Diving into the deep end of wine

WSET Level 3 – Palate Improvement – Taste / Palate

So it’s been a while between articles, this is down to lots of travel. A break that included visits to; Leeds to learn about the joys of cricket (rain, sun, beer and England’s ability to make a comeback), London to see good friends (hellish tube journeys, drinks and hangovers), then to Lisbon (wine shopping, sightseeing and even more hangovers), a drive down to Puglia (tours of vineyards, sampling many Negroamaros and broken down cars) followed finally by working a harvest at Cianfagna.

So right back where we left off, discussing ways to improve the palate. This article will focus on improving acid, tannin, body identification etc. Namely everything that falls under the Palate section on page one of the lexicon (excluding aroma & flavour characteristics).

So let’s get stuck in.


Benchmark & Calibration

Firstly, when it comes to the palate there are two key focuses; setting your benchmark levels and then calibrating those levels against others, the most important being your tutor on the WSET course.

Benchmarking is being able to consistently measure the key characteristics of a wine. For example, identifying a medium tannin wine across many different medium tannin wines. The best real-world approach to achieve this is selecting a characteristic, acid for example, and purchasing three wines that have acid level covering the spectrum of low, medium and high. Then blind tasting them until you’re consistent with identifying the levels. Unfortunately, at the start, this can be expensive as well as tricky due to other tastes fighting for attention. Hence the focus of this post which details some methods for helping set these benchmarks.

The next step is Calibration, aligning your levels so they match those of other people. I covered one way to calibrate in a previous article. When going through the below keep in mind that you will need to align your benchmarks against your WSET tutor who will be testing you.


Sweetness, Tannin, Alcohol & Acidity

Lets start with a four for one deal, one exercise to help with Sweetness, Tannin, Alcohol & Acidity identification. I’m going to put a direct link to the Wine Folly article for this. I don’t believe they’re the inventors but, as usual, they do a great job presenting it.

For those that don’t want to read the full article I’ll provide a summary before discussing how I adapted the exercise to provide more nuance.

The aim of the exercise is to train you to recognize and ‘measure’ four of the main characteristics found in wine. You do this by taking a dry red wine (nothing flashy as it’s about to be ruined) and five glasses. In each glass you pour the same measure of wine. One glass you leave as is, this is your control glass. In the second glass you add a tea bag, in the third glass squeeze half a lemon, in the fourth glass pour in a bit of vodka and in the final glass add a teaspoon of sugar.

Basically, what we’ve done with our four doctored glasses of wine is exaggerate the :-

  • Sweetness with Sugar
  • Tannin with Black Tea
  • Alcohol with Vodka
  • Acidity with Lemon Juice

We can now compare these exaggerated examples with the control wine.

You’re not looking for flavours (lemon, tea, etc) but how your palate responds. For example the acid in the lemon should make your mouth water, much like a high acid wine would. The same goes for the other altered wines.

So how can we expand this exercise? Well, one technique is to focus on a single component. For example I again take four glasses, one I leave as the control and in the others I add increasing amounts of sugar.

So one glass may have a teaspoon of sugar added (taking it to off-dry), the next glass we could add 6 teaspoons (taking it to sweet) and so on.

The benefits are you can easily tweak the amounts added to each glass to train your palate to pickup more subtle differences between sugar levels (or tannin, alcohol etc).

It also allows you to, roughly, recreate a single characteristic of a certain wine type, for example, a dessert wine, at a fraction of the cost. Of course, there is no real replacement for actually drinking the real deals. However, if you want to get some practice across the spectrum of sweetness without having to buy 5 different bottles each time this is a useful exercise.


Body

I’ve always found it difficult identifying the level of Body in wine, it seemed like quite a subjective quality. Level 3 provides five options ranging from light to full bodied and describes body as: –

“…the overall feel of the wine – how mouth-filling it is.”

Source Link

An exercise cited in many places to recognize between light, medium and full bodied is to think of the difference in mouthfeel between skimmed, semi-skimmed and full fat milk.

That’s all well and good, and I do suggest trying the exercise. But we want to move on from there. How do we get exposure to what WSET would call a medium(-) or medium(+) bodied wine?

For that we can look at what the WSET says in the Level 4 Candidate Assessment Guide for Tasting. They state that body…

“…is not a single component, but an overall impression created by all the structural components of the wine working together.”

So what are these structural components?

Alcohol is considered the biggest contributor to a wines body – the more alcohol the fuller the body. Sugar & Tannin also to contribute to a wines body. Variety can play a part. For example certain varieties naturally produce wines with lighter or fuller bodies; Pinot Noir vs Cabernet Sauvignon. Also consider Climate. Take the same variety, ripen the grapes in two different climates and you should see a difference in body based on the climate – wine’s produced in hot climates can lead to wines with more body (usually via alcohol) while wines in cooler climates produce lighter bodied wines.

Finally, Acidity can decrease the perception of body leading to a lighter wine.

