Established in 1977, The Court of Master Sommeliers (CMS) runs an intensive education and examination programme that guides aspiring Masters through four increasingly rigorous levels of coursework and examination, and finishing with the notoriously difficult Master Sommelier Diploma Examination.
In February, Rockpool Group’s Yuki Hirose travelled to England to take the test. He gives us a behind the scenes look into the grueling five-day process.
Over to you Yuki …
“In February I travelled all the way to Newbury, a town in the west of Berkshire, about two hours from London, to sit the Advanced Sommelier exam. ARIA’s Paul Beaton and I made up this year’s Australian contingent.
The Advanced Sommelier course takes place over five-days at The Vineyard, a hotel owned and operated by the very famous Peter Michael Winery in California. It has an amazing restaurant and wine list (of course) as well as a massive golf course.
We spent the days leading up to the start of the course doing last minute study and mentally preparing for what was to come. Last minute refers to buying a few bottles of wine from a local bottle shop so we could hone our blind tasting skills in the evenings. The staff at the shop must have thought we were partying pretty hard – every day we were purchasing four to six bottles of wine.
The first three days of the Advanced Sommelier program consist of lectures given by Master Sommeliers and the last two days are dedicated solely to examinations. All up there were 19 of us taking the course, although someone dropped out just hours before the exam as she was feeling so overwhelmed. It’s understandable; this course can certainly feel intimidating.
The lectures were, honestly, very intensive. Navigating through every last wine-producing region in the world within a couple of days, felt nothing short of insane, with just 90 minutes devoted to Italy in it’s entirety. Keep in mind, the purpose of these lectures is not to teach, but to reinforce CMS’ expectations of our wine knowledge.
The actual exam, aka judgement day, came quickly enough. The exam measures candidates’ aptitude in three key areas: theoretical knowledge, practical wine service and blind tasting.
Theory covers just about everything you can think of. Candidates have one hour to answer 75 questions relating to wine, spirits, cocktails, brandy, whiskey, sake and even coffee and tea. They used to have a cigar section too, but times have changed.
You need to answer 60 per cent of these questions correctly to pass. Doesn’t seem too hard does it? Here are a few sample questions for you to try your hand at:
Q1. Name 3 alleinbesitz of von Schubert-Grünhaus in Ruwer, Germany
Q2. What is the minimum requirement alcohol percentage of Palo Cortado sherry?
Q3. What is most northerly-located Grand Cru in Alsace?
How’d you go?
We were also given a ‘fake’ wine list of sorts. Candidates have just five minutes to work their way through the wine list and identify as many mistakes as possible, including spelling errors, incorrect vintages and so on. Safe to say this is a tricky task. Preparation is everything.
Most people who undertake this exam work in the hospitality industry so the practical component reflects what we do every day at work. The only difference this time was the ‘customers’ sitting at the table were a group of Master Sommeliers. It makes for a pretty bizarre environment.
The practical included: Champagne service, decanting wine and matching food and wine, while answering questions from the ‘customers’, who know a lot more about wine than you do. And did I mention there’s a time limit?
Exactly what it sounds like AND the most difficult section of the exam by a mile. Three white wines, three red wines, and a total of 25 minutes to verbally identify each one. Can you taste fruits, vegetables, herbs or spices? Is there any oak? What’s the acidity level? How much alcohol is there? What are the tannin levels?
Once you’ve methodically identified the wine’s characteristics, you can begin to draw a few calculated conclusions. Is it Old World or New World? From a cool or warm climate? Is it Spanish or Italian? Is it younger than a 2011 vintage or more than five years old? I wish it were easier to predict how a blind tasting will go – one day you might nail all six wines, and on others, you might miss the mark completely. Last year, during my first attempt at this certificate, it just wasn’t my day. This year however, I felt much more prepared.
In the year between attempts, I devoted a total of around 1000 hours (at least) to study and taste more wines than I ever had before. The only thing that caught me off guard this time around was a head cold just days before the tasting exam. My head was so sore and my nose so blocked I was feeling pretty concerned about the effect on my palate. With no choice but to keep going, I pretended that this exam was just one more practice in the long line of practices. I knew I’d done tastings under far more difficult circumstances, so what’s to stop me this time?.
Those next 25 minutes were pretty much a blur. What I do remember however is on the sixth wine, with only 30 seconds left on the clock, I went to change my answer, but then, I didn’t. After such a good tasting, why would I think to change my answer at the last second? Quite often candidates will change their mind suddenly, under immense pressure, and almost always it’s the wrong choice. Confidence and logic is key here.
I was awarded the Advanced Sommelier title and while I’m incredibly proud of my achievement, I know that I’ll never stop studying, tasting and expanding my knowledge of wine. At Rockpool Group, we have a wine list with more than four and a half thousand wines. Knowing and understanding it through and through is a challenge for even the cleverest of sommeliers.
There’s no time to rest on your laurels …”