You Can Do It!
Top tips for passing D3 wines of the world theory papers
The WSET Diploma, particularly the vast material covered in D3, is hard work but You Can Do It! This post shares some of my top study tips, and key exam techniques, which made such a difference for me in passing the D3 wines of world theory papers.
I have focused on the theory papers since the vast subject matter means the right exam and study techniques can make a significant difference to your chances of successfully passing first time.
These techniques were invaluable when I had a ‘bad’ exam. We all have those, where the questions don’t suit you or you start to panic. This is where good exam technique comes into its own (more on those later).
Let’s start with some study tips!
There is no doubt that D3 Wines of the World is the most daunting part of the diploma. The volume of material to be learnt for just two exam papers can seem overwhelming (it did to me).
1. Don’t drown in the numbers
There are a lot of numbers in the D3 study materials. Yields, altitudes, ageing requirements, to name but three. Too many for most people to have a hope of remembering.
But fear not, you don’t need to remember them all to pass.
The best piece of advice I was given regarding studying the numbers was, whenever you come across a figure like yields in the notes, note it down separately.
I set up separate spreadsheets for the different types of figures and noted down the figure in the relevant spreadsheet with other key information like country, region, appellation, etc.
The benefit of using a spreadsheet is that it is easy to sort the data into categories based on different criteria. For example, I sorted yields lowest to highest within countries/regions and colour coded them. Green for low yields, yellow for medium and red for high.
Of course, putting figures on a spreadsheet doesn’t mean you will remember every figure.
But it helps!
I found seeing the numbers side by side and in (colour-coded) categories did help me remember them.
It also had the added benefit of helping me remember the different appellations within a region and the differences in wine quality for each.
2. It’s what you do with the numbers that really matters
The key when answering a question is being able to interpret the information. Therefore, remembering the relative yield levels and which regions are low, medium, and high will help you answer the questions sufficiently to get most of the marks.
For example, if a question involves comparing two different appellation’s wine styles and grape growing.
Most marks will come from your ability to show an understanding that appellation A’s lower yields results in grapes with a greater concentration of flavours, a factor in their ability to make higher quality wines. Whereas appellation B allows higher yields, meaning less flavour concentration and lower quality wines.
Knowing the exact yield numbers for both appellations will get you a couple of marks, but most marks are to be gained from demonstrating your understanding that one has higher yield rules than the other and the implications of yield levels on the grapes and final wine.
3. It helps to visualise
I found that it really helped me to remember the details of a country or region being able to visualise it.
I did this by preparing a summary for each country/region after I had been through the WSET notes, using a standard template I had prepared. These headlines helped me to identify the key characteristics of a country or region.
And from this, I could visualise the key characteristics. In the case of Argentina shown above - visualising high mountains close to the equator with lots of hail was the image that helped trigger my memory for everything else.
4. You already know a lot of the information you will need to pass D3
Answering D3 questions includes using your knowledge of:
- Tasting information from levels 2 and 3
- Growing environment from D1
- Winemaking from D1
- Wine business from D2
Although these have all already been examined, many D3 questions want you to combine the knowledge from the previous modules and apply it to the material you have learnt in D3. Demonstrating your understanding and application of the materials.
I remember getting a question that was so like a D2 question that I felt momentarily confused.
Make sure you take time to review your notes from earlier modules and levels.
5. Know your tasting notes
Wine styles come up pretty frequently in diploma theory questions. When questions refer to a wine style, they are looking for you to include a tasting note in your answer.
Don’t miss marks by not putting in the full information. Colour, aromas and flavour profile, intensity, sweetness, acidity, tannins, body, alcohol, and quality. Include price range if appropriate to the question.
Most of the tasting information you will need for the theory exams (not the tasting exams) will be from levels 2 and 3, so have these at your fingertips as key nuggets of information to plug into your answers.
6. Get some study-buddies
I found it really helped to have some study-buddies. It wasn’t just for moral support, although that helped a lot in terms of keeping me going.
