have faith that every time you go over a region, it will come into better resolution in your mind. You start with broad brushstrokes and it might feel overwhelmingly big, confusing and vague. A bottomless pit of information. But then maybe try watching a YouTube video or listening to a podcast, reading what Jancis has to say about it, and you’ll find it starts to slot into place. Then the next time you read the notes, it'll feel that bit easier. You can do this. Just keep swimming, it'll be over soon.




Don't forget to check out my post on How To Prep your Palate on the days leading up to the tasting exams, which includes some other useful exam day hacks.





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