Tips and Strategies to pass the WSET 3 Exam

“Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.”

-William Butler Yeats

Wine education is a valuable asset for anyone working in the wine industry or for those who are passionate about wine. It provides a comprehensive understanding of wine, including its history, culture, production, and taste. Through wine education, one can develop their palate and sensory skills, allowing them to appreciate and identify different wines. Additionally, wine education provides knowledge about different wine regions, grape varieties, and winemaking methods, which can be used to make informed decisions when purchasing or serving wine. Wine education also provides wine terminology and service skills, which are essential for anyone working in hospitality. Overall, an education in wine is a valuable investment that can greatly enhance one’s understanding and appreciation of wine and can open up many career opportunities in the wine industry.

In a previous post, Wine on the Brain? Options for Wine Education, I touched on a number of certification programs available to wine enthusiasts who are interested in a more formal and scheduled way of learning about wine. Within that group was the WSET Certifications from The Wine & Spirit Education Trust, which is one of the most distinguished wine certification programs in the world. Having successfully passed the WSET 3 Theory and Tasting Exam with Merit, I wanted to extend some tips and strategies that I found helpful for others who are taking the leap into WSET3.

“A person with increasing knowledge and sensory education may derive infinite enjoyment from wine.”

Ernest Hemingway

An Overview of the WSET Levels….

WSET, or the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, is an internationally recognized organization that offers wine and spirit education and qualifications. Founded in 1969, WSET has grown to become the largest provider of wine and spirit education in the world, and in 2021 a record number of 108,584 students took a WSET qualification through the organization’s global network of course providers.

WSET offers a range of courses and qualifications, each designed to cater to students at different levels of knowledge and experience. The courses range from entry-level to professional level and are available in more than 70 countries.

  • The WSET Level 1 Award in Wines is the entry-level course and is designed for those with little or no prior knowledge of wine. The course covers the main types and styles of wine, including the major grape varieties and wine regions. Students will also learn about the key factors that affect the taste and quality of wine, as well as how to store and serve wine.
  • The WSET Level 2 Award in Wines is the next step up and is ideal for those who have completed the Level 1 course or have some basic knowledge of wine and spirits. The course covers a more in-depth study of the main types and styles of wine and spirits, including the major grape varieties, wine regions and production methods. Students will also learn about the key factors that affect the taste and quality of wine and spirits, as well as how to store, serve and describe them.
  • The WSET Level 3 Award in Wines is a more advanced course and is ideal for those who have completed the Level 2 course or have a good knowledge of wine. The course covers a detailed study of the main types and styles of wine, including the major grape varieties, wine regions and production methods. Students will also learn about the key factors that affect the taste and quality of wine, as well as how to store, serve and describe it. Additionally, students will taste a wide range of wines to develop their tasting skills and learn how to identify wine faults.
  • The WSET Level 4 The WSET Level 4 Diploma is the highest level of WSET certification and is considered to be the industry standard for wine professionals. To pass the WSET Level 4 Diploma exam, candidates must have a thorough understanding of the six mandatory units covering a broad range of topics including wine production, wine business, and still, sparkling and fortified wines of the world. The program requires a significant amount of self-study and dedication. Candidates will need to complete a series of online modules and attend classroom coursework and tasting sessions. Additionally, candidates will need to submit a research paper and pass both a theory and a blind tasting exam.

If you are looking to jump directly into WSET 3 there is no prior qualification required, this means that WSET does not require completing Level 2 before jumping into Level 3, but it is highly recommended.

Taking a Closer Look at WSET 3….

WSET Level 3 is a comprehensive wine education program designed for those who are looking to expand their wine knowledge and understanding. The course covers a wide range of topics including grape varieties, wine production, major wine regions and styles, and the key principles of wine tasting. As a student you will learn how to identify and describe the key characteristics of wines, as well as the factors that influence their quality and style. You’ll gain a deeper understanding of the major wine regions of the world and the wines they produce.

The course can be taken in-person or online. In-person courses are typically held at WSET approved program providers and are led by experienced instructors who can provide hands-on learning and interactive tasting sessions. Online courses, on the other hand, provide students the flexibility to study at their own pace and on their own schedule, with access to interactive learning materials, videos, and quizzes.

