Release your inner wine geek

Examinations aren’t just for people working in the wine trade but can be of benefit to interested consumers too, writes Peter Ranscombe.

LET me begin with a confession: I’m a wine geek. I swirl wine round the glass, I stick my nose in for a long sniff, I spend ages trying to decide if the flavour in my pinot noir is a ripe raspberry or a Morello cherry – the whole nine yards.

So, it’ll come as little surprise to regular readers of The Grape & The Grain drinks blog or the Wine to Dine column in the printed Scottish Field magazine that, over the years, I’ve taken my wine geekery to the extreme.

And no more so than putting my taste buds to the test by sitting the examinations set by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), a body founded in the 1960s to train staff working in the drinks industry.

I put myself through the level two and level three exams offered by the WSET while I was still a business journalist at The Scotsman newspaper and then, when I made the move to Scottish Field, I embarked on the trust’s level four diploma, the gold standard in the drinks industry and the equivalent of sitting a university foundation degree.

Two years of study later, gaining the diploma gave me the confidence to ask more awkward questions of wine makers and wine merchants – and gave me a better understanding of the drinks I was analysing in my glass.

The appliance of science

Confession number two: I’m not just a geek when it comes to wine either. As a science writer, I’ve always asked “why?”

Why is the sky blue? Why don’t ospreys generally nest on the west coast? Why does the camp fire go out if you smother it?

And that curiosity – or, some might say, obsession – extends to wine too. Why does this red taste of vanilla? Why does chardonnay taste different when it’s grown in different places? Why can I feel warmth in my cheeks when I taste port?

I don’t pretend to work in the wine trade; I’m a writer and I bring the same journalistic questions to my drinks writing as I do to my business writing and science writing and wildlife writing.

But what passing the WSET diploma did was to give me the tools I need to ask the right questions as a drinks writer – and the same is true for other enthusiastic amateurs too.

Despite being aimed at the drinks industry, the diploma is a qualification that’s also sat by participants from outside the wine trade – I’ve met doctors, lawyers and even accountants who are sitting the exams.

Consumers as well as trade

I was reminded of the breadth and diversity of people undertaking the diploma during a recent tasting in Edinburgh.

Current and prospective diploma students gathered to test their skills at a blind tasting – using wines supplied by Wood Winters – before Toby Sigouin, the wine buyer at Glasgow-based merchant Inverarity Morton, and Joe Fattorini, one of the presenters of television series The Wine Show, gave talks about the importance of listening to customers and communicating in the right way.

The tasting emphasised to me how the diploma shapes a drinker’s ability to analyse wine – to ask why a wine tastes like it does.

Our first flight of blind samples were all white wines and we were told they had been made using the same grape variety, which was revealed at the end as riesling.

The first wine had the classic petrol aromas and crisp acidity of a riesling, along with lime and peach flavours; it turned out to be a new world example, a 2013 Grosset Polish Hill Riesling (£29) from Australia.

Fruity lemon and peach flavours were the order of the day for the second wine – a 2016 Lucas & André Rieffel Riesling Vieilles Vignes (£17.50) from Alsace in France – along with light floral aromas on the nose, yet still displaying the grape’s characteristic acidity.

The third wine gave the game away – with a slight sweetness, the 2015 Selbach Oster Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Kabinett, Ur Alte Reben (£18.50) clinched the deal, demonstrating riesling’s ability to be turned into a sweet wine with honey and peach flavours, as well as a dry white with high acidity.

Putting together the pieces

In the second flight, we were told the wines came from the same region, which turned out to be Rioja in Spain.

A young-tasting 2014 Bodegas Amezola Rioja Crianza (£14) was full of vanilla, red cherry and redcurrant flavours, with some wood smoke and damp earth aromas.

Stepping up a gear, the 2012 Izadi Rioja Reserva (£14) showed the more modern side of Rioja; despite being a “reserva” or aged wine, it had lusher dark fruit flavours of blackcurrant and blackberry to back-up the vanilla and warming spices.

The 2004 Bodegas R Lopez de Heredia Vina Bosconia Tinto Reserva (£29) was in the more traditional aged Rioja style, with the fruit having developed into figs and stewed plums, alongside red and black cherries, finer tannins and a longer finish.

The presence of vanilla flavours from the use of oak in the winemaking process and the mix of red and black fruit suggested the wines came from Rioja, although other ideas such as Portugal, Bordeaux and California were bandied about by the group of tasters.

Find out more about the Wine & Spirit Education Trust diploma and the organisation’s other qualifications at