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Preparing for the Sommelier Exam? Here’s What to Expect.

February 18, 2020
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Scott
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Some say it’s the most difficult test in the world. Others say it’s one of the most difficult tests in the world. Either way, it’s not easy. We’re talking about the Master Sommelier exam, of course.

But there are other sommelier tests. Three others to be exact. Each corresponds to one sommelier certification level out of four. The Master level is the fourth and final level. And not all of them are darn near impossible to pass.

The first level sommelier test is offered at the end of a weekend course, and around 90% of students pass it. The next level, the Certified Sommelier, has about 66% of its applicants passing. The Advanced Sommelier exam pass rate is about 25%, and the Master Sommelier pass rate is around 5%. Check any Master Sommelier list. There aren’t many of them.

While the difficulty of each exam scales enormously with each level, the general content doesn’t change much. Each exam covers three topics, at increasing depths: wine theory, wine tasting, and wine service—including, of course, how to decant wine. Most sommelier training will cover these topics. If you want to take a sommelier exam and learn how to become a sommelier, you must become familiar with three areas of wine.

So let’s look into each area and uncover how they’re dealt with in each sommelier exam. And by the way, when you need to take a break from all this learning, take a load off by watching one of these sommelier documentaries.

Wine Theory

Wine theory is the academic study of classic wine grapes, regions, geography, history, and, of course, wines themselves. This is the component of the sommelier test that will make you a wine trivia expert.

Here are the topics covered on each exam, from a theory perspective. Because geography plays such an important role in the structure of wine knowledge, most of the material in the sommelier syllabus is organized geographically. Here is a list of the primary topics to become familiar with.

Geographies

The following regions are the regions covered throughout each level of sommelier test:

  • Alsace
  • Bordeaux
  • Burgundy
  • Champagne
  • Loire
  • Rhône Valley
  • South of France
  • Spain
  • Portugal
  • Italy
  • Germany
  • Austria
  • Greece
  • Eastern Europe
  • Switzerland
  • Australia
  • New Zealand
  • United States & Canada
  • South America
  • South Africa

For each region, you should have an understanding of:

  • Main, permitted grape varietals
  • Primary appellations
  • Typical wine characteristics
  • Primary production districts and sub-districts
  • Factors that affect the climate
  • Variety of local soils
  • Labelling terms
  • Percentage plantings of varietals
  • Yields per hectare
  • Climate factors and their effect on specific wine characteristics
  • Quality level structure
  • Which districts are entitled to use which classifications
  • Classic vintages
  • Production and aging techniques
  • Blends of grape varietals

Some topics under the umbrella of wine and beverage theory don’t fall under a single geography. Here are the other wine theory topics sommelier test takers are expected to know.

Sparkling Wines

  • The alternative methods of production used for sparkling wines
  • Principal sparkling wines of other European countries
  • Grape varietals and types of wines used in sparkling wine production in major wine countries
  • Qualities of major sparkling wines
  • Traditional production methods
  • Factors affecting climate
  • Characteristics of specific vintages

Fortified Wines

Three primary fortified wines are focused on: Sherry, Port, and Madeira. For all three, you should know:

  • Main production locations
  • Soil types
  • Production methods
  • Regional and quality designations
  • Key styles and producers

In addition to sherry, port, and madeira, those taking advanced level sommelier exams should be familiar with the production details of Malaga wines, aromatised wines like vermouth, vin de liqueurs, vin doux naturels, moscatel de setbual, montilla morilles, and Australian Muscats.

Spirits

The spirit section of the exam covers the principles of distillation, methods of production, and quality levels of:

  • Scotch whisky
  • Irish whiskey
  • U.S. whiskey types
  • Cognac
  • Armagnac
  • Calvados
  • Tequila
  • Gin
  • Vodka

At the advanced levels, test-takers must gain familiarity with the production and qualities of grappa, mezcal, pastis, ouzo, raki, akvavit, and flavored vodkas.

Liqueurs

The liqueur section focuses on the principles of liqueur production and methods of flavor extraction. Those sitting for exams are expected to know liqueurs by color and flavor—berry, citrus, herb, bean, nut, flower, and non-classified—along with an ability to recommend liqueurs.

Viticulture

Knowledge of viticulture is based around climatic influences, planting regimes, terroir, vine types, vine growth and grafting, vine diseases, pest problems, vineyard life cycles, and harvesting.

Vinification

In terms of vinification, sommelier exam takers are expected to know basic fermentation principles, the maceration carbonique technique, malo-lactice fermentation, the effects of oak and aging, and the effects of tartrates. At advanced levels, battonage, the usage of racking and fining agents, and wine ailments (volatile acidity and oxidation) are covered.

