Exploring WSET: Advice for Students

Should I take a WSET course? At what level should I start? Which books would you recommend as pre-reading? What does studying a WSET qualification entail?

These are some of the most common posts I see on social media and online forums regarding the company I work for, the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). This isn’t particularly surprising; they are important questions for any potential student to ask and have answered. No one wants to spend time and money on a qualification that isn’t going to provide value to them. Who better than fellow students, professionals, and alumni to provide honest feedback and advice?

However, if such responders have studied some while ago or the discussion is a couple of years old, the answers and opinions might be based on incorrect or out-of-date information. For this reason, I felt that an article on the current status of WSET qualifications could offer useful information for the GuildSomm community. Perhaps to my disappointment, above anyone else’s, while it is unlikely to be rated the sexiest topic on GuildSomm, if it helps someone make the correct decision about undertaking a WSET qualification, then it’s done its job.

As the product development manager for wine qualifications at WSET, I take a leading role in designing our qualifications, with a particular focus on study materials, including textbooks, workbooks, and our Systematic Approach to Tasting® process. Beyond that, I contribute to the production of our Specification documents and the resources we provide to educators, teach WSET qualifications, and help to mark exams.

I sometimes get asked whether my job is full-time. I think some people imagine that my role involves making occasional updates when a piece of wine legislation changes. However, just like any other wine business, we constantly seek to evolve and to stay relevant and valuable to our customers. Even if the content of a qualification broadly stays the same, we are always updating and improving the way we present information, the support we give to our educators, and the quality of the student experience.

This article provides a quick summary of who we are, what we do, and why we do it.

A Brief Introduction to WSET

WSET was founded in 1969. It was originally established to offer wine and spirits education to members of the UK drinks industry but is now the largest provider of qualifications in wines, spirits, and sake worldwide. To celebrate our 50th anniversary this year, we had our first-ever Wine Education Week in September and launched our Future 50 awards, a collaboration with the International Wine & Spirit Competition showcasing young professionals with promise.

We currently have over 800 course providers in more than 70 countries, and our nine qualifications are available in up to 15 languages. In the last academic year (August 2018 to July 2019), over 100,000 students enrolled in one of our qualifications. These students include both drinks industry professionals and enthusiasts from outside the trade. Classroom-based courses have always been the most popular method of study, with many students valuing face-to-face time with an educator, the ability to taste numerous samples in a group setting, and the chance to meet other enthusiasts. However, we also provide online courses to broaden the reach of our qualifications.

Our Qualifications

As of August 2019, WSET qualifications span three product categories and four levels. The structure below represents the endpoint of what has been a gradual move from our “wines and spirits” qualifications into those that focus solely on one product category.

Wine Qualifications

  • WSET Level 1 Award in Wines
  • WSET Level 2 Award in Wines
  • WSET Level 3 Award in Wines
  • WSET Level 4 Diploma in Wines

Spirits Qualifications

  • WSET Level 1 Award in Spirits
  • WSET Level 2 Award in Spirits
  • WSET Level 3 Award in Spirits

Sake Qualifications

  • WSET Level 1 Award in Sake
  • WSET Level 3 Award in Sake

Three of the above qualifications were introduced in August of this year:

Level 2 Award in Wines replaces the Level 2 Award in Wines and Spirits. The wine coverage is largely the same as the previous qualification, but the study materials have been fully rewritten.

Level 4 Diploma in Wines replaces the Level 4 Diploma in Wines and Spirits. Our aim through this update has been to maintain the standard of the qualification while enhancing the student experience. The most significant changes include the following:

  • The removal of the spirits unit and the allocation of that study time to wine.
  • The provision of completely new and extensive student materials that have been developed through the involvement of over 70 subject experts from around the world. This new resource is online so that we can update it every year.
  • Amendments to assessments that ensure a range of skills is tested across all units and that there is ample time for thinking and planning answers.

Level 3 Award in Spirits is a brand-new qualification (not replacing any previous qualification) and builds on the updates made to the Level 1 and Level 2 Spirits in recent years. Students will gain an in-depth understanding of how raw materials, fermentation, distillation, and post-distillation operations are managed and influence the style and quality of a spirit. In order to keep the theoretical content manageable, the course explores a select range of spirits in more detail: Scotch whisky, American whiskey, Cognac, Armagnac, Caribbean rum, Tequila, Mezcal, vodka, and gin. However, the course also covers a wide range of other spirits including, for the first time in a WSET qualification, the Asian spirits of baijiu, shochu, and soju. Students will also taste and learn to accurately describe and evaluate a wide variety of spirits.

The new structure allows us to provide higher-quality, more in-depth spirits education for those requiring that knowledge without reducing our content on wine or increasing the time required for each course. Our wine qualifications haven’t become shorter; instead, the time previously dedicated to spirits is taken up with further studies on wine.

