What's a French Wine Scholar course at Yorkshire Wine School like?
Somewhere in the depths of West Yorkshire, there is a lock-up crammed with crates of amazing wine.
I'm not going to tell you where it is (full disclosure: I have no idea) but I can tell you how to get your chops around some of it. Get yourself booked onto a course with Laura Kent, owner of Yorkshire Wine School, who is also the proud owner of the lock-up of your grapest dreams.
Studying French wine at Yorkshire Wine School is seriously rewarding and frankly the most fun I've ever had in a classroom
It's 11.30am on a Sunday and I'm spitting a French wine worth hundreds of pounds into a bucket in a Leeds hotel. It's one of over 60 wines from all over France that I'll taste on the Wine Scholar Guild’s French Wine Scholar course taught by Laura.
It's the fourth course I've done across the Manchester and Yorkshire Wine School sister brands. Early in my food writing career, I decided to do the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET) courses (in its own words: "globally recognised as the international standard in wine and spirit knowledge") because I wanted to be able to talk with more authority on wine. I blazed through three out of four levels and a copy of Cork Dork by Bianca Bosker (hard recommend) and wound up as a subscriber to Noble Rot magazine, an avid tasting event attendee and a member of The Wine Society.
I was hooked. Not on the booze itself but on learning about wine.
After my WSET level three, I wanted more knowledge but I wasn't ready for level four which takes two years. Laura suggested trying French Wine Scholar. This course comes from a separate body, Wine Scholar Guild (WSG), a more niche wine educator that calls itself "the leading provider of specialized certification programs on the wines of France, Italy and Spain".
Wine School rules
Yorkshire Wine School is the Leeds-based sister of Simon Woods’ fantastic Manchester Wine School. Both booze schools offer professional wine qualifications like WSET and WSG as well as a packed calendar of "just for fun" wine tasting sessions - from seasonal cheese pairings to crisps with wine to all things Malbec - that I can also heartily recommend.
When I first went to wine school (the best kind of school, surely), I knew I liked wine but barely knew a thing about how it gets from vine to table. Since doing the FWS, I'm now really good fun at parties. I can tell you the preferred soil type in Champagne, which grapes grow best in which areas and why, name all the AOCs everywhere from Bordeaux to Jura and have a damn good go at telling you what wine is in my glass is just by swirling and sniffing. OK, I may have forgotten some (all) of Jura’s AOCs.
You can take the French Wine Scholar course online, read the tome of a book and buy yourself examples of wines to support your understanding if you wish, but it’s highly unlikely you’ll have access to the kinds of wines Laura has in her lock-up. She's done the hard yards around France, wine glass in hand, buying from the cellar door everywhere from Beaujolais to Arbois. She has, er, other methods of acquiring wine too. One we try that's now worth over a grand a crate, she snapped up for £3 a bottle. Laura is someone you really want as a friend.
Laura's expertise in wine is awe-inspiring but she won't make you feel like an idiot for possessing a mere fraction of her knowledge. Instead, she'll get you as excited by all things vinous as she is and you'll be damning her as your average spend goes up and your bank balance goes down. But what a way to spend it.
Why French Wine Scholar?
If you already have WSET level two or three and you’re not ready for (or not interested in) the diploma but want to keep exploring the crazy world of wine, the Wine Scholar Guild courses are ideal. I reckon it's also good for people who are already pretty knowledgeable about French wine and want to get some credentials to prove it.
There are Italian and Spanish WSG courses too but I wanted to start with French. Why? Well, France is obviously the most famous and venerated wine region in the world but I actually hadn’t drunk much French wine at all before I started studying wine so this was a great opportunity to dig deeper into something I had only just started to get my head around.
I have to warn you though, even if you’ve done WSET courses, this one's a toughie and even WSET diploma - aka level four, a two-year assault course of Masters-level wine study - students have been known to fail the FWS.
You'll learn more than you ever thought there was to know about soil types, pruning and vine training methods, synonyms for grapes (for example, Malbec is known as Cot in Southwest France, Cabernet Franc is known as Breton in the Loire, the Corsicans call the Italian grape Sangiovese, Nielluccio), you have to be able to remember which Beaujolais cru is the largest (Brouilly), the most northerly (St Amour), which produces the lightest wines (Fleurie), you also have to know the impact people like the Romans and the Dutch and the Germans and Henry Plantaganet and Napoleon and Phillipe the Bold had on the French wine world.
These and seemingly endless other brain-aching facts and figures must lodge themselves in your brain during five eight-hour weekly sessions (including a day that combines revision and the exam) in which you taste 20 or so wines a day. That's why you really should use that spittoon as much as possible - although not everyone does.
The most fun I've ever had in a classroom
Studying French wine at Yorkshire Wine School is seriously rewarding and frankly the most fun I've ever had in a classroom. I've already banged on about how great the wines are but foodie Laura - who also co-runs Once Upon A Vine, a great Leeds wine shop and deli, with her partner Simon - sources generous portions of ridiculously good cheeses to go alongside the wine. Think nutty Comte with Alsace Pinot Gris or buttery Epoisses with champers.
You’ll meet all sorts of characters on these courses as you swirl, sniff and sip wine at an ungodly hour on a Sunday in the name of education. On my course was the co-owner of a broadsheet critic-praised restaurant, an ex-Corrie writer and a woman with 40 tins of Fortnum and Masons foie gras in her cellar.
Wine is history, wine is science, wine is horticulture, wine is geography, wine is art, and so much more. Learning it all is immensely challenging but so rewarding too and I can’t recommend Laura and the Yorkshire and Manchester Wine Schools enough. I’ll be back to study the Spanish Wine Scholar course this year and I can’t wait to taste the treats Laura has brought out of her legendary lock-up for this one.
Oh, and you are surely wondering, did I pass? You’re damn right I did. I got 93%. That’s classed as highest honours. I have Laura's fantastic teaching to thank for that. I got a shiny badge an' all but, hey, I don’t like to go on about it.
Ten top tips for passing the French Wine Scholar exam
Read the book before you start - This might seem Captain Obvious but a lot of people don’t bother. You will be grateful for the foundation of knowledge and the classes will help consolidate it rather than introducing new information.
Use the online WSG modules - These were immeasurably helpful for me if only to shame me into studying even harder when I epically failed the quizzes at the end of each module.
Record voice notes of key information - that way, you can listen while waiting for a bus, travelling, cooking, doing housework or as a helpful sleep aid at night.
Test yourself - I made two French Wine Scholar Kahoot quizzes to practise. I also roped my long-suffering boyfriend into asking me Laura’s quiz questions as I crammed the weekend before the exam. His hilarious attempts at French pronunciation alone helped me remember some stuff.
Don’t forget to revise the basics - I will forever kick myself for at least two wrong answers I put simply because I panicked and forgot "obvious" stuff I’d not revised.
Don’t get bamboozled by the nitty-gritty - Laura’s advice was to learn broadly rather than too deeply, an in-depth knowledge of one aspect may rob you of marks in another you neglected.
Use the learning objectives - prioritise what's on the LOs above all - take note of the things too which are not on the exam too.
Be silly - I call Kimmeridgian Marl “Kim Kardashian marl” because she definitely drinks Champers and the Alsace blend Edelzwicker “zwick and mix” to remember it’s a mix of all the region’s grapes. Daft things helps me remember.
Don’t take it lightly - The WSG courses are bloody hard work as well as being a lot of fun. You will need to study many hours during the week on top of your class time so make sure you don’t have too many other commitments vying for your attention.
Do the course with Laura at Yorkshire Wine School - The amazing wines (and cheeses!) you taste will make the pain of studying far more bearable.