Both options provide the same level of comprehensive wine education, however taking the course in person has more advantages, including the ability to taste an array of wines which will significantly build up your blind tasting abilities. In class you also have the opportunity to ask questions, discuss the material with classmates, and receive feedback on your progress.

After signing up, WSET will send you:

  • A textbook with chapters divided into wine tasting, wine growing, wine making, grape varietals and styles of wine found within specific wine regions. The first half of the textbook is all about the how to, including winemaking, grape growing, environmental factors, maturation, production and more. The second half of the book covers the where, and is broken up into chapters by countries and wine-growing regions. The book finishes with a more in-depth look and explanation of fortified wines and sparkling wines.
  • A workbook which includes maps of every region, practice short answer questions, practice multiple choice questions, and blank tasting note pages to complete on your own. It also lays out the point system giving you a better understanding on how to study and pass each section.
  • A Specification book, that lays out everything you need to study: including all learning outcomes, the regions and various varieties that could be on the exam. Before you even begin to study, I highly recommend you take time to read through this and highlight anything that stands out to you.
  • A Lexicon, this laminated grid is what will assist you when blind tasting for WSET. It is divided into the the sensory categories of sight, smell and taste as well as conclusions that you will need to become familiar with for write tasting notes.

What to Expect on the Exam….

  1. The Blind Tasting includes one still white wine and one still red wine and is worth 41 points total. There is 20 points available for the white wine and 21 points for the red wine (tannin level is the additional point given for the red wine). This part of the exam typically comes first and you are given half an hour to complete it.
  2. Theory which consists of 50 multiple choice questions and 4 short answer sections which are worth 25 points each and can contain multiple questions in each individual section. The total amount of points available is 150 and you must pass both the multiple-choice questions and the short written questions. This part of the exam typically comes after the blind tasting and you are given an hour and a half to complete it.

For WSET 3 you need a 55% to pass, a 65-79% to pass with merit, and an 80%+ to pass with distinction. Overall WSET’s passing rate is around 50% and it can take 6 weeks or more to receive your exam results.

Studying for the Theory Exam….

Studying for the WSET Level 3 theory exam can be challenging, but with the right approach, it is not only possible to pass, but to pass with Merit or Distinction. One of the most effective ways to study for the WSET Level 3 theory exam is to use the official study materials provided by WSET, everything that you need to learn for the exam comes straight from the textbook. The textbook will help you to better understand the key terms and all of the concepts related to wine that you are required to know. From the textbook you will gain a better understanding of the different wine regions, grape varieties, and winemaking methods. Below I will share some other books to help with your studies. However, use these recommendations only if you feel you have a complete grasp on the information that is provided in the textbook or for example if you want to understand a specific topic, like the Solera System used in the production of Sherry.

Before you start your course try to find the time to read through the textbook and as you do, begin to think about how certain chapters and sections connect, paying close attention to words that are in BOLD print.

Photo Credit: WSET Global Website

An important thing to remember is that the WSET 3 exam questions are not only about understanding but about being able to explain important things about wine, like different wine styles as well as growing factors and winemaking practices from different wine regions around the world. The theory portion of WSET really digs into the ‘Why” and “How” of wine and it challenges you to be able to explain the many factors of how wine goes from vine to bottle. This comprehensive course will also challenge you to pull all the pieces together and make the connections between everything related to growing, making and bottling wine. 

The key word here is connections, the more you know about specific varietals and how they thrive in certain climates and growing conditions along with the winemaking practices in specific countries and regions for that varietal, the better you will do on the written theory section of the exam. My recommendation, bring the textbook with you everywhere you go, when you have time flip through the pages again and again. You will learn something totally new each and every time you do this.

Remember, every single question on the exam is going to come from the textbook.

10 Tips and Strategies….

When it comes to study techniques, each of us has different ways of learning, but one thing that many people have in common is that the more senses we use to engage with a subject, the more information we retain for longer. The real struggle is how to transfer all that information to your head, so here are 10 tips and strategies to help.

