Things that can go wrong … in the MW tasting exam

My recent post trumpeted my last minute preparation for the MW tasting exams.  I have now done the exams, the list of wines have been published but we are still some months off knowing the results.  It is now time to reflect on the experience of things that go right in the exam and, sadly more interestingly, things that go wrong.  The full 2016 exam can be found here.  

The challenge of the MW tasting exam

First some context.  The MW tasting exam is made up of 12 wines per morning for three days: whites, reds and everything else (sparkling, sweet, fortified).  It has a notoriously low pass rate – about 10% a year and those are overwhelmingly people who are doing it for the second, third, fourth, fifth or even occasionally sixth time.  These are overwhelmingly professional wine people who taste wine – and often fine wine – every day so it is remarkable that the pass rate is so low.  Or to put this personally, from our very able and conscientious tasting group last year, remarkably seven out of eight of us passed Theory but just one passed Practical.   And this was after two to three years of weekly tastings, annual residential seminars of a week at a time, study days, many wine trips, countless trade tastings and pretty much nightly tasting at home.  You couldn’t say that we hadn’t tried!  

The reasons why this exam is so difficult include: 

  • needing a comprehensive knowledge of the ‘widely available and commercially available’ wines of the world, not from book knowledge, but in the glass. That means everything from your favourite supermarket guzzler to Bordeaux first growths
  • developing a combination of two skill sets which are rarely held to a high level by any one person – precise, analytical tasting ability and the ability to argue in a ferociously logical and concise manner.  To put that another way: what are the aromatic characteristics and structural elements (acidity, tannins, extract) of the wine in the glass and how can you persuade the examiner that you can demonstrate why it is this wine (or something very similar) and not any one of thousands of other wines in the world 
  • having to get an average of 65% on all three papers with no mark below 55%. And a 55 is only OK if your average is still 65%, e.g., a 55, a 65 and a stunning 75%.  
  • the 2 hours and 15 minutes per exam means you basically have a minute and a half to taste, analyse and write notes on each wine and less than 10 minutes per wine to answer persuasively the three or four questions you are asked about. This involves writing a tightly argued page of A4 about it.  
  • there are other pedagogical reasons for the low pass rate – but that is a subject for another day.
When things go well

So much for the context, now for some reflections on what can go right and wrong in the exam.  For the competent taster there are those lovely moments in the exam when you really know what the wines are and can write about them with a genuine confidence. Last year we had four Italian reds – two from Piedmont, two from Tuscany – which are very distinctive (pale colours,  high acidity, all very tannic, one with a real wall of high, firm tannins). These are wines I know well and there was simply no doubt that they were Nebbiolo d’Alba or Langhe, Barolo, Chianti Classico or similar and Brunello.  Hurray!  They could not really have been anything else. Or rather they could have only been other relatively pale, Italian, tannic and acidic varieties (Nero di Troia or Nerello Mascalese) but the exam is fair and usually puts the most famous examples of wines in front of you.  Otherwise it would be impossible. But the point is that, if you really know the wines well, then you can write about them authoritatively.   That, in short, is the whole point of this exercise.    The same happened this year with the first two whites which were a Bordeaux and a Châteauneuf-du-Pape.  I was quickly 80% confident what they were – sadly this didn’t last with the other wines but it is great when it does happen.  

Equally, just occasionally, using your tasting skill and knowledge you can work out what a wine is even if you are not familiar with it.  Thus the method works. Recently in a mock exam I worked out what a wine was even though I had either not tasted it before or perhaps only once. But I knew about it and could it work it out because it was in a flight of wines from the same country and by excluding other possibilities.  More typically, in last year’s exam I missed the highly distinctive Vin Jaune from the Jura because I had only tasted it once in the preceding year and a couple of times before that. In exam conditions (more on this in a moment) you can fail to spot really blindingly obvious wines if you have not got a secure, even deep knowledge of them.  

And when they don’t

Finally let me share some puzzling experiences from this last week.  I am normally not phased by exams but in blind tasting, both inside and outside of exam settings, I find myself doing the strangest things and not thinking logically. It is something to do with how those two skills sets meet up in the brain – or indeed how they don’t.  

(Not) answering the question

This year on the white paper there a number of short flights so that the first eight wines were in four different pairs with different questions. On reflection I failed to keep the various flights of wines and their questions separate from each other.  There were a big majority of oaked wines in the first eight wines and the question for flight 2 did ask about post-fermentation maturation which could include oak.  But some how I unconsciously persuaded myself that oak was a theme of flight 4 when it wasn’t.   

Brain freeze

On the red wine paper there was a single wine at the end with an intensely deep colour and pretty bright fruit character.  I had tasted Carmenère within the last week … but it did not cross my mind as a possibility.  Mental block.

Exam muddle

Most distressingly, I had practiced a good number of classic pairs which share some characteristics, Tokaji v. Sauternes, Sercial v Amontillado, as recently as last week. Over my three years of preparation I have been good at keeping Sherry and Madeira apart … and then I got these pairs the wrong way around in the exam.  (OK, it is possible that when, after the exam, I wrote down what I had argued for, I could have misremembered the order.)  It is not the wrong identification that matters, it is misreading the aromatics, the alcohol level, the acidity and, in the case of the first pair, the oak character.  

Timing

More mundanely, there is an odd dynamic that the better you get and the more you have to say about a wine, the more you have to guard your time.  I did manage to write something in answer to every question about every wine – a golden rule as otherwise you are just throwing away relatively easy marks. But I did not have enough time to do justice to those last two deep red wines from one region. As these came at the end  of Paper 3 many of us guessed – wrongly – that they had to be Port, only for one of them to be dry and the other sweet but not very sweet and definitely not 20% alcohol.  I correctly got these as a dry wine and a passito from Italy but didn’t really have time to do them justice.   

Misreading the wines

And of course there is the most basic problem of all, just misreading the wines – not noticing distinctive aromatics, misreading residual sugar, high acidity or tannin profiles … One just has to hope not to do that too often or rather you have to work towards not doing it too often.  

Is there a conclusion to be drawn?  Tasting wine for MW exam purposes is a multi-factorial problem involving a significant number of parameters (what a wine looks like, its aromatic and taste profile, its structure and its quality) and just as importantly, how all these interact with each other.   In order to succeed in the exam you need to be able to evaluate all that, do it quickly and then be able to convey that in a logical argument in what you write.  I conclude that to do that you need such a robust tasting ability and such a secure, quickly recallable knowledge of the main wines of the world that you can carry out that task under the pressure of the exam situation. And of course, in the full knowledge that it is this exam, among other things, which stands between you and the achievement and prestige of those two coveted post-nominals, MW.  

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