The next few articles will focus on preparing for the WSET Level 3 exam section I’m most worried about. The blind tasting.
So why the concern? Well, in Level 3 students are required to blind taste two wines, one red & one white, and accurately describe them using the Systematic Approach To Tasting® (SAT). If you haven’t seen it before, here’s a link to the SAT Level 3 sheet. Click the link and have a quick look, I’ll wait…..
….yeah, quite a lot of detail there. The SAT provides a list of words & categories which need to be used when writing the exam tasting notes. These tasting notes will then be marked against the examiner’s notes. Points will be deducted for not using the correct terminology or for not describing a certain aspect of the wine e.g. acidity.
Note; you are not required to identify the wine as part of your notes, just describe it.
The ‘Palate’ Problem
This is where I come to the worry, my ‘Palate Problem’.
What do I mean by Palate? For the context of this article, Palate is the ability to identify flavours and the intensity of tastes (WSET separate nose and palate on their reference sheet).
Right, so what’s the Problem? Well, that historically my palate has not been developed or sensitive. Those with a sensitive palate are more conscious of flavours & tastes. This, sadly, was not the case for me. For some time I was under the impression that a sensitive or highly developed palate is something you either have or don’t. It’s true that some people do naturally have sensitive palate.
But for a developed palate? The lie should’ve been obvious to me from my own words. A highly developed palate. Really suggests something you can develop? And this seems to be the general consensus among experienced tasters. You can, with work, develop your palate.
So what I need is a Palate Development Plan. You may start to notice a trend with me and plans?
As with most plans, step one is working out a way to measure progress. A strange first step you may think. But how else to know if the methods being used are actually improving our palate?
Calibration and Flavours
So the aim is track progress on how well I’m: –
- Identifying Flavours
- Calibrating my Palate
Identifying flavours should be pretty self-explanatory; are the flavours present in the wine being included in the written tasting notes.
Calibration, however, is a word that may require a short explanation. It aims to tackle the reality that different people have different sensitivities to tastes such as sweetness, acidity, etc. By calibrating their palate a taster is looking to align their sensitivity for tastes with that of other people. For example, calibrating the palate so what they call a medium acid wine is the same as what others call a medium acid wine. Other people here ideally being expert tasters (or during the WSET blind tasting, your examiner).
So how to measure the improvement in flavour identification and palate calibration? By using tasting notes; specifically other people’s tasting notes.
The method should go something like this: –
- Taste a wine
- Write tasting notes
- Compare notes against notes from other people
- Track the differences over time
This doesn’t need to be done with every tasting, once a week should be enough, although the frequency could be altered to suit your needs.
So how will this help? Ideally, over time the differences between my notes and other tasters will reduce. Differences here refer to flavours missed or incorrect taste levels assigned (such level of acidity).
This method also has the bonus of helping identify areas where additional focus is needed. If I’m consistently getting the majority of primary aromas but constantly missing the secondary aroma of Oak that suggests an area where I need to practice. [Caveat Below]
To track the differences I’ll be using a simple google sheet such as the below: –
You may notice not every category from the SAT has been included or filled in. Categories like ‘quality level’ are too subjective to compare. Also, most tasting notes are not written in the style of SAT, so sometimes no mention is made of a certain aspect of the wine, in which case they can be left blank.
The aim is to identify missing flavours and reduce the ‘distance’ between my taste levels and other tasters levels. In the above table the flavours missed and also the gaps between levels – in this case, the tannin levels – have been highlighted.
The below graph attempts to show this gap between taste levels. It overlays results from my tasting notes with those of users from Vivino and Decanter. This quickly show’s misalignments. Acidity and Sweetness both align. Finish and Alcohol are not exactly aligned but with a difference of only one level that’s acceptable. The tannin shows the big gap and is the main area of concern, and therefore should be an area requiring more practice.
It’s not about exactly matching notes, wine tasting is subjective – there will always be differences. It’s about recording tough to identify flavours and taste levels that don’t align with other tasters. Using that information to focus further practising until improvements are seen.
Or at least that’s the idea! As usual I’ll keep you posted on how it’s working out.
So what we need now are tasting notes to compare against. I plan to use two main sources. ‘Professional’ and ‘Enthusiast’ tasting notes.
‘Professional’ Tasting Notes
By professional, this refers to anybody who has extensive experience tasting wine or does it for a living. There are numerous sources for tasting notes, a few are listed below that I use.
Another great source is the wine producer’s website itself. Often these sites will have technical sheets for the wine, including tasting notes.
Additionally if buying a wine online websites often include their own tasting notes.
‘Enthusiast’ Tasting Notes
The issue with expert tasting notes is they are not always available for every wine. In this case, we can move to our next source, notes from enthusiasts. These are from people who maybe don’t work in the trade but just have a love of wine, people like myself.
My go-to source is Vivino. I’ve been using the Vivino app for some time now and can highly recommend it. Vivino allows users to write and upload their own tasting notes. However, it’s the add-on feature in the app that is really useful. In their own words: –
On each wine page in the Vivino app, you will find a new Taste Characteristics section, which aggregates the most commonly used words to describe wines in an approachable format. Source
This is fantastic as it saves having to read through multiple wine notes and quickly shows what’s been missed that others picked up.
So now, hopefully, I have a way to measure progress. The next step will be to look at ways to improve my Palate. I’ve started research into different methods from numerous sources. I hope to bring you a selection of those methods to you over the coming weeks.
Caveats & Other Business
- Wine tasting notes are subjective. Just because I identified an aroma no-one else did doesn’t mean my notes are wrong. I’m not trying to match some mythical perfect tasting note. The single ‘correct’ tasting note for a bottle of wine doesn’t exist. But if I’m consistently missing the mark on aroma clusters or taste levels then that suggests a problem.