#1 PLAN YOUR TIME

The recommended classroom time for the WSET Level 3 in wine qualification is 33 hours in class, plus an additional 52 personal time, that’s a total of 85 hours total for a 9-week course, averaging about 10 hours a week. When you begin to add in supplementary reading, drawing maps, making flash cards, practice quizzes and exams, answering sample short written questions along with blind tastings outside of the class your time really starts to add up. Realistically, I spent about 20+ hours a week studying for the WSET 3 exam, and most of the time it ended up being more when I felt especially unsure of a particular chapter.

Effective planning of study time is essential for success in the WSET Level 3 exam. It’s crucial to allocate adequate time to each topic to ensure thorough understanding and retention. A well-structured study plan can help to break down the material into manageable chunks, making it easier to focus and retain information. It also helps to prevent burnout and reduces stress by providing a clear path to follow, instead of feeling overwhelmed by the sheer volume of information. Regularly scheduled study sessions also provide a sense of accountability and help to maintain momentum, keeping you on track to achieve your goal. By dedicating the necessary time and effort, you’ll be well-prepared to tackle the exam and achieve your WSET Level 3 certification.

Stay organized: Keep track of your studying schedule and progress to stay on track and motivated. Use a planner or calendar to set study goals and track your progress.

#2 Create flashcards to help you memorize key information

Flashcards are a useful tool for wine education. They provide a quick and easy way to memorize important wine-related information such as facts about different grape varieties, wine region information, and winemaking techniques. The portability of flashcards makes them a great study aid that can be used anywhere, whether at home, on the go or in a classroom.

The use of flashcards also allows for self-paced and interactive learning, as well as repetition and testing oneself in an efficient way.

When making your own flashcards pay attention to the fact that you will need to make connections between the early chapters in the textbook and the regional chapters that follow. In other words, what in the Red Winemaking Chapter about Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot connects with the chapter on Bordeaux? For each chapter write a variety of flashcards to include;

  • Multiple Choice (challenge yourself to include possible answers that may be similar to the correct answer)
  • Questions that will help you answer the short-written questions, like “Why is gravel good for Cabernet in Bordeaux?”

Or for example: “Explain the climate of Bordeaux.”

‘Moderate maritime climate. It benefits from the Gulf stream which brings warm water from the Caribbean to northern Europe. The vineyards are protected from the Atlantic storms by the coastal sand dunes and the Landes Forest. High rainfall which falls throughout the year.’

If your flashcard studies are based solely on memorizing flashcards, you will easily pass the 50 multiple choice questions, but you may fail to be able to compose adequate answers for the written questions. You will need to focus on understanding at a deep level that each of the chapters work to connect together to pass the whole exam.

If you struggle with writing up your own flashcards consider using an online flashcard website. My recommendation would be to use these resources and reword the flashcards to focus on the short-written answers. Resources for digital WSET 3 flashcards include:

“An investment in knowledge pays the best interest.”

-Benjamin Franklin

#3 Know the Maps!

Learning maps is a crucial aspect of wine education. The maps in the WSET 3 textbook and workbook will provide a visual representation of each wine region and are a valuable way to understand the geographical and climatic factors that influence these regions.

Drawing and tracing the Maps from the book played an important role in my strategy for passing WSET 3. By drawing the maps, myself and studying them constantly, I was better able to develop a stronger knowledge of the geographical orientations of each wine producing country and region. The ability to point and name each significant feature (river, valley or mountain) and add my own study aids like grape varietals grown in each region made the maps a valuable study tool.

I really believe that for a couple of the short answer questions, being able to close my eyes and visualize the map I drew of that region helped me immensely in composing a better answer.

#4 Learn to Read Wine Labels

Practice with real wine labels: The best way to improve your ability to read wine labels is to practice by visiting online wine stores or pay a visit to a local wine shop. Look for European wines try to identify the region, grape variety, and other need to know information on the label. Most of the time the grape variety is not given on a European wine label, so challenge yourself to remember what is grown in that region.

Example: A bottle of Dr. Beckermann Rheinhessen Auslese. What country is this wine from? What Region? What is the grape varietal? What does the word ‘Auslese’ indicate about the wine?

Doing this will help you to get a better understanding of the information and how it is presented on a wine label.

Also, Learn the key terms: To understand European wine labels, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the key terms and phrases used on them. This includes terms such as “AOC” (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), “DOCG” (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita), and “VDP” (Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter).

Knowing how to read the labels region can also give you an idea of the wine region’s terroir and the environmental conditions that influenced the wine’s flavor profile.