Our qualifications are consistent across all the countries and languages in which they are offered, providing a globally recognized standard. Each level not only represents an increase in the breadth and depth of information that students will learn, but also the level of theory and tasting skills that they will develop. This is reflected in minimum study time, from 6 hours at Level 1 to 500 hours, generally spread over 18 to 24 months, at Level 4.

At Level 1, students gain a basic knowledge of types and styles of product and how they are made. At Level 2, students broaden their knowledge of the product and its production options and can describe styles confidently. At Level 3, they develop a comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the product and its production options, and can apply this to explain style and quality. They also learn to taste and describe the product accurately and make judgements as to its quality and suitability for further aging. Our single Level 4 qualification is the Diploma in Wines, which offers an in-depth knowledge and understanding of the core principles of both the production and business of wine. Students learn to apply this understanding to explain the style, quality, and price of various products and to evaluate production and business options. They also gain broad tasting experience and learn to describe a wide range of products accurately, while also making judgements on a product’s quality and suitability for aging through detailed, logical reasoning—skills essential in many roles within the wine industry and when communicating with other wine professionals or enthusiasts.

For each qualification, there is a Specification, which is a document outlining the knowledge and skills that students will learn and be expected to demonstrate during the assessment for that qualification. It is a key piece of guidance for studying and revising but may also be useful to prospective students who want to gauge the most suitable level of qualification for them. We also provide a textbook for each qualification. At all qualification levels, students are not required to read any other reference books; all exam questions and answers are sourced from the textbooks. However, especially at Levels 3 and 4, students are expected to “use” the information given by, for example, applying it to new situations, making comparisons, or using it to make judgements.

We test the knowledge and skills gained during our courses through written assessments, with or without a tasting component, ranging from a multiple-choice test at Levels 1 and 2 to several exams requiring paragraph answers and a coursework assignment at Level 4. As our qualifications are designed for any wine professional or enthusiast, it is difficult for us to test such skills through assessments that replicate a workplace environment. This provides a point of difference from some of the sommelier-based qualifications.

Our teaching and assessment of tasting ability follows a Systematic Approach to Tasting® (SAT). Tasting skills are taught at all levels but only assessed at Levels 3 and 4. It is sometimes suggested that the SAT framework is too rigid or constrictive as it restricts the words that students can use when describing the beverages they taste. However, we believe that such a limited and structured vocabulary is vital when trying to calibrate students’ palates and assessing whether they are tasting structural components accurately. We encourage the use of more suitable, consumer-friendly language in work-based situations. Greater freedom of expression is permitted for aroma and flavor descriptors and in the reasoning given for quality and aging judgements at Level 4.

Due to our focus on the development of skills as well as knowledge, we limit the breadth of the syllabus in each level to the “principal” regions and styles across the world. The number of regions and product styles does increase through the levels, as well as the depth of information students will learn about them. However, even at Level 4, we do not aim to cover every wine-producing country and geographical indication. That said, at all qualification levels, our focus is international, rather than on a particular country, and on wines of all prices and quality levels. In this way, our qualifications may complement those that focus in more detail on a specific country or region.

A Skills-Focused Approach

Having said that our qualifications are deliberately limited in their breadth of coverage, what benefits does a skills-focused approach deliver for our students?

  • With the development of higher-level skills comes greater mastery. By the time students graduate from the Level 4 Diploma, they can explain how processes work, make links between cause and effect, compare and contrast information on two or more products or processes, gather their own information, evaluate available options, and make reasoned judgements, all of which demonstrate an active command of the subject.
  • The quest to develop skills can lead to greater awareness. We encourage our educators and students to get into a pattern of always asking why—to think about the reasons or processes behind any product or decision. The mental step from passively accepting knowledge to actively seeking understanding can be a complex one when it reveals how little you actually know about a subject and indeed where there are gaps in the general body of knowledge—but hopefully that provides the inspiration to continue learning!
  • Demonstrating the ability to learn new skills is valuable in a world where professionals are increasingly changing jobs or even professions multiple times within their working lives. Our qualifications help to develop a number of transferable skills such as critical thinking and clear communication.
  • Our qualifications also provide skills that are important specifically for drinks industry professionals and enthusiasts. These include being able to give an objective, reasoned argument for a product’s quality level and its suitability for aging, and also being able to make logical predictions about a new, unfamiliar product.
  • Everyone knows the feeling of studying hard for an exam only to forget a significant proportion of the information a week after the exam. As skills are learned and honed over a period of time, they become more thoroughly embedded and longer lasting.
  • Understanding key principles and being able to apply them to new situations can make further learning more efficient. Developing such skills may take a little more effort initially but, once mastered, can aid learning both in and out of the classroom setting. For example, understanding how high-altitude locations can influence the various components of the grape during ripening means it is easier to predict and remember the characteristics of wines from various high-altitude regions around the world.
  • The knowledge and skills developed in the Level 4 Diploma provide a solid base of learning and an accepted entry qualification for further high-level studies such as the Master of Wine qualification. The Institute of Masters of Wine and the WSET are entirely separate organizations, but most MW students have previously passed the WSET Level 4 Diploma.

