Diving into the deep end of wine

WSET Level 3 – Flavour Identification – Yum or Yuk?

So, it’s been another long break between articles. This time because I was waiting for the results of my WSET Level 3 exam. After all, I didn’t want to publish an advice article for an exam that I had just failed! However, you’ll be glad to hear that I passed, with distinction, so I’m now feeling confident continuing this series.

Also, I’m going to reduce the size of these articles going forward. It should make for easier reading and also reduce the time between articles. With updates out of the way, let’s crack on.

The Struggle of Flavour Identification

I struggled with this article for some time. I’d tried many methods and still, I wasn’t making progress. I would close my eyes, pick up one of my many fruit flavoured jams (more on that in the next article), smell it and try to guess which fruit it was. I would then open my eyes and see, for the umpteenth time, that I wasn’t even close to naming the right fruit.

It was frustrating and disheartening. Why was this so hard?

Then I came across the below quote from Oz Clarke.

And you’ve got to get that ancient bit of your brain, that sense of smell, that first sense we ever had…..we’ve got to try relate that to what is probably the most modern part of our brain, the most recent part of our brain, which is the ability to use language. And it’s not easy.

Oz Clarke Quote

This summed up my problem in a nutshell. I would smell something, something I “knew”, but which I struggled to link to a word.

So I decided to go back to basics. I started with a flavour I could identify almost every time; Strawberry. I asked myself what made strawberries different? Why could I identify this flavour?

Emotion & Memory

I’d read again and again that smell & taste are closely linked to emotion and memory. I read this, but I hadn’t been applying it.

I thought that when I smelled a Strawberry my mind was simply replying with “Strawberry!”. However, when I stopped and reflected I realised that my mind was actually saying “OOhhh Yum, this reminds me of a desert, let’s eat this right now, it’s a Strawberry!

My initial reaction wasn’t identification, it was emotional, followed by an associated memory. The question “What flavour is this” was resulting in a complex answer invoking multiple emotions & memories all hitting at the same time, leading to confusion as I tried to pick them apart.

So I tried to break down this question into simpler questions. These simpler questions each providing a piece of the puzzle, reducing the initial complexity. With the answers to these simpler questions, I hoped to narrow down a flavour from a long list to a shortlist.

But which question to start with? The answer was so basic but fundamental that I almost kicked myself when I realised what it was.

Do I like this?

Do I like this? Most times it’s such an easy question to answer we don’t even think about it. Place some strawberry jam & raspberry jam in-front of me and I’ll give you the same answer each time; I like the strawberries, I don’t like the raspberries. Although the question alone wasn’t enough to identify flavours, it gave me something I desperately needed, a rock-solid place to start.

So I went back to the WSET flavour list and tried to categorise each one based on this simple question. Depending on your location this may not be possible for each one (farmyard & forest floor could be difficult at the moment).

What I found was that the answer to the question “Do I like this?” could have a couple more answers than just yes or no. For me, I was able to break these answers down into four broad groups.

Hopefully, two of these responses speak for themselves. Yum for smells I liked, Yuk for flavours I didn’t. But what about the other two?

Meh. I found that for some flavours I just didn’t have a strong emotional response. I didn’t like them but I also didn’t dislike them. My response was just a bit…Meh. Blackcurrant, peach, pear – these were all Meh flavours for me.

The Umm? response was a trickier one to identify. Maybe a better way to describe it would be to call it ambivalence. Simply put, it’s a Yuk closely followed by a Yum…stay with me here. An example is sour cherry. My initial response to is to pull away, the sourness initially puts me off (Yuk!). But then, as I get used to the sourness, the pleasant fruit flavour comes through (Yum!). See, a Yuk followed by a Yum.

Based on the answer to this question I could start to narrow down the list of flavours it could be, the below gives you an exaggerated view of how this could work (not even I was getting Blossom & Leather confused).

With the list starting to be narrowed down we can move onto the next question.

Is the flavour strong or vague?

This may seem similar to flavour intensity, and in a way it is. But I found it’s also related to memory. Maybe it’s easier with some examples.

The smell of lychee was always clear, pronounced & distinct to me. I may not always have been able to tell you that it was lychee but I could, with some confidence, tell you I was smelling an individual distinct flavour. This is likely thanks to my past love of Lychee Martinis (the best can still be found in Mortons Bar in Singapore)

Pear, on the other hand, I always struggled with. I could smell fresh pears, pear jam and wines with pear favours and it would always come through as an indistinct. Almost a blend of flavours rather than one distinct flavour, like background noise. Pears are not a fruit I’ve regularly eaten, I don’t have any associated memories of them.

It’s the difference between saying “Oh I know this! I just can’t find the word” and “I’m not sure I would know this, even if you named it”. I believe a flavour can appear further ‘pronounced’ if you have strong memories associated with it. With the opposite being true.

Previously I would sit there, angry at myself when I came across an indistinct flavour. Now it’s just another clue. My mind immediately goes to a specific group of flavours I know I find indistinct. This consists of a lot of the green fruits, herbs as well as grapefruit & melon. For you, it could be something different.

So we’ve got two questions, one based on emotion and one based, at least partially, on memory. Anything else we can ask?

Main course or dessert?

This may seem like an odd question and in a way it is. It’s also very subjective. But I found that I was very quickly able to say, without knowing the flavour, whether it would work better for dessert or in a main meal. It just seemed that a lot of flavours reminded me of cakes (I honestly have no idea why!).

Maybe a better question would be “Is this fruity/sweet or something else?”. This became the follow-up question I’d ask myself if I think it belongs in a dessert.

For main meal flavours, the next question I’d ask was “Is it earthy, buttery or savoury”. I’m not always able to confidently answer these questions but usually, a flavour falls neatly into one of these categories when I prompt myself. Again, what I’m looking to do is further narrow things down.

Bright/Light or Dark/Heavy/Rich

And finally, another abstract question. Is the flavour bright & light or dark, heavy & rich? I’ll admit, this one may be further refined as I keep practising. It feels like I’m moving dangerously towards the world of wine snobbery and risk using lofty adjectives such as ‘transcendent’.

Hopefully, I’ll already have a good idea what the flavour is by this question, but in cases where I don’t viewing them in terms of adjectives can be helpful. These are the words I use but instead, you may find that words such as “crisp” or “sharp” work better for you than “bright”. Experiment; see what words you associate with different flavour groups. Whatever helps you narrow down the list is a step in the right direction.

In Summary

A few points to end on. The above is for those of you who, like me, are struggling with identification of basic flavours. If you’re someone who can name flavours just from a quick sniff then I doubt this article will be particularly helpful.

Remember, that at least for the WSET Level 3, you are often not looking to get the exact same flavour as listed by the examiner. If they list Raspberry you should still get the point by listing Strawberry. Using the above questions can help you narrow down, if not the exact favour, at least the correct flavour cluster.

With practice, I saw an improvement using the above. Flavours I used to struggle with I can now identify much quicker, I don’t always need to ask the above questions anymore, it just ‘comes’ to me. However, until then it can be useful to have a structure to follow. I hope it helps others who are having problems with consistently identifying flavours in preparation for the WSET exam.

I’d also be interested to hear if you have any other questions or methods you use, I’m always looking to improve!

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