Week 1 of Semester 2 of the Diploma was a bit of a challenge. I’m not referring to the having to get up earlier than usual, or dealing with the Tube strike when I needed to get around London. Those were manageable, if not my preferred way to start the week. There are three related things I’ll discuss here, although don’t expect any massive insights.
The first thing that made the return to the classroom a challenge is the recalibration of the senses. This was partly because it had been over a year since I’d been in a WSET classroom, and without being able to check against a standard, one’s own sense of what is what may well drift. It was also because Week 1 was sparkling wines. The bubbles change things. They act, as our instructor put it, like ‘little microscopes.’ They amplify certain things, make them more noticeable than they might have been otherwise. But the acidity and the bubbles can also hide some of the sweetness of sparkling wines. I had a tendency, at first, to class the sweetness levels lower than the instructor did. More recalibration needed.
The second thing to mention is sensory fatigue. Even tasting and spitting, eventually you start to get a bit fatigued. They all start to taste a bit like, well, sparkling wine, particularly if you haven’t done so much tasting at once in a while. This ties into the third point, so let me move on to that.
More isn’t necessarily better. Apparently, the WSET syllabus states that Diploma students should sample 10 different sparkling wines for this part of the course. We went through 18. There were pluses to this. Quite a few in fact. We got to taste two vintage champagnes, albeit at different points in the day. We were able to compare three sparkling wines made by the same house. We tasted different versions of Cava. So, not only did we get to do some interesting and useful comparisons, we could also taste for different reasons: blending of grape varieties, quality levels, autolytic vs non-autolytic styles of production, and so forth. (For non-wine people, autolytic refers to sparkling wines that spend time on their lees, like Champagne. Non-autolytic doesn’t, and tends to be fruitier and fresher.)
And yet. Perhaps it is being out of practice of tasting so widely, or perhaps it was the sheer number. But I don’t think I can recall what a single one of the sparkling wines we tried really tasted like. Take the two vintage champagnes. I liked them both. Which did I like better? I have no clue. We weren’t tasting for personal preference. The first vintage Champagnewas the third wine, tasted blind, and in contrast with a basic cava and a supermarket-labelled non-vintage champagne. The second vintage Champagne was a Louis Roederer, tasted in conjunction with their Quartet California sparkling wine and their house-style non-vintage.
I left with the feeling that I had tasted some rather nice (and a few rather nasty, in my opinion) sparkling wines. But I’m afraid much beyond the very broadest of strokes didn’t sink. Would I have remembered more if I had tasted fewer wines? Perhaps. But perhaps not. And perhaps other people in the class were able to keep all 18 wines distinct.
Despite these criticisms, it was a good class. I didn’t leave feeling dissatisfied so much as overwhelmed. It may well have been just me, not the structure of the class or the 18 wines. (Although at least one other classmate did complain of all the wines running together by the end.) Plus, and this is perhaps what I’ll remember longest from our session on sparkling wines: Apparently Australian sparkling shiraz pairs beautifully with a full English breakfast. And funerals. Or so we were told.