#4 – Study Everything you can about SPARKLING and FORTIFIED Wines

Studying sparkling wines is important because it requires knowledge about the different production methods, such as the traditional method, Charmat method, and transfer method. You need to understand how each method affects the final product and how that particular method is reflected in the taste, aroma, and bubbles.

Additionally, studying fortified wines is important because these wines require specific winemaking techniques that are different from typical still wines or sparkling wines. You need to know about the different grapes used, the specific winemaking processes, types of fortification, and the unique aging and storage systems used. It is a lot of information!

Studying sparkling and fortified wines is essential for anyone preparing for the WSET 3 theory exam, because one of the four theory questions (worth 25 points) will always be about these types of wines. This is because sparkling and fortified wines are unique and complex, requiring a different level of knowledge and understanding compared to still wines.

#5 Take practice quizzes and mock exams

Taking practice quizzes and mock exams is a highly effective way to prepare for the WSET Level 3 Exam and are a valuable tool to test your knowledge and assess your understanding of the material before the actual exam. These practice tests not only help you identify areas where you need to study more in depth, they allow you to become more familiar with the format and structure of the WSET Level 3 Exam. This can help you feel more confident and less stressed while also improve your speed and accuracy when answering questions on the actual exam. Resources for online mock quizzes and exams include:

#6 Get hands-on experience

This may not be possible for everyone taking the exam, but hands-on experience in the wine industry can be a great way to prepare for the WSET 3 exam. Consider working in a winery, wine shop, or restaurant to gain practical knowledge of wine production and service.

#7 Join a study group

Joining a study group can be a fun way to stay motivated and on track with your studying. Study groups can also be a valuable resource for getting feedback on your understanding of the material.

#8 Expand Your Knowledge with Additional Reading

Reading additional wine-related books can be an important aspect of studying for WSET 3 as there are so many books that provide a comprehensive and in-depth understanding of wine, its history and culture, as well as methods of production and how to train your palate. These books can also help to improve your wine vocabulary of this complex and fascinating beverage. They should however be a supplemental part of your study because as I stated before, everything that you need to know comes from the textbook. Sometimes reading other books can help you better understand a grape variety but it can also use different facts and language than what is used in the text book which can also end up confusing you more.

Instead of reading other books, what I found incredibly helpful was listening to the audio book version of a particular title. Listening to audio books on a subject like wine can be a great way to learn about and retain knowledge about the topic. One of the key benefits of listening to audio books is that it allows you to learn while you are doing other things. For example, you can listen to an audio book while you are driving, exercising, or doing household chores. This means that you can fit learning about wine into your busy schedule without having to take away from your dedicated time for studying WSET 3.

If listening to audio books is not something that you are interested in, then try finding a Podcast series that covers everything about wine.

#9 Watch educational videos to supplement your understanding of the material

Although there are hundreds of video’s on how to study for WSET 3 my two recommendations would be:

  • The Grape Explorer, on YouTube, has a nice selection of informative videos, that include quiz questions for WSET 3.
  • I highly recommend the free YouTube and E-Learning Course videos from Wine with Jimmy who I will discuss more about below.

#10 Taste Wines from Different Regions

Tasting wines from different wine regions is a valuable part of wine education as it allows you to better understand the unique characteristics and qualities of wines from different parts of the world.

It helps to understand how the grape varieties, terroir, climate, and winemaking techniques all play a role in creating a wine’s unique characteristics. It allows one to appreciate the diversity of wines, and to be able to identify the origin of a wine based on taste, aroma and appearance. Tasting wines from different regions is a great way to discover new wines, to expand your wine knowledge and is an enjoyable way to deepen your understanding and appreciation of wine.

When I was getting ready to start WSET 3 I did a lot of research to find some of the best information out there. Here are a couple blog posts that I found Helpful for the Theory section of the exam:

Practice and repetition are key when preparing for the WSET Level 3 theory exam. The more you practice, the more comfortable you will be with the material and the better you will perform on the day of the exam.

Preparing for the Blind Tasting Exam

The blind tasting portion of the exam is a critical component of the WSET 3 exam. Passing the blind wine tasting exam requires practice, attention to detail, and a solid understanding of the WSET 3 fundamentals of wine tasting.