Beer & Cider

A supplemental knowledge of beer and cider production, ingredients, methods, and equipment is required as well. The primary beer types covered are:

  • Ales
  • Lager
  • Stout
  • Porter
  • Weissbier
  • Fruit beers

Beer topics include production, ingredients, mash and wort, conditioning, pasteurization, venting, tapping, and stillage. While cider topics focus on cider types, apple types, the use of pears, and traditional vs. commercial production methods.

Saké

The final area of knowledge around wine and beverage theory is saké. Topics include production, labeling, and saké types and quality levels.

Food & Wine Pairing

The food and wine pairing components of the sommelier exams, across the certifications, consists of:

  • The basics of food and wine pairing
  • Which varietal characteristics are man-made and which aren’t, i.e., oak vs. the natural acidity of certain grape types
  • Principles of food and wine pairing
  • The effects of cooking methods on flavors
  • Dealing with hard-to-pair foods and strong flavors like vinegar, vanilla, and chocolate
  • Matching specific wines to dishes giving a reasoned choice for choosing particular producers and vintages

The great part about food and wine pairing is that it’s ultimately subjective. With enough knowledge of theory and an expert grasp on tasting, numerous pairings can be chosen for a given meal. As long as the reasoning is sound and the pairing is aligned with the tastes and preferences of the wine drinker, there is no completely wrong answer.

Wine Tasting

The wine tasting portion of the sommelier exams begins with an introduction to the Court of Master Sommeliers’ proprietary Deductive Tasting Method in the level 1 test and progresses to a complete mastery of it by the end of the Master Sommelier exam.

What Is Deductive Tasting?

Deductive tasting is a method used to isolate and identify flavors of wine by working backwards from the overall flavor profile. When blind tasting wine, test takers in the Court of Master Sommeliers certification programs are asked to identify the characteristics of wine associated with sections of a deductive tasting grid.

By repeatedly tasting wines, tasters can place wines in certain sections of the grid. And having formed these references, it’s easier to do it for more and different wines. Having placed a certain wine in numerous sections of the grid, tasters can then draw logical conclusions to identify the wine. Repetitive practice with the deductive tasting grid also improves your ability to describe characteristics of wine. Which enhances your ability to sell wine.

The tasting section of sommelier exams is crucial. The biggest bang for your buck in terms of practice, at the Certified, Advanced, and Master level, is to make tasting with the deductive tasting grid second nature. And as your wine theory progresses, your ability to use your senses to place wines correctly grows by leaps and bounds.

The Deductive Tasting Grid

All successful sommeliers process wines by thinking through the grid. Invest a lot of time in it. Click the image for a downloadable version.

sommelier exam tasting grid
Image from the Court of Master Sommeliers


Wine Service

The final section of all four sommelier exams covers wine service. You may have experienced full wine service at a restaurant before. The wine service standards for the Court of Master Sommeliers are completely epic. It is the end-all, be-all of wine service.

For the first level sommelier exam, general familiarity with service standards at an academic level is enough to pass. To pass the Certified, Advanced, and Master level, you’re required to demonstrate proficiency in it to an increasingly advanced degree. To pass the master sommelier exam, total expertise in the CMS’s stated wine service standards is required. To give an idea of what’s expected, the areas covered in the sommelier exam are addressed briefly below.

Professional Appearance

Acceptable dress should not draw attention to oneself. Wine is the important part. Applicants must have pressed, cleaned professional attire and comfortable, safe shoes. Hair and fingernails must be clean with no excessive perfumes or fragrances.

Required Tools

Two bottle openers, two pens, one pad of paper, and two odorless lighters or match booklets.

Mise-en-Place

The pre-service setup, or mise-en-place, involves:

  • Making sure all wine lists are clean, correct and current
  • Ensuring glassware is spotless, odor-free, and steam polished with clean linen
  • Folding cotton serviettes properly
  • Cleaning and polishing under-liners
  • Service trays, ice buckets, stands, and decanters are polished and ready
  • Glass stemware must be the only thing touching the tablecloth; bottles, decanters, and corks must be on under-liners
  • Wine opening tools are organized
  • Wines stored at the correct temperature

Standard Service

Standard wine service is when the fun begins. It must always take place on the right side of the guest and consist of:

  • The wine list is presented and assistance offered, unless a corkage fee is being applied; but during the sommelier exam, those served don’t bring their own bottles
  • Sommelier prepared to offer recommendations and pairing options
  • Order is taken and glassware is placed
  • Bottle is presented, label out, and approved
  • Foil is cut and placed in sommelier’s pocket
  • Cork is removed as quietly as possible
  • 1–1.5-ounce taste is poured
  • Once approved, the sommelier pours a standard 5-ounce wine pour moving clockwise from the host, women first
  • Bottle is wiped after each pour and placed on an under-liner after all pours are complete

Glassware Placement

Glassware must always be the appropriate size and shape for every wine offered. It should also be placed to the right of the guest and located off the knife. Glass placement should be consistent among all guests, and glasses of wines for new wine orders should be placed to the right of existing glasses.

