Last week I participated in a three-day course that covered the Introductory and Certified Sommelier qualifications held by the Court of Master Sommeliers. Of course, prior to this I focused on deeper self-study on various topics, and during my work in the restaurant I began to exercise more self-awareness as to how I performed various duties (did I cut the foil correctly? Did the champagne pop open silently?)
After completing the WSET Level 3 course a while back I felt my knowledge was up to scratch and just needed a bit more polishing. However, during the first two days, where there were only lectures covering what we were expected to know, I began to have an inkling of how much deeper we were required to go.
So many laws, regions, styles… and then we had to go onto the tastings.
The CMS approach to deductive tasting was quite similar to the WSET SAT, however there were some key differences. And after using the latter for so long with so many wine reviews, I initially found it hard to change my habits.
Also, after tasting so many wines I felt confident at being able to identify certain varietals and regions, however this confidence became tempered with each incorrect deduction. While I was able to pick out a nicely developing Barossa Shiraz, small errors in perception and deduction caused me to confuse Chardonnay and Riesling, and when the really exotic varietals started to come out (Torrontés, anyone?) I was beginning to feel nervous.
The Master Sommeliers at the lecture were extremely helpful and infinitely patient with their guidance in this case. As we all stood up one by one to give our conclusions for each wine, they gently nudged us in the right direction (“Maybe this is more ‘Medium+’ acidity than ‘Medium'”), filling in gaps that we may have missed (“Did you mention any spices? What kind?”), and sometimes even outright throwing us big clues (“Do you get more banana or pink bubblegum?” *cue laughter from the rest of us*)
Let me briefly go over the format of the examination. There is a written theory paper, a tasting paper (one white and one red wine), and finally a practical service examination. To pass, one needs to achieve at least 60% in all three parts. While this sounds simple and achievable, it becomes a lot harder under strict examination conditions.
Below are my brief thoughts and reactions to each part:
Very challenging questions, including multiple choice and short answer questions. I was very glad to have studied up on my Old World material, in particular France and Italy, but this was at the expense of other regions such as South Africa and the USA.
Being in a written format, and having drilled the WSET version into my system, I was quite confident in my ability to break down the wines into their key elements, even if I did miss the varietals and regions in the end.
Afterwards, after chatting with fellow classmates, we all agreed that the white wine was indeed a Chardonnay, although we couldn’t agree on a region. The red wine was trickier – I had picked it as an Australian Shiraz, but now I realise it lacked that signature pepper spice that is typical of it. However, everyone else was equally confused – their answers varied from Cabernet Sauvignon to Malbec.
Regardless, the examiners will never tell us exactly what the wines were.
I was assigned to Franck Moreau MS for the final portion of the examination.
While I did most things competently, it is the mistakes that stay fresh in my mind. There were three areas in particular I will have to improve upon:
- I need to open the champagne more quietly
- Make use of service cloths
- Study up on my cocktails and spirits
I consider myself fortunate and privileged to be amongst them.
Where To Now?
The Court of Master Sommeliers also offers the Advanced Sommelier and Master Sommelier Diplomas. Seeing how there are only some 200 Master Sommeliers in the world, this should give you a good idea of how challenging this will be for the person who choose to embark upon this path.
After going through the Certified Sommelier qualification, I have a new appreciation for the magnitude and depth of knowledge one needs to possess at the higher levels. Because of this, I find myself in no rush to throw myself into the fray.
I may instead opt to go for the WSET Level 4 Diploma, a much more theory-based and academically focussed qualification that runs for two years.
While I am happy with what I have achieved, I have no intention of resting on my laurels for any prolonged period. I will celebrate, drink and be merry, but soon it will be time to get back to work.
(Disclaimer: the above is merely a written account of my personal experience, and in no way suggests that this will be the same for everyone else. The Court of Master Sommeliers may choose to alter their examination format or examinable materials in the future, so please enjoy reading the above mainly as entertainment, or at most as a VERY rough guide)
Read more: The Making Of A Sommelier – Part 1