In WSET 3 you are provided your own wine lexicon and Systematic Approach to Tasting® (SAT) and it is important to learn this methodical approach for tasting wine inside and out. From the moment that you start tasting wine during WSET 3, I recommend you use only the wine descriptive words from the lexicon because it will take some time to get used to using it. You should try to practice this approach as regularly as possible.

The advantage of taking the WSET 3 course in person is the ability to blind taste wines in class which gives you more feedback in what you (and your classmates) are detecting from the wines.

Consider keep a tasting journal specifically for WSET 3

Keeping a tasting journal is a great way to track your progress and remember the wines you have tasted. You can write down your thoughts on the wine’s following the WSET lexicon to include appearance, aroma, flavor, finish and your conclusions on the wine. This will help you refine your palate and improve your ability to identify different flavors and aromas.

When blind tasting a wine, it’s important to take your time and use all of your senses. Taking your time will also allow you to determine if a wine that you are tasting has a fault, like being “corked”. During one of my in person classes a “corked” wine was put in the back of the room but at the end of the class we were encouraged to taste it to help us decipher what a “corked” wine tasted like.

Finding faults in wine can help you learn more about it by providing a deeper understanding of the wine-making process and the factors that can affect the quality of the wine. When identifying faults in wine, you are essentially analyzing the wine and looking for any deviations from the expected aroma and taste profile of that particular wine. This process can help you develop your palate and sensory skills, as well as your knowledge of wine-making techniques and the different factors that can influence the quality of a wine.

Tasting a wine blind is immensely different than tasting a wine when you know what it is. By the time you start WSET 3 you will already have some wine knowledge including how Cabernet sauvignon is famous for its “green bell pepper” flavor. But, can you pick up those green bell pepper notes if you don’t know that you are drinking a Cabernet? I could write paragraphs more about how to pass the WSET 3 blind tasting exam but instead I am going to recommend that you read “How to Prepare for the WSET Level 3 Tasting Exam” from The Grape Pursuit.

Finally, for both the theory and the blind tasting, practice and repetition are key when preparing. The more you practice, the more comfortable you will be with the material and the wines resulting in a better performance on the day of the exam.

Most Important, take care of yourself: Make sure to take care of yourself while studying for the WSET 3 exam. Get enough sleep, eat well, and make time for exercise and relaxation to keep your mind and body in top condition.

A Moment of Transparency here, I did not pass WSET Level 3 the first time. While I passed the Blind Tasting with Merit, I failed on the Theory portion. Which in all honesty is completely opposite of what I thought the outcome would be, I was sure that I would fail the Blind Tasting and pass Theory. Go Figure!

My Recommendation for the Day of the Exam

When you open the theory packet of the exam the front section will be the 50 multiple choice questions, my best advice is to start with the multiple-choice questions first, but before you do flip to the short answer questions and read through them. This will help you to know not only what is coming next but will allow you to see if any of the multiple choice questions hold information to help you answer any part of the written answer questions.

Also, work through the multiple-choice swiftly and be sure to answer every question, even if it is an educated guess. Mark the questions that you were unsure about so that if time allows you can go back and double check your selected answers. Time is important and you will need as much time as possible to answer the short written questions.

During my second, and thankfully final attempt at the theory exam, the man who was sitting across from me at the table, did just as I did. He flipped to the theory questions first and that was when his mood changed and sighs of “oh no” started. When done reading through the short answer questions, we both turned back and worked our way through the multiple-choice questions. Unfortunately, when he did get to the short answer questions his sighs and sound of distress got more frequent and louder. A couple of minutes later, he shut his booklet and got up, dropped it off with the instructor and left.

I only share this story to emphasis the importance of preparing for the short-written answers and how difficult they can be.

Utilize Other Resources Outside of Class

Prior to the exam I sought out additional help with the Blind Tasting portion because 9 years ago, during my fight against breast cancer, I experienced an allergic reaction during my 2nd round of Chemo that resulted in permanent nerve damage to my hands, feet and the left side of my face. The face neuropathy took way my sense of smell in my left nostril and ability to taste on the left side of my mouth. Not the best scenario for wine tasting! Over the following years I challenged and pushed myself to move ahead with my wine studies and blind tastings. I didn’t let this disability stop me and with help from people like, Tanya from Cellar Muse (who I talk more about below), I was able to rework my tasting abilities, fine tuning the right side of my nose and mouth. This additional help and guidance really paid off.