So based on the above what’s our process, below is my current approach:-

  1. Initial gut response on Body – I write down my initial gut response and unless something major comes up in the next steps I stick with it. I can’t tell you the number of times overthinking has caused me to switch to a wrong answer from my original correct answer.
  2. Finish the tasting – Remember, the key factors we’re looking for are alcohol, sweetness, tannin, acidity. If we’re under exam conditions we won’t know the variety or the growing climate for sure, although if you’re confident note them down.
  3. Review the initial gut response based on your other tasting notes – Does your alcohol, sugar, tannin and acidity levels match up with your initial gut response or are they way off? If your levels seem to align with your gut response then stick with that initial response! However, if your gut response is ‘Full Bodied’ but you have dry, medium(-) alcohol, low tannin with high acidity it’s at this point that you want to rethink your answer.

But hang on. What about identifying the difference between a medium bodied wine and medium(-) or medium(+). It seems we’re still not closer to identifying the exact combination that makes up a medium(-) bodied wine.

I don’t deal with subjective answers well, I have a deep seated need to get to an explicit answer even when one isn’t always available. In this case I did what I usually do, I created a spreadsheet…..no seriously. See below.

I gave each measure a numeric weight (alcohol got a heavier weighting as it’s contribution to body is greater). So looking at the above a wine with Medium(+) Alcohol gets 16 points, Acidity (which reduces a sense of body remember) is Medium(-) so this removes 2 body points and so on. At the end we get a body score of 18.

We cross reference that against a the score sheet below, where I weighted full body slightly, and we see that a score of 10 lands us in Medium(+) body. Great, so all I need to do is memorize the above grid and problem solved…..

The problem is that I’m pretty sure the above grid is also very subjective. And that, I believe is what I need to accept. That a wine one person labels as having a medium(+) body another person could label as medium. Much like the rest of a wines characteristics, it’s subjective.

And that’s OK, because I suspect that’s how it works in the actual exam. I find it difficult to image you would be marked down for rating a wine medium while your examiner marked it as medium(-). I believe this, as with the other wine characteristics, is where calibration will come in. Although you can bet this will be a question I ask when I attend the level 3 tasting tutorial.

Watch this space.


Mousse

As I understand it from the following page the tasting exam will consist of a blind tasting of two still wines. Therefore Mousse is not something we need to worry about for the exam. However, since we’re here I think it’s worth covering.

When you hear Mousse think of bubbles, specifically how they feel in your mouth. A short but good read can be found over at RachelVonSturmer. A few of the tips suggested are to watch when a wine is poured – is it really frothy? This could provide a clue that the Mousse will be aggressive.

Other things to consider are the number of tertiary flavours, which can suggest aging. Aged sparkling wine often goes hand in hand with more delicate bubbles.

If you are considering doing the level 4 diploma in the future then don’t skip writing notes on Mousse when tasting sparkling wines, even if you aren’t going to be tested for the level 3. It’s never too early to start practicing.


Flavour Intensity

Flavour Intensity is another one I find tough to pin down, especially based on the WSET description: –

Flavour intensity is an impression of how flavoursome the wine is on the palate. Flavour intensity and flavour characteristics are detected through the sense of smell.

Source Link

Not a huge amount to work with. Searching online doesn’t turn up many sources talking about ways to measure a wines Flavours Intensity on the Palate. The few sources available suggest flavour intensity from the nose and palate should match – from my experience I don’t always find this to be the case.

For this category we’ll turn to the excellent ThirtyFifty podcast on the Systematic Approach to Tasting. I highly recommend you listen to the whole podcast as Chris Scott is an examiner for the Level 3 and covers all areas of the exam.

To paraphrase Chris, he suggests breaking it down into two parts. The first is Initial Intensity which is your measure of intensity on the first sip. The second is the Intensity Length which is how long that intensity lasts once the wine is spat out.

For the Initial Intensity you should rate it as Light, Medium or Pronounced. Don’t worry yet about the other levels yet.

After you spit the wine out you’re looking Intensity Length. This is how the intensity changes and lasts. If after spitting the wine our the sense of intensity almost immediately fades then you would bump down your Initial Intensity down a level; for example if the initial intensity was a medium it would go to a medium(-).

However, if the level of intensity remains on your palate even after spitting out the wine then leave your initial rating as it was, in the example above it would remain at medium. Jump to minute 47 on the podcast to listen to this section yourself.


Finish

Vinfolio provides us a straight forward description of finish: –

“…the finish is how long the wine’s flavors and aromas linger on your tongue. “

Source Link

An easy concept to get our heads around, however, again we have an issue of subjectivity. How long does the taste have to linger for it be considered Long vs Medium(+)?

For this category were again referencing ThirtyFifty’s podcast on Systematic Approach to Tasting. For the section on finish skip to 52 minutes. The key take away is that after you spit or swallow the wine you should open you mouth and start counting. You’re waiting for the pleasant flavours, assuming there are some, to dissipate from your palate; specifically the fruit flavours.

The general times quoted by Chris map something along these lines: –

Less than 5 seconds then it would be a Short finish
Around 6 to 8 seconds then it’s Medium(-)
Around 9 to 11 seconds then Medium
Around 12 to 14 seconds then Medium(+)
Longer than 15 seconds then it has a Long Finish

However, much like body there are no hard and fast rules for time lengths. Each person has different tasting abilities and you will need to calibrate what you taste as a wine with a medium finish with what other people, especially your WSET instructor, considers a medium finish.


And that seems like an apt location to ‘finish’ the article. I hope the above has helped. As always, any feedback on the above or comments on your own experiences feel free to comment or send through to me.

Check back soon for the next article which will look at flavour identification (hopefully not such a long break for the next article!)

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