CMS Deductive Tasting Format vs. WSET Systematic Approach t

Good morning everyone!

Forgive me if this has been covered exhaustively in the past but it’s been on my mind.

I passed my CMS intro last April and am currently taking my WSET Level 3.  So I’ve now been introduced to two approaches to tasting.

I was just curious on everyone’s thoughts on some of the advantages and pitfalls of the two formats.

I suspect most people on this discussion board are more familiar with the CMS method, so for those unfamiliar with the WSET SAT here’s a quick breakdown:  

It’s not entirely dissimilar to CMS.  However, nose and flavor characteristics are divided into primary, secondary, and tertiary.  From the way it’s been taught in my class, primary characteristics are derived only from the fruit itself as it comes from the vineyard.  So fruit characteristics (red, black, etc.), spice, herbaceous, and minerality are all included.

Secondary characteristics encompass consequences of winemaking techniques in the winery. So this includes oak, MLF, effects of yeast/lees contact.

Tertiary characteristics are those that develop as the wine matures.  According to the WSET, this includes things such as tar, mushroom, leather, and petrol.

In other words, if there is any earthiness or forest floor in a Pinot Noir, for example, leather in a Brunello, petrol in a Riesling, or gaminess or sanguine character to a Syrah or Châteauneuf du Pape, it gets tricky because these are considered tertiary and thus may only be described on a wine that is well on its way to developing or maturing, not one that is youthful.  Detecting these elements on a youthful wine, according to WSET, indicates a flaw apparently.

This is where I think the WSET SAT inhibits the ability to write properly comprehensive and accurate tasting notes, because from my understanding the examples detailed above can all be present in youthful wines as well.

That said, I do think there is at least one advantageous element about the SAT.  For Level 3 and Diploma exams, the tasting notes are written rather than checking boxes for Certified CMS or strictly timed verbal for Advanced/Master.  I think this allows for a more analytic and reasoned approach to assessing the wine.

That’s not to say that there isn’t something to be said for the CMS apparent contention that someone aiming for mastery should be able to succeed under pressure, but if the ultimate goal is accuracy and an exhaustive and well crafted tasting evaluation, I think the SAT may have the edge.

However, I also have seen many people much more experienced than myself articulate that tasting should be informed by theory because you really can’t understand and master one without the other and this makes sense to me.  This is where I would suspect CMS may provide a better context for analysis.  By requiring the taster to make judgment calls based on an informed foundation of theory on climate, old world vs. new world, country of origin, more specific vintage range, and ultimately make an educated guess what the grape is, the taster is forced to have a true understanding of the grape regions and, for lack of a better phrase, understand why wines are the way they are (this is not required in WSET Level 3 and from what I understand to a limited extent in Level 4).  

Whereas, with the WSET, if the taster wanted to, they could succeed in writing a passing tasting note by describing the wine without really understanding anything about the wine.

This, of course, is a double edged sword though for reasons that have been mentioned many times before.  By its very nature, the SAT allows for a more impartial and objective description of the wine by not requiring the taster determine the information listed above that CMS does require.  With CMS, and I’m sure everyone here can relate to this, when tasting a wine, with the understanding that they will ultimately have to determine the grape in the back of their mind, both inexperienced and experienced tasters may fall into the trap of describing the wine based on what they think it should express based on an initial conclusion rather than what it actually expresses and what the taster is experiencing via sight, nose, and palate.

Ultimately, of course, it’s not a competition and that wasn’t the point of my post.  The point is that very thoughtful and knowledgeable people have designed very similar but also very different systems of tasting and analyzing wine, both intended not just for the purpose of grading exams but with the intention of helping the taster understand wine better by forcing them to approach the wines in a structured setting.  So by understanding both schools of thought, at least for me, it’s helped me understand, outside of exam settings of course, what works for people in two very different parts in the wine industry and what has helped them succeed and helps them continue to grow as wine professionals and/or lovers.  This in turn has helped me grow and understand my strengths and weaknesses.

Apologies for the lengthy, rambling, slightly incoherent post (sleep was not my friend last night and brevity has never been my strength), but please feel free to tear my post apart.  I’m extremely curious to hear everyone’s thoughts if you have any interest in sharing on a topic that, as I guessed above, has probably been covered in the past.

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  • By requiring the taster to make judgment calls based on an informed foundation of theory on climate, old world vs. new world, country of origin, more specific vintage range, and ultimately make an educated guess what the grape is, the taster is forced to have a true understanding of the grape regions and, for lack of a better phrase, understand why wines are the way they are (this is not required in WSET Level 3 and from what I understand to a limited extent in Level 4).  

    Whereas, with the WSET, if the taster wanted to, they could succeed in writing a passing tasting note by describing the wine without really understanding anything about the wine.

    The WSET Level 4 actually is quite extensive and I don't agree for that level that you could succeed by writing a passing tasting note only be describing the wine without showing true understanding. Of course, that's not the case at the Level 3. But the WSET is very much a "walk before you run" kind of organization, so their goal with the Level 3 is to verify that you can accurately describe a wine and give some consideration to its quality level, which for a large portion of the industry, is all they really need on a day-to-day basis. But for those in positions of needing to make business decisions about wine -- that's where the Diploma picks up from the Level 3 theory and ability to describe a wine and makes you dive deeper into why a wine is the way it is. This analysis is critical to passing both the theory and tasting sections of the exams.
    In the tastings, nearly half your points come from your conclusions. The WSET already expects you to know how to accurately describe a wine since they require everyone to do Level 3 first, so its goal is to build off those notes and have you offer deeper analysis. For example, there was a Unit 3 (Still Wines of the World) exam a week ago and this was the breakdown of what you had to do:
    Flight 1 was 3 wines from the same grape variety but different origins. For each wine, write an accurate description, then in the multi-part conclusion you needed to state the country and region of origin, write a paragraph detailing your assessment of the quality of the wine giving your reasoning using evidence from the tasting note defending your assessment, and to state the wine's readiness for drinking and/or aging potential again giving reasons for your assessment. Then at the end of that, you had a conclusion section for the whole flight of 3 where you needed to state the grape variety and defend your assessment using evidence from each of your 3 notes. Passing answers must tie in your theory knowledge of grape variety's characteristics, regions and wine styles (where you do need to consider old vs new world), and natural & human factors affecting the production of the wines. You can't just say the grape and say because of this or that aroma or such and such acidity or tannin level -- you need to tie it all back to the characteristics of the grape, or region, or production method.
    Flight 2 was three different wines from the same region. In the conclusion you had to assess grape variety/ies and defend your answer and do the readiness for aging/potential for aging assessment. At the end of the flight you needed to identify the country of origin and give reasons.
    Flight 3 was three wines of the same grape from the same region but each of different quality levels. You needed to give a much more detailed analysis of quality for each of the wines, tying in evidence indicating growing environment, production methods in the vineyard and winery, and cost/sales considerations.
    Flight 4 was a mixed bag, which are usually wines with unique characteristics, non-international grape variety, or special winemaking technique. You usually need to identify grape(s), origin, quality assessment, ageability, and sometimes production or maturation method if applicable.
    From all that you can see that it would be pretty near impossible to pass just by writing a passing description of the wine. You really need to do the analysis to do well. You can also see that it's a lot like Miquel said above, that the WSET is more focused on objective analysis of a wine for business considerations whereas the CMS is deductive. The WSET themselves say on their website that they were founded because of the growing need for wine education for those in the import, distribution, and retail side of the industry. It's really just two sides of the same coin -- we're all considering wines for what they are and why they are, then relating that to what's best for the consumer. So it's awesome that you're doing both and are able to experience the advantages of each!

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