From a qualification provider’s perspective, teaching and assessing skills is difficult; therefore, we are constantly seeking to enhance our proficiency in this area in order to provide the best student experience possible. We believe that this ongoing process allows our qualifications to offer invaluable benefits to students in their education or career, providing the drinks industry with highly skilled professionals.

Tips for Students

Read the Specification: The Specification is the handbook to the qualification. It tells you what you need to know and what skills you will need to demonstrate. If a topic is listed in the Specification and mentioned in the textbook, it can be examined.

Come to class prepared: Apart from Level 1, all of the courses require private study outside of the classroom. Your classroom time will be focused on tasting practice, checking understanding, and developing skills. To get the most from that experience, read the relevant section of the textbook in advance and have the basic facts at hand; the classroom sessions will challenge you to put this knowledge to use.

Read, revise, practice: Your exam will be based entirely on the contents of your WSET textbook. However, at Levels 3 and 4 you will be expected to take information from different parts of the materials and bring it together in an answer. For example, in the study materials for both Level 3 and Level 4 Wines, we provide examples of how wines of different style and quality are likely to be produced. Make sure you can apply these basic principles to key wines of the world and explain why they would be used.

Answer the question: Though it sounds obvious, not answering the question is a common pitfall in exams. Explain seems to be one of the trickiest commands; remember that whenever you see this, you are expected to give reasons why or a detailed description of how, both of which generally require making links between cause and effect. Failure to make these links limits the success of answers regardless of basic factual knowledge.

Write what you see, smell, and taste: Our tasting exams test whether you can write a comprehensive, accurate tasting note using the SAT. Always write down what you actually see, smell, and taste rather than trying to guess what the sample is and writing a tasting note accordingly. This, of course, requires confidence in what you are smelling or tasting, and that comes with practice.

Enjoy it: Although preparing for exams can be stressful, remember that you are learning about a subject you love and, regardless of the outcome of the exam, you will have gained knowledge and skills along the way! Find ways of studying that are enjoyable and effective and that fit into your life. Get to know the people in your course or join an online study forum, and make sure you still take time to enjoy drinking wine, spirits, or sake.

Further Information

The Qualifications page on the WSET website provides information on the scope of each qualification, course length, entry requirements, and assessment details. The Specification can also be found on each of these pages, and this provides detailed information on what topics will be covered and what skills students will develop while pursuing a given qualification.

Our textbooks are sent to students when they enroll in a course, but they can also be purchased through our online shop.

For details about your local course provider, see our Where to Study page.

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  • No one wants to spend a lot of money and time to study that will not provide the actual value in future work, choose www.reviews.io/.../papersowl-com to review the papersowl in the coming days. Who can provide them advice better than any other is that the senior students can help them to choose the best path towards their future.

  • Is more information in current format of wset 3 award in wines book,than it was before,when the spirits were includet?

  • Lukus, I was able to skip level one and two since I had my CMS, CS completed. I took a short test at my program provider and did a tasting note. Based on that I was able to enroll into level 3. That said, you may want to check with your approved program provider first. Things may have changed. 

  • Great article Vicky Burt MW! Having received the Diploma Qualification (and one of the last for both Wines & Spirits I believe) I can say the journey while extremely difficult, was immensely rewarding. 

  • Hi Stephen, thanks for your comments.

    I’m not sure where the suggestion that the SAT is moving from 5 to 3 descriptors has come from. The one scale that we did change from 5 to 3 in the Diploma SAT was Alcohol – which has now become ‘low’, ‘medium’, ‘high’ (as in Level 3) – but no others have changed in this respect.

    The Diploma text does sometimes give a range when describing the characteristics of various wines e.g. medium to medium (+) acidity, but this is because we are describing the general style of a group of wines and hence even giving a small range in this situation can be a generalization. In contrast, when students write their tasting notes it is always important that they write only one descriptor for each structural characteristic of the wine (not a range). If the examiners think that either ‘medium’ or ‘medium (+)’, for example, are satisfactory answers for that particular wine they will give the student a mark for either of those answers, but the student must write down either ‘medium’ or ‘medium (+)’ and not both. Students should also always write down what they see, smell or taste, rather than trying to guess the wine and then write a tasting note that they think fits that guess. The marking keys are always based on how that individual wine tastes rather than a theoretical description. However, the wines selected for exam purposes will always have been chosen to be representative examples of their style or geographical indication.

    I hope this provides some clarity, but do let me know if I misinterpreted your question!