I used to think sweet wine was for the unrefined palates of barely-legal adults. And while it’s true that there are hundreds of cheap and cheerful wines with enough residual sugar in them to preserve a moose, there is a whole other sultry world of masterfully-crafted fortified wines that offer the perfect punctuation to any meal or occasion.

From the Sherries of Spain and the Madeiras of Portugal to the Rutherglen Muscats of Australia (and so many more), these honeyed elixirs are a long-standing tradition in global wine-making history, which is exactly why an entire module of the WSET Ⓡ Diploma has been dedicated to their study.

That’s why you’re here: you’re looking for advice on how to ace the WSET D5 exam on Fortified Wines. And that’s exactly what we’re gonna give you in this study guide!

Hi! We’re Brainscape

We’re the world’s smartest study app with a comprehensive set of expert-curated adaptive flashcards on the WSET D5 course in Fortified Wines. With Master Sommelier candidate and Certified Wine Educator Sarah Looper at the reins, we’ve distilled the entire WSET curriculum on fortified wines into a collection of 450+ flashcards. You can use these to drill yourself (using our intelligent spaced repetition algorithm) on the key facts you need to know about the principal fortified wines of the world!

Brainscape's WSET D5 Fortified Wine flashcards
The home base of Brainscape’s WSET Diploma D5 module on Fortified Wines

We’ve also compiled a comprehensive collection of study guides and digital flashcards for these other WSET Diploma exams and upgrading to Pro gets you access to all of them for the same price: 

Naturally, with such a wine nerd extraordinaire at our disposal, we couldn’t pass up on the opportunity to plunder Sarah’s impressive mental coffers for her best advice on acing the written and tasting portion of the D5 exam. And so we have two powerful resources to help you kick butt: (1) this ultimate study guide and (2) our collection of WSET D5 Fortified Wine flashcards, which you simply have to get your hands on!

Armed with both, you’ll have the tools and strategies you need to do exceedingly well on the WSET D5 exam!

Are you ready? Let’s get started!

[The WSET Ⓡ or Wine & Spirits Education Trust provides globally recognised education and qualifications in wines, spirits, and sake, for professionals and enthusiasts. Our flashcards are a complement to—not replacement of—their full course and textbooks.]

What you need to know about WSET Diploma D5: Your checklist

Fortified wine, sherry, pouring into glass

When cramming an enormous volume of information into your noodle, it really helps you to know what the intended learning outcomes are. Keeping these outcomes in mind will keep everything you’re learning in perspective, helping you to stay focused and avoid wasting time learning stuff that isn’t all that pertinent.

Now, the peeps at WSET have made your life super easy by explicitly stating those key learning outcomes (assessment criteria) in this specifications sheet and they are as follows:

  • Describe the principal fortified wines in terms of style, quality, and price. Those wines are Rutherglen Muscat (Australia); Vins Doux Naturels (fortified Grenache and fortified Muscat from France); Madeira and Port (Portugal); and Sherry (Spain).
  • Describe the growing environment, grape growing options, and winemaking options involved in the production of the principal fortified wines.
  • Explain how the growing environment, grape growing options, and winemaking options influence the style, quality, and price of the principal fortified wines.
  • Compare the style, quality, and price of the principal fortified wines in terms of the growing environment, grape growing options and winemaking options.
  • Explain how industry associations and labeling terms and wine business influence the style, quality, and price of the principal fortified wines.
  • Taste, describe, and evaluate fortified wines using the WSET Level 4 Systematic Approach to Tasting Wine ® (SAT). Your tasting notes must describe the structural characteristics of each wine, drawing conclusions on wine origin, grape variety, quality level, method of production, and/or the potential for aging.

The day you can confidently say “yes, I can do all of the above!” is the day you’re ready to take the WSET Diploma D5 exam. And what a sweet day that’ll be.

Right now, however, let’s look at some super helpful tips on getting all that content off the pages of your textbook / recommended reading and into your noggin.

[If you’re as geeky about wine as we are, join our Wine Community in Discord where we share all of our coolest facts, food pairing tips, wine life hacks, trivia, and so much more. Here, you can chat to other wine nerds from around the world and just generally live your best wine life!]