What made a big difference was when I realised, I was running out of time to go through the study materials in the level of detail I wanted to take. I found others with the same concerns, and we agreed to split up the material between us.
Each person worked through their allocated country/region, making notes which were then shared. They then talked through their findings with the group.
Not everyone’s notes were laid out in the most useful way for my style of learning but that was outweighed by having the key factors summarised for me. I could then go through the study materials quickly, adding any additional notes I needed to my study-buddy’s notes.
Clearly it is ideal if you can go through everything yourself, making detailed notes that suit you. But if, like me, you find you’re running out of time this a great way to cover all the material.
It’s worth noting that I met very few people during my studies who had been through everything in the way they wanted (unless they were resitting). In fact, I can only think of one.
7. Plug and play!
Having nuggets of information ready to plug into your answers whenever relevant will save you time and stress in the exam.
This was one of the most useful things for me in preparing (and feeling more prepared) for the D3 exams.
These nuggets are sentences or paragraphs you already have in your head, meaning you don’t have to come up with the wording for every answer from scratch. You have them ready to write into your answer whenever appropriate.
When is this useful?
Let’s head to back to Argentina for an example. Say there is a question that wants an evaluation of the Salta region and its impact on wine styles.
Having prepared a spreadsheet on altitudes as part of my study notes, there is a good chance I will remember that Salta has the highest vineyards and is closest to the equator.
But what does that mean for the grapes grown there and the resulting wines? This is where my ‘plug and play’ information comes into play. Start with context regarding the particular question.
Planting at high altitudes, up to 3,000 metres, allows grapes to be grown in a region that would otherwise be too hot, particularly important in Salta which is the closest to the equator of any wine making region. This cools the average growing season temperatures, extends the ripening period, and provides a high diurnal range.
Now I plug in what this means for the grapes and resulting wine. I have these as bullet points in my study notes, but I will turn them into short sentences in the exam if I have time.
I have had conflicting advice as to whether bullet points are acceptable as part of an answer, therefore it is safer to make them into short sentences.
A longer ripening period (and the intense sunlight from the high UV at these altitudes) means time for anthocyanins to develop resulting in deeper coloured wines. For tannins to develop and polymerise making them less bitter. Aromas and flavours to ripen and become more intense and complex. Whilst retaining acidity and minimising excess sugar in the grapes and potential alcohol in the final wines. The high diurnal range also means development and retention of fresher fruit and aromatic character.
8. Demonstrating your understanding and the implications gets you the marks
To get the marks you need to demonstrate your understanding that this region of Argentina is too hot for growing quality grapes (or grapes at all) if grown on the flat. It is only by going (a long way) up the mountainside will you get somewhere cool enough to grow viable grapes.
You need to show the examiners that you understand the implications eg high diurnal range, longer growing season, retain acidity etc.
9. Watch out for “evaluation” questions
However, our Salta question asks you to “evaluate” the region, therefore if you describe and explain only the positives, no matter how well you do it, you can only get a portion of the marks.
When asked to “evaluate” something you need to describe and explain the weaknesses as well (hail, higher UV risk of sunburn etc).
And you’re not finished there. You not only need to judge the strengths and weaknesses (advantages and disadvantages), but you also then need to make a decision and justify it.
This brings us on to exam technique
10. Exam Technique is crucial
With good exam technique you maximise your marks for the information you know. And when you walk into the exam room, you do know A LOT, no matter how you feel.
Examiners reports’ repeatedly highlight that students fail because they don’t read the questions properly, don’t answer the number of questions required per paper and don’t structure their answers properly, leading to repetition losing time and not gaining any more marks.
That all sounds obvious and of course “I would never make those mistakes”. But under exam pressure, it is easy to fall into these traps. This is where your exam technique is key.
11. Plan your timings
- Plan your timing BEFORE you go into the exam
- Practice writing to that time
- I know some people practice a full paper, but I found practising individual questions, keeping strictly to the time I had allocated was very effective.
- You have 120 minutes for paper 1 and are required to answer 3 out of 4 questions.
