MW: the masters of wine

”My buttocks are clenching,” says Jane Skilton, MW, severely.

Listening to master of wine (MW) students read their mock-exam answers is giving Skilton’s backside a good workout.

For more than an hour, the students have laboured to identify 12 unmarked glasses of wine, practising for their real exam in June. One says a sparkling wine has good structure.

The expert pounces.

“That’s a buttock-clenching moment,” she says. “You can’t be subjective. You have to support what you’re saying with facts.”

What she is looking for, it seems, is a mathematical proof. This wine has these objective attributes, therefore it is probably this. The MW exam demands logic.

Since it began in 1953, the MW has been the most coveted wine qualification in the world. But saying it is difficult to get is an understatement. Once the Institute of the Master of Wine in London has accepted you into the course, you can look forward to between two and six years of self-directed study, although under a mentor’s guidance.

You have to pass a theory exam that can ask anything about wine production and the wine business. There is a practical that requires you to identify three lots of 12 wines, from anywhere in the world. You only get three attempts to pass either the theory or practical within four years, or you’re out.

If you can get through that (and most people don’t), you write a dissertation and then you’re an MW, which will bring you book contracts, consultancies and other professional trophies.

There are fewer than 300 MWs around the world, a fraction of the number who have attempted it. Legend has it that even to try risks your relationships, your sanity and your wallet, because you must taste the world’s best wines as often as possible and visit world wine regions.

Once a year you come together with other students for the MW seminar, this year held in January in Melbourne.

The seminar organiser, auctioneer Andrew Caillard, MW, sits in a side room, talking to English teacher John Caillard, his brother. “John’s here to provide assistance with essay-writing techniques,” says wine-master Caillard. This aspect is an Australian initiative.

“It’s proven to be a successful strategy for us. Our pass rate per person is higher than anywhere. The seminars in Europe and England are now using the same type of assistance that we introduced here in Australia.”

Yet the fail rate is still high. What’s the problem? Caillard says that while the wine industry attracts very enthusiastic people, many don’t have the necessary academic skills needed to attempt the Oxbridge-level papers. “If you’re unable to write, you’ll really struggle,” he says.

It is a myth that MW candidates need superhuman tasting abilities, Caillard says. He says almost anybody can be taught wine identification.

“A talented taster is somebody who’s put a lot of work into it. A talented taster is an experienced taster.”

Second-year student Kate McIntyre agrees. McIntyre’s family own Moorooduc Estate on the Mornington Peninsula, where she works four days a week doing the marketing, when she’s not writing and teaching about wine. She has been studying for nine years and has passed the theory exam. She is doing the MW because she says its international prestige will help her career.

“I started with a lot less knowledge than I needed to pass the exam, so the first four years on the course was catching up,” she says. “I knew I had a lot of work to do, but I thought I was a pretty good taster.”

However, her excellent palate memory has been less useful than she thought. “There’s no point in saying ‘this is sherry because it tastes like it’. What you have to be able to do is analyse what’s in the glass and why you think it’s a sherry.”

As for the financial side, McIntyre says pooling resources with other people and forming tasting groups is the key, as is going to every possible wine tasting. “It is expensive – but it’s all tax deductible,” she says.

“There aren’t many things you can do in this world that allow you to fly to expensive wine regions and deduct expensive wines!”

She is one of the students attending the afternoon tasting tutorial run by Andrew Corrigan, MW. It’s part class and part therapy session, giving students a forum to discuss their exam techniques. “My problem is timing,” says one. “I can’t write fast enough.” Another: “I need more work on tasting notes.”

“You must sound like an MW,” advises Corrigan. “Take a stand and then justify it.” He also has two cunning strategies up his sleeve: forks and DAFTA.

“Remember your forks,” he says. “The point at which you have to take a decision, where it could be one thing or another.”

Each grape variety has its own special characteristics, which will be layered with another set of characteristics depending on where it’s grown. So what students need is not a vast taste memory, but an encyclopedic knowledge that lets them consider and discard possibilities.

It works like this: your red wine smells of capsicum, blackcurrant and cedar. Fork: although shiraz can smell of blackcurrant, capsicum is typical of cabernet sauvignon. The cedar smell suggests expensive French oak. Fork: whoever made it has spent money on it. You sip the wine and the high level of alcohol knocks you over. Fork: high alcohol, high quality cabernet sauvignon is made in both Australia and California. And so on, down the forks. You could be wrong, but your working out will win you marks.

If you’re really stuck for an answer, Corrigan says go for DAFTA: dryness, alcohol, fruit, tannins and acidity.

Say something about each of these wine components and you’ll pick up marks.

Some get angry and declare the MW a waste of time. Corrigan says that while the MW is difficult, it is possible to achieve.”You have to be humble and work hard. That’s what will get you through.”

That plus DAFTA. And a sensitive backside can’t hurt.

Felicity Carter

This article first appeared in The Age. Since its publication, Kate McIntyre has become an MW.