WSET tasting practice: six wines to help perfect your tasting notes

As I prepare for the spring 2018 WSET Level 2 Wines & Spirits course, I am conscious that our students frequently ask us how they can develop their tasting skills, and in particular, how they can practice identifying the various aromas, flavours and characteristics we find in the wines we taste on the course.

I have always been taught that practice is the only way – music to my wine-hungry ears! – but some wines are much better to practice with than others.

WSET students learn that there are primary flavours which come from the grape, secondary flavours which come from the winery, and tertiary flavours which come from maturation.  But if you have only ever tasted young simple wines, however yummy and fruity they may be, you won’t have much experience of the wider range of flavours – which makes it hard to recognise and describe them.

The other limitation of simple fruity wines is that there is little to write about them.  There is nothing wrong with wines that can be described in relatively few words, but for the wine student, they don’t give much scope for learning how to write an accurate tasting note.

So here are six wines which deliver in terms of there being plenty to say about them.  These are complex wines with plenty going on, giving ample scope for eager students to sip, jot, sip some more, and create their very own vinous War & Peace.

Hayshed Hill Chardonnay, Margaret River, Australia – £17.99

This is not the oak soaked Ozzie Shard of old.  It is elegant and complex with plenty of primary and secondary flavours to record – and a long evolving finish to savour.  Make sure you jot down not only the first few seconds of fruit hit – there should be a delicate enduring range of flavours.  Don’t over chill it!  Taste it from the fridge, then taste again having left it out for a bit.  Applying BLIC I rated this outstanding.  What do you think?

Vandal Gonzo Field Blend – Marlborough, New Zealand – £27.99

This wine has it all when it comes to fruit.  As it should – they have blended Pinot Noir, Syrah, Tempranillo, Chardonnay, Viognier, Riesling and Pinot Gris!  Yes, this list does indeed include three red wine grape varieties, and yet this is a white wine.  The name of the game here is to see how many fruits you can find other than grape, as well as anything else.  This is also another great example of a long finish – again, keep counting in seconds past the initial fruit hit until there is absolutely nothing left.

Chateau d’Esclans Rock Angel Rosé, Provence, France – £27.99

Rosé for grown ups sourced from the vineyards which created the reputation of sister wine Whispering Angel.  It raises the rosé bar – 10% Rolle has been added to Grenache Noir, and the wine has been partially vinified in 600 litre oak barrels.  It is called Rock Angel because you can taste the minerality from the soil.  Also look out for its texture, weight, buttery richness, and relatively grippy tannins.  Here is a link to the producer’s information sheet for you to peruse after you have done your own notes:

Click to access rock-angel-2016-sheet.pdf

The Ladybird Organic, Laibach Vineyards, Stellenbosch, South Africa – £14.99

Here we have a very ripe and well made expression of Bordeaux blend grapes led by Cabernet Sauvignon.  Think about how the classical Cabernet flavours present in this wine vary from the Bordeaux benchmark, how well-balanced the wine is, and make sure you record primary, secondary and tertiary flavours.  There is a long finish so you have plenty of time and opportunity to jot it all down!  Admire also the ladybird spotted capsule.

Fincas de Azabache Rioja Reserva 2012 – Rioja Baja, Spain – £13.99

Rioja is a happy hunting ground for tertiary flavour seekers.  The wines are released on to the market later than most other wines, which means they have often matured in bottle.  Go for Reserva, or better still Gran Reserva, from a decent producer.  I have picked Azabache as they have invested in their own winery rather than using a larger bodega, and when I tasted this at a trade fair in February 2018, it had not only fruit primary and oak derived secondary flavours, but also chocolate, coffee and even a hint of petrol emanating from maturation in bottle.  Use your SAT card to help dissect its many and varied components.  I think this is great value for money.

Ghost Corner Pinot Noir, Elim, South Africa – £21.99

Wine students of yore would have turned to the Cotes de Nuits for examples of complex Pinot Noir, but good value wines from this tiny enclave of Pinot Paradise are hard to find nowadays.  Luckily cool climate South African wines are emerging which deliver Burgundian style at affordable price points.  This one comes from a site 12 kms from the coast so the vines are cooled by the maritime influence.  The grapes therefore ripen slowly which means the wine is fresh, elegant and complex.  Look for the trademark red fruit and farmyard trademarks of the grape, the extra flavours and textures contributed by oak maturation, and tertiary chocolate, coffee and smokey hints.  Favourable exchange rates (a rarity at present) mean this comes at a relatively kind price.  A similar style of wine is Iona Pinot Noir from Elgin, another up and coming cool climate zone.

Some of these are pricier examples, due to their complexity – so make the most of these wines by doing the following:

  • Invest in a Vacuvin or similar wine saver, so you can keep the wine in decent condition.  This means you don’t have to glug it all at once.  If you buy more than one wine, buy extra plastic wine savers.  A great investment so you can enjoy quality wine at its best.
  • Try the wines at different temperatures to see how this affects the flavours you get.
  • Try the wines in different glasses to see how each glass affects the flavours.
  • Try the wines with friends to see what flavours they get and how they describe them.  If you are stumped for decent descriptors, they might just nail it for you!
  • Do your tasting note, then leave the wine in the glass to open up, say for half an hour.  Then try it again – often you get more from the wine when you go back to it.
  • Get some cheeses in and do the wine and cheese sandwich.  Taste the wine, then the cheese, and then the wine again.  Often new flavours are created by tasting the wine with cheese, or the cheese helps magnify or intensify flavours so you can identify them more easily.  Goat’s cheese in particular can be very wine friendly.  Just the cheese if you please – no fancy biscuits with powerful flavours!
  • Finally – use your WSET SAT card.  It’s a bit of a killjoy at first but you will soon get the hang of it and it gives you ideas for flavours to record, as well as a consistent structure for your observations, which is essential when assessing quality.

I am confident that if you dissect these wines using my various hints you will soon be producing tasting notes like a WSET trained professional.

Don’t forget to send me tasting notes of your favourites!

Author: Diana Lyalle BA (Oxon) DipWSET

Lawyer turned wine educator and tasting events host based in Wraxall, North Somerset. Wine Specialist for Harvey Nichols Bristol. All opinions expressed are those of Diana Lyalle only. Email: Mobile: 07772055928

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