Sparkling Wine Service

Sparkling wine services differs from regular wine service in numerous ways, some of which are:

  • The bottle may be opened at a gueridon or side station
  • Ice bucket and stand must be prepared and the bottle properly chilled
  • Bottle should always be pointed away from guests and opened at a 45-degree angle
  • Remove the cage from the cork and place in pocket
  • After pouring, place bottle in ice bucket or on the table on an under-liner according to host’s preference

White Wine Service

Some specifics about white wine service sommelier test takers must be familiar with are:

  • Bottles of white wine may be opened in hand, on an under-liner, or on a gueridon and returned to an ice bucket or an under-liner on the table to the host’s right
  • Glasses are to be filled up to half full depending on the size of the stemware

Young Red Wine Service

  • Young red bottles may be opened in hand, on an under-liner, at a service station, or on a gueridon, but must always be placed on an under-liner on the table to the host’s right
  • Glasses are to be filled up to half full depending on the size of the stemware

Old Red Wine Service

It gets a little more complicated with old reds. Often these big-bodied wines benefit from decanting and have some sediment from resolved tannins in wine. Some special things to be aware of during old red service are:

  • A gueridon or room service cart is used for decanting, rolled to the host’s right
  • Decanting basket must be lined with a clean serviette
  • Light the candle away from the table whenever possible
  • Present the host with the label and gain approval before slowly pouring the wine into the decanted in one smooth movement
  • Use the light of the candle to look for sediment at the shoulder of the bottle, and stop pouring once sediment reaches the shoulder of the bottle
  • Pour the host a 1–1.5-ounce taste from the decanter; wait for approval or for request to decant longer
  • Serve guests in standard manner and place decanter on an under-liner within reach of the host

Screw Cap Closures

Some wines don’t have corkscrews but screw caps. Service is fairly similar. The bottle is presented in the standard manner and the screw cap is removed as quietly as possible and placed in the sommeliers pocket. The one difference here is that, unlike a proper cork, the screw cap is not presented.

Synthetic Corks

Treat synthetic corks just like natural corks in every aspect of wine service.

Cordial, Port & Brandy Service

A gueridon or tray must be used for the service of all after dinner drinks. It must have jiggers, three servietters, a selection of glassware, and a lined service tray on it. Oh, and the beverages themselves. After the guest makes their selection, the sommelier can either pour it on the gueridon with the jigger, then place the beverage on a lined tray and present it to the guest from the right. Or they can place the glassware to the right of the guest, then serve.

Storage

Optimal wine storage temperature is consistent and within 50–60 degrees for long-term storage. Wine should also be stored in an organized, accessible manner (with wine storage racks, cabinets, or other furniture) away from unpleasant odors. Corked table wines must be stored on their sides, and spirits and fortified wines standing up. They must be aware of optimal wine cellar lighting, too. Don’t store wine in direct light, near sources of vibration, or in overly damp conditions. Check out our wine storage guide for more details.

Purchasing Older Wines

Service standards apply to the purchasing of wine as well. Sommeliers must inquire as to the history of ownership of wine, along with how the bottles have been stored, how the bottle has been shipped, and how many times the bottle has changed possession. All bottles must be inspected for damage and leakage. It's worth remembering that sommeliers play a large part in wine programs overall, from wine bottle cost to pricing wine by the glass.

Suggesting Serving Temperatures

And finally, each wine has a range of ideal suggested serving temperatures. In general, sweet and light-bodied whites and Champagnes and sparkling wines should be stored at 42–50 degrees Fahrenheit. While reds should be stored above 50 degrees Fahrenheit, the bigger-bodied the wine, the higher the storage temp. The biggest reds can be stored up to 65 degrees Fahrenheit. Check out the service standards link above for all of the exact serving temperature.

That’s What to Study for a Sommelier Test!

This is the general outline of what sommelier exam takers will be asked to know for any of the four sommelier tests. With each level, the material is covered more in depth. Before you take any of the tests, though, visit the Court of Master Sommeliers website. As the body that creates and offers the test, they are best equipped to prepare you for it.

Learning anything at this level is a lifelong pursuit. Often those taking a sommelier test take it two, three, or four times. But it’s one of the best career tracks in the hospitality business. It’s also, arguably, one of the best career tracks in any business. If you can pull a sweet sommelier salary following your passion—which wine must be if you’re to pass a sommelier exam—then you’re one of the lucky ones.