The Big One, or, the WSET Diploma Unit 3 exam

Posted By Chris Kaplonski on Jun 17, 2017

So. That was it. The Big One. Sort of a final exam for the WSET Diploma, or at least, that’s how I think of it. Not just because it is the last exam you take. Assuming, of course, you actually pass the other ones. It is also the longest of the exams, and one of only two units where you can fail half and only have to retake that half. (For the curious, the other unit is Unit One, on business, where you are assessed by an exam, and an essay.) It also covers the most material – anything and everything on what they call ‘Light wines,’ also known as still wines, or table wines. Basically, what most people think of when you say ‘wine.’ 

It was an interesting experience. I’m not going to dwell on how I thought I did. I’m not WSET and who knows what they’ll think. However, I will say that pass or fail, it went better than expected, so I can count that as a plus, I suppose.

It was a large gathering, and the set-up reflected this. I’m not going to do a detailed description, but I’ll note that for the theory part at least, basically two rooms were put into use. I’d guess there were at least 100-120 people doing the tasting, and maybe 150-200 doing the theory. There could well have been more on the tasting – I didn’t really look back to see how full the other room was, if at all.

There are two reasons why the groups taking the exams were so large. First, unlike the other units, this exam is only offered in January and June. The ‘small units’ can all be taken three times a year. So on that point alone, you’d expect more people to take Unit Three at one time. But also, Unit Three theory has the lowest pass rates of all the exams. I don’t have last year’s numbers in front of me, but in 2015, the pass rates for January and June were 27% and 32%, respectively. In 2014, the respective numbers were 29% and 40%. You have to go back to 2011 to find a pass rate over 50%. So a good chunk of people are going to be resitting the theory part.

The tasting exam was first. There were a total of twelve wines, done as four groups of three. The first two groups also had overarching questions you had to answer. The first was what was the grape all three were made from? (I, along with most other people I talked to, went with Cabernet Sauvignon. It was, it turns out, Merlot. Ah, well.) The second was what region were the wines from. That I got right, calling it the Loire Valley. We then got a 30 minute break, before the third and fourth groups. Those had no overarching questions, simply ‘describe the wines,’ and sometimes – but not always! – identify them. I got some right, some wrong, but hopefully my descriptions and justifications are good enough for a Pass. That is what gets you the most points. The identification of wine / region / grape, etc. is a relatively minor aspect, although all points are welcome.  Plus, may I just add that for some reason, I am unaccountably pleased with myself for getting the Tokaji correct.

The theory exam. Again, I don’t know how well it went. There is one compulsory question, and then you have to choose four out of six to answer. I was relieved that there were four questions that I could at least make a good effort on. My nightmare scenario had been opening the exam booklet and seeing questions that I had absolutely no clue on – stuff like particular regions, or long discussions of soils. There were opportunities for those, if that’s your thing, but there were also questions I thought I could handle. I’m not going to bother going over them. I’ll just note that I probably failed the compulsory. It was split into two parts, worth 60% and 40%.  The 60% I think I did fine on, but the 40%? Ugh. Given WSET is particularly stingy with points that will probably average out to a fail. But I think I did quite well on one of the questions, and ok on the rest. I’ve refused to go and look up what the answers should have been.

I’m sure for some – and perhaps many – of the people in my class, that’s it. I’m sure people like Emily and Tom did fine.  But for me? Who knows. It will take 3 months to find out. Given it is that long, the best thing seems to be forget about it for now. Put the Oxford Companion to Wine, and the various wine atlases back on the shelf, and move on to other things. I’m not done. Even if I passed Unit Three, I still have two resits in November.

A few final thoughts: There is much to criticise (as I have been doing) about how the Diploma is taught and delivered. A future post will deal once again with this. Having said that, I will miss the people and the camaraderie of the class, and even the exams. I don’t mean I’ll miss the exams. I’m not that crazy. But it was an interesting feeling to show up for them, and run into people both from this year and last.

As I have noted previously, many people have remarked that the main thing they took away from the Diploma was confidence. I was thinking about this on the train home after the exam. Even not knowing if I passed or not, I did feel a bit more confident having taken the exam and feeling like I didn’t blow it completely. I faced the beast, and the worse you can say, whatever the outcome, was that I went down fighting. That’s a nice feeling.



The running score on the Less Sociable Half’s Diploma exams:

Unit One (Business):                                                                                      Pass with Merit

Unit Two (Viticulture / Viniculture)                                                           Pass with Merit

Unit Three (Light Wines)

                Tasting                                                                                               ???

                Theory                                                                                                ???

Unit Four (Spirits)                                                                                           Pass

Unit Five (Sparkling)                                                                                      Fail                                                                        

Unit Six (Fortified)                                                                                          Fail

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