Insider tips for passing the WSET D5 module on fortified wines

Sweet dessert wine in glass

Tip # 1: Don’t underestimate the WSET D5 exam

A lot of students mistakenly think that the WSET D5 exam is easy compared with D3 or D4, for example, because it only tests you on five wine ranges. That’s a pretty significant change of pace from what you’re used to! But hear this (and hear it well): what the D5 lacks in breadth it more than makes up for in depth, which means you need to know each region and each range of wine better than you know your ABCs.

From climate, soils, grape varieties, and grape characteristics to production methods, aging requirements, famous producers, and other pertinent market information: you have to know it all and, super importantly, be able to use that information to motivate your answers on the written paper and explain your observations in the blind tasting.

It’s a lot! So, our first tip is not to underestimate the WSET Diploma D5 course and exam.

Tip # 2: Make sure your D1 Wine Production knowledge is FRESH

In our article ‘How to pass the WSET 4 D1 exam on Wine Production’, we drove home just how important it was to treat the D1 module on Wine Production as the foundation for all future learning. And now the future has arrived! So even though the D1 exam is firmly in your rearview mirror, you should be just as fluent in that module’s content as the day you walked into the exam. Why?

Because D1 provides the essential foundation of knowledge that you will be using to understand what is taught in D5. And so our advice is to begin with a sweeping review of D1’s content, which you can do really efficiently and effortlessly with Brainscape’s certified D1 Wine Production flashcards.

Brainscape's WSET D1 Wine Production flashcards

You may feel like you know this stuff well (and we hope you do!) but kicking off your study of D5 Fortified Wines with just a few hours’ worth of general Wine Production review will ensure that you start off on the right foot. And if you need flashcards for the other WSET Diploma modules, you'll find them right here (upgrading to Pro will get you uncompromised access to them all for the same price!)

Tip # 3: Prepare your brain for an information tsunami

Tsunami wave of content

As we alluded to earlier, the WSET D5 module may only require you to know five wine ranges, but it dives into each of these ranges in great depth. So it’s important that you plan your studies intelligently, mix up your study modes to prevent fatigue, and use efficient learning techniques. Here are some hard-and-fast tips on how to do that:

  • Start studying early, with plenty of time to beat the facts into your brain.
  • Strictly stick to the WSET textbook and required reading. Every question they ask will come from the textbook, so don’t waste time going down rabbit holes.
  • Begin by creating a detailed, well-laid-out study plan, and stick to it.
  • Use visual tools like concept maps and detailed regional maps to help you understand how every element of wine making and production relates to the key fortified wines.
  • Practice questions and exams as early on in your prep as possible so that you understand how the information will be tested (and, therefore, what you’re studying for).
  • Schedule in frequent review of older material so that nothing fades from memory. Brainscape’s WSET D5 flashcards automate this kind of review, making it accessible and convenient for you to stay on top of things. In fact, being an app on your phone, you can sneak in powerful review sessions anywhere; and whenever you find yourself with 5 or 10 minutes to kill.
  • Don’t just memorize the facts, understand them and how they relate to the greater tapestry that is terroir, viticulture, climate, winemaking, and so on.
  • Include group study sessions! They’re great for staying motivated, addressing problem areas, and tasting practice. They also help to keep your costs low, since you’ll be able to split the cost of the wines you’re tasting. Just make sure you read ‘When to study in groups, and how to do it’ to keep group study on track.
  • Don’t avoid your weaknesses: focus on them! It can be tempting to gloss over things that confuzzle your brain but if there’s a weakness in your ken, it could affect your understanding of the greater picture, which can put a serious dent in your exam performance.

These tips, together with the next one, will help you stay focused and efficient as you face down the oncoming tsunami of information the WSET D5 Fortified Wines brings. You might also find our seminal study guide—‘How to study effectively: the ultimate guide’—really helpful.

Tip # 4: Use flashcards: a powerful tool for learning and consolidating the facts

Dashboard for Fortified Wine flashcards on Brainscape
Brainscape has broken down the WSET D5 course on fortified wines into 8 neatly organized decks of 450+ flashcards, which you can access anywhere, anytime via web or mobile. The dashboard is the central hub from which you can study your flashcard decks on topics like Sherry, Port, and Madeira, and keep tabs on your progress.

