Anybody who listens to Tim Ferris will be aware of the 80/20 principle. It’s a good one. And, I think this principle can be a great way to focus study efforts for improving blind tasting performance. Particularly for Papers 1 and 2 of the MW tasting exam.
Less is more
The principle, also know as the law of the vital few or the Pareto principle, is a rule of thumb that suggests 80% of effects is produced by only 20% of causes. The theory was first proposed in the 1890s by Italian economist, Vilfredo Pareto. He noticed not only that 80% of the peas in his garden came from just 20% of the pods but also that 80% of the land in Italy was owned by only 20% of the population.
Studying for the MW practical exam can seem daunting. Especially when Jancis et al release a tome titled: Wine Grapes: A Complete Guide to 1,368 Vine Varieties, Including Their Origins and Flavours. With this many grapes in the world it can be hard to find focus. Of all these grapes, however, just 8 whites and 8 reds have made up more than 80% of the marks of Papers 1 and 2 in the MW practical exam over the last 13 years.
White grapes (Paper 1)
For the whites (in order of importance), Chardonnay, Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, Semillon, Viognier, and Albarino (or dominant blends of) have made up 81% of the marks for Paper 1. Add Gewurztraminer (a pretty easy wine to identify blind) and that’s where 85% of the marks have come from over the last 13 years.
Red grapes (Paper 2)
For reds (in order of importance), Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Grenache. Merlot, Tempranillo, Nebbiolo, and Gamay (or dominant blends of) have made up 80% of marks. Add Malbec and you’ve got 85%. Add Sangiovese and you’ve got 90% of marks for Paper 2 over the last 13 years.
Don’t over taste
Observations like this add weight to Anthony Moss MW’s recommendation not to overestimate the number of wines you need to taste to be fully prepared for the MW practical exam. Having a theoretical knowledge and awareness, he advises, of some of the other important varieties is usually sufficient.
It’s a great feeling to nail the Zweigelt, Blaufankisch, or Assyrtiko. But, if you’re missing the red Bordeaux, the North Rhones, or the Vouvray it’ll be difficult to get over the line.
Never try to second guess examiners. However … keep focus
Over the last 10 years, generally at least 10, sometimes all 12, wines come from this core group of varieties. On one occasion in Paper 1, 4 wines came from “other” varieties. And, in Paper 2, three wines is the most in one exam that have not come from the core group mentioned above (and that’s only happened twice).
While it’s really important not to second guess examiners it is also really important not to get distracted by the myriad of grape varieties out there and to keep focused on the core, classic, wines.
As mentioned in Improving blind tasting (part 1): the best tip ever! having the characteristics of these, relatively few, grapes committed to memory will make a big difference to blind tasting performance. Knowing a few of the “other” varieties is the icing on the cake.
To give focus to your study 80% of you time should go into getting to know these 8 to 10 grapes really, really well. Intimately. The other 20% of your time should be spent getting acquainted with the others. Of course, the MW exam is more than just being able to recognise a wine. You also need to justify and argue well for why you think it is what it is. Not just the variety, but also things like region of origin, maturity, winemaking, quality, and commercial potential.