By New York City Correspondent Sasha Smith

And so it begins. I had my first Diploma Unit 3 wine class last week, and I’m already feeling overwhelmed.

The Good News: I’m not the only person who isn’t in the wine business. I was a little worried that the class would be wall-to-wall sommeliers and importers, but there’s a small contingent of civilians like me. From a purely selfish perspective that’s good news as it makes me feel less self-conscious, but I think it will be good
for the class, too.

In my experience from previous courses, WSET students tend to overlook the more commercial end of the market, and those of us who have to actually pay retail for what we drink help keep things real.

I found my way into a great tasting group. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is. In my other WSET courses I’ve found that much of the real work happens in these groups — classes go by very quickly (see The Bad News, below), with usually no more than half a dozen wines to taste. Tasting with a good group of inquisitive, perceptive students is one of the best ways to learn and sharpen your skills. Tasting with a bad group can easily devolve into 20-minute arguments about whether that petite sirah has notes of clove,
allspice, both or neither.

We started off with Alsace and Beaujolais, a great place to begin. Bordeaux might have been a more logical place to start, but I’m glad we kicked things off with these regions instead. (And not just because they’re two of Lenn’s favorites.)

Labeling, varietal selection and classification for both regions are fairly straightforward, and aromatic whites and low-tannin, fruity reds are relatively easy to taste.

The Bad News: Our instructor, Linda Lawry, dropped some pretty
scary numbers on us. The pass rate for the exam last year hovered
around 60%. The exam is divided into two parts, each of which is graded
separately — a tasting section and a “theory” section with essay

Pass rates for the theory section are usually a bit lower, but I’m more
worried about the tasting part, where you have to write detailed
tasting notes about 12 wines, some of which you’re given completely
blind. And these aren’t just any tasting notes — you have to follow
very specific guidelines, which brings me to…

The WSET Systematic Approach to Tasting. We’re asked to evaluate components of the wine (body, acidity,
tannin, body, flavor intensity etc.) along a specific scale, from low to high.

I get it, I really do — it makes a lot of sense to have a very disciplined system, but sometimes it borders on the absurd. Are the mineral notes in that Riesling medium-plus or pronounced? Would you call that Beaujolais-Villages medium purple-ruby or deep ruby-purple? What’s the difference? (To see how the Systematic Approach works, see my tasting note for the 2005 Weinbach “Cuvée Theo” below.)

The class moves really, really quickly We spent about 45 minutes each on Alsace and Beaujolais, while the rest of the class was devoted to administrative stuff and, of course, tasting. We’ll be lucky if we cover 30% of
what we’re supposed to know for the exam during actual class time.

So, the wines and my notes:

2005 Domaine Weinbach “Cuvée Theo” Riesling, 13% alcohol, $35

The wine is clear, pale lemon in color. The nose is clean and youthful, with medium-plus intensity notes
of peach, apricot and minerals. The wine is dry with high acidity and medium-plus body and alcohol and intense citrus, green apple and minerals on the palate. The wine has a long finish and the excellent fruit/acid balance indicates very good quality. It could hold for 10+ years.

Without a doubt, my favorite of the tasting. Everything you want in an Alsatian Riesling. Terrific length.

2005 Domaine Zind Humbrecht Gewurztraminer, 14.5% alcohol, $30

The wine has a medium-gold core fading to a watery rim. Intense tropical notes, lychee on the nose with spices, peach and apricot on the palate. Dry, but the high alcohol level and full body give the impression of sweetness.  A very good wine, but I’m not sure when I’d have an excuse to drink it as I don’t love the Gewurztraminer/Asian food combo, and the high alcohol level makes it a tricky match in my book.

2005 Laurent Barth Pinor Noir, 13% alcohol, $30

I got some spice and vegetal notes, but everyone else picked up on a lot of red fruit on the nose palate
that completely eluded me. I’ve never been a huge fan of Alsatian Pinot Noir, and this did nothing to change
my mind.

2006 Jean-Paul Brun Terres Dorees L’Ancien Beaujolais, 12% alcohol $20

Cherry, spices, and roses on the nose, with cherry and cranberry on the palate. I thought the acidity was out
of whack. By this point, my low blood-sugar level was making me a bit grumpy (note to self: in the future,
eat a substantial snack before class), and in the margin of page I scribbled: “$20?! For this?”

2006 Domaine Chignard «Les Moriers » Fleurie, 12.5% alcohol, $26

This was more like it. Raspberries and chocolate on the nose and palate, wrapped in medium ripe tannins.

2006 Jean-Paul Brun Terres Dorees Moulin a Vent, 12% alcohol, $20

Did I mention that the class went by really fast? Yeah, um, I didn’t get around to tasting this one.

Stay tuned for next week…Bordeaux.