After failing the Theory portion of the exam the first time around I dug my heals in and not only studied harder and smarter at home I used a couple of online resources to motivate and rekindle my learning spirit, these included; E-Learning Wine With Jimmy Smith and Elevage Wine Coaching.

E-Learning Wine With Jimmy Smith

If you ask enough people about how they studied for the WSET 3 exam I would guess that multiple times you will hear how valuable signing up for the online learning platform, E-Learning Wine With Jimmy Smith, was in helping them pass. This is true for me. I found Jimmy’s style of teaching and videos to be incredibly easy to follow and understand.

E-Learning Wine with Jimmy Smith is an online wine education platform based in London that offers a range of resources to help students prepare for the WSET Level 3 exam. The platform is led by Jimmy Smith, a wine educator and WSET certified educator, who has a wealth of experience in the wine industry.

Photo Credit: Wine with Jimmy Smith Website

The platform offers a range of online videos and quizzes to help students prepare for the WSET Level 3 exam. The videos cover a wide range of topics, including wine production, grape varieties, and wine regions. Jimmy Smith presents the material in an engaging and easy-to-understand manner, making it accessible to students of all levels. The videos are also supported by quizzes that allow students to test their knowledge and identify areas where they need more study.

In addition to the videos and quizzes, E-Learning Wine with Jimmy Smith also offers a range of study aids, including flashcards and sample short written answer questions on a number of topics from the WSET 3 textbook. The entire E-Learning platform is geared to help students pass the exam.

Wine Prep Course with Jimmy Smith are free YouTube videos that you can watch without signing up on the E-Learning site. When I signed up in 2022, the cost for a year’s access to the WSET 3 course information was $65, which is a steal for the amount of information that you get in return. If I decide to continue on with WSET Level 4 I will definitely utilize E-Learning Wine with Jimmy.

Elevage Wine Coaching

Another study resource that I used was Elevage Wine Coaching. Founded by Nicole and Amber, Elevage Wine Coaching is an online company that offers private coaching as well as webinars for students studying for the any WSET Level. Both Nicole and Amber are experienced wine professionals and WSET certified educators and they do an outstanding job at creating a study schedule which is tailored to the individual needs of each student. Nicole and Amber work closely with each student to assess their strengths and weaknesses so that they can supply study materials designed to help students develop their wine tasting skills, and familiarize themselves with the types of questions that will be on the exam.

Elevage Wine Coaching‘s expert guidance, combined with your own personalized study plan, can help you to effectively prepare for the WSET 3 exam and increase your chances of success.

The Cellar Muse – Tanya Morning Star Darling

Locally, I received help, as I mentioned above, for the blind tasting portion of the exam from Tanya Morning Star Darling.

A few of the wines that Tanya and I tasted together to build up my wine tasting confidence.

Tanya Morning Star Darling, also known as The Cellar Muse, is a wine expert and teacher who specializes in helping students studying for the WSET 3 as well as other wine courses. She has years of experience in the wine industry and has a strong passion for sharing her knowledge with others.

Tanya’s approach to teaching is very interactive and she has a unique way of making complex concepts easy to understand, by breaking down the information in a way that is easy for her students to comprehend.

I found her suggestions and mentoring invaluable during my WSET 3 journey.

Photo Credit: The Cellar Muse Website

No matter what tips and strategies you use along this educational journey, it is important to remember that the WSET Level 3 Exam is not just a test of one’s knowledge, but also a test of one’s ability to communicate that knowledge. The questions on the exam are designed to challenge the candidate’s ability to explain important concepts and information, as well as their ability to think critically and apply their knowledge in real-world scenarios. If you remember this than you will have a better chance of not only passing WSET Level 3 but getting Merit or even Distinction on it as well.

By taking the time to study and prepare, you can achieve your goal of passing the WSET Level 3 exam! Thanks for reading and Good Luck on your wine education journey!

If you found the information provided in this article helpful I would love to hear your thoughts.

All images and content copyrighted by Drink In Nature Photography and Drink In Life Blog.

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