- You have 80 minutes for paper 2 and are required to answer 2 out of 3 questions.
- Each question carries equal weightings.
However, it is always worth doublechecking in the exam how many questions you are required to do just in case they change it.
The timings I worked to were:
- 5 minutes to read all questions and decide which ones to do
- 35 minutes per question split:
- 5 mins planning my answer - headings, topics
- 30 mins writing
- 5 minutes at end the end of the exam for me to double check my number was on all the pages I had used.
12. Structure your answer
Spend five minutes at the start of each question to plan out your answer, noting headings/topics you want to cover. I also gave myself rough timings for each topic. This is useful as it forces you to move on to the next topic or point. The more points you make that are relevant to the question the more marks you will get.
I know it sounds obvious, but under exam pressure it is easy to focus on one topic, wasting time saying the same thing slightly differently. That won’t get you more marks but making a new (relevant) point will.
The easiest marks to be gained on a topic are at the start of your answer on it. Make sure you cover all the (relevant) topics you can and maximise your marks!
If your writing is messy, write on every second line, it doesn’t matter how much paper you use. If examiners cannot read your writing (easily) you risk missing marks.
13. Answer the right number of questions
You need to answer 5 questions over the two theory papers, that means each question gives 20% of your marks. You need to get a minimum of 55% over those 5 questions to pass.
If you omit a question, you must get 69% over your 4 questions to achieve 55% overall. That is much more difficult to do. Even if you only manage to get a handful of points on your worst answer, you will still have improved your overall chances of passing.
14. Read the questions properly
Underline or highlight the key words which explain what they are looking for in the answer. This will help ensure that you read the question properly.
Think about what they are actually asking for - avoid the temptation to jump right in and start writing.
15. Recognise the type of question
The exams have different types of questions. This is where underlining or highlighting key words in the question can really help you identify what type of question they are asking.
Knowing the type of question will help you structure you answer and help ensure you cover the information they are looking for and maximise your marks.
I have already highlighted what is required for questions where they ask you to “evaluate” something. Other types include where you are asked to “explain” something or to “compare” two things?
If it is comparing the wine styles of two regions for example, make sure you mention both regions and ensure you include tasting notes for both styles.
Plan your answer - give yourself topics/headings to ensure you cover everything. Simply writing - [region 1] tasting note, [region 2] tasting note - on your question plan will help remind you to include both in your answer. Tick off the topics on your plan as you cover them in your answer, and make sure you don’t miss anything out.
Again, sounds obvious, but under exam pressures, it is easy to get carried away in your answer and forget to cover everything you had planned to include.
16. Practice, Practice, Practice
Do as many practice questions as you can. Do them under exam conditions and strictly to time.
One frustration I have with WSET is they do not publish past exam papers. They also come down hard on people who share question information - so watch what you share with others about the exams you sit.
Therefore, use every opportunity offered by your school to write practice exam questions. They are particularly useful as you will get them marked, with feedback.
Don’t feel ready for the exams?
You will never feel ready to sit D3, I most certainly didn’t.
17. SIT THE EXAMS ANYWAY!
The only way I persuaded myself to sit the exams was to treat them as mock exams, a practice run.
You must sit both the theory and tasting exams on consecutive days on your first sitting. Thereafter you can do them at different sittings. It is two very intense days and as I said, you will not feel ready for them.
18. DON’T POSTPONE!
It is good practice, and you never know you might get through either the tasting or theory, and it’s good to get one out of the way.
And you never know you might surprise yourself and pass both. No one was more surprised than me when I did.
19. DON’T PANIC!
You don’t need to pass each question in the theory papers. You can fail individual questions, so long as your marks for all questions (in both theory papers) total 55% or higher, you have passed.
Don’t panic if the question choices aren’t kind to you on the day. Pick the questions you think you can get most marks, remember your exam techniques - and go for it.
Even if you can’t answer a question fully, you will gain marks. I didn’t pass all the individual questions, but I still passed first time.