Okay, we’ve mentioned Brainscape’s legendary WSET D5 Fortified Wines flashcards a few times already but now I want to explain just why they’re so effective as a study tool for this particular exam. In short, these flashcards help you:

  1. Prioritize the most important information: We’ve already broken down the entire curriculum into all the fundamental facts you need to know to do well on the exam, saving you time (1) trying to discern what’s important and (2) making the flashcards yourself.
  2. Learn and understand the facts: We’ve not only broken down the curriculum into the facts you must know but also provide an explanation for those facts so that you really understand how it all fits into the greater tapestry of wine production.
 Brainscape's certified Fortified Wine flashcards
With Brainscape’s mobile app, you can sneak in quick study sessions wherever you go. And if you download a deck or several decks when you have Wi-Fi access, you can study offline too!
  1. Efficiently memorize the facts: Brainscape’s adaptive spaced repetition algorithm is engineered to help you learn TWICE as efficiently as traditional study methods, drilling you on your weaknesses, while automatically repeating the content you’ve learned at just the right time interval so that you never forget it.
  2. Conveniently review anytime, anywhere, and on any device; even offline: By repurposing those 5, 10, and 15 minutes of downtime you have in the gym, on the bus, waiting for the train, between classes, or in the bath (wherever really), you can add an hour or more of quality study time to every day!
  3. Keep a finger on the pulse of your progress: With ongoing feedback, statistics, and visualization tools to help you track your progress, you’ll always know exactly how far you’ve come and how far you’ve got to go to reach 100% mastery!

So, yeah, Brainscape’s set of WSET D5 Fortified Wine flashcards really are a powerful study tool you can use to score well on the final exam. We also have comprehensive collections of flashcards for D1 (Wine Production), D3 (Wines of the World), and D4 (Sparkling Wine) with D2 (Business of Wine) on the way!

Tip # 5: Dry facts aren’t enough to do well

Sweet grapes on the vine

We’ve already touched on this but it’s worth driving home: dry facts are not enough to do well on the WSET Diploma exams. (This is precisely why we’ve gone to great lengths to ensure that the facts our flashcards deliver also contain a little exposition.) You need to understand how each fact relates to the greater picture and is tied to all other spheres of wine production.

Remember, the WSET Diploma requires skills of analysis and logical thinking. So when, for example, writing about Fino Sherry, you must be able to explain not just how this wine tastes but why, relating flavors, aromas, acidity, and alcohol to factors such as climate, soil, and production methods, etc.

Tip # 6: Read the examiners’ reports from the previous years

A crucial element of exam prep is reading and analyzing WSET examiners’ reports from the previous years. Here’s an example of such a report. These reports include comments and examples of good and bad answers, which you can learn from and keep in mind as you practice your own exam questions. They also show you what level of knowledge is required and how answers should be structured: two very important things for doing well on the written portion of the WSET Diploma D5 exam!

Now thankfully, there’s another pretty awesome resource for this kind of feedback and it’s the WSET’s Diploma Assessment Preparation Scheme (DAPS) of the WSET Global Campus, which brings us to our next tip …

Tip # 6: Make use of the WSET’s Diploma Assessment Preparation Scheme

Fortified wine tasting flight

DAPS essentially allows students to take a practice exam that is reviewed by one of the WSET's examiners. The feedback they provide then gives you an idea of:

  • How the test is conducted and graded,
  • How to manage your time, and
  • How well you are set to do considering your current level of content knowledge and essay-writing skills.

DAPS has sample tests for each module of the WSET Diploma and while it costs money to take them, they are pretty useful for preparing you for “the real thing”.

Full disclosure, this resource kinda gets mixed reviews from Diploma students. Most love that you get a real examiner to give you feedback on your exam questions, but some feel that the feedback can be very brief or even harsh. There’s also a feeling on certain forums that the system is hard and frustrating to navigate. Buuuut, the overall feeling is that DAPS is absolutely worth it for the practice and insights it provides!

Sarah’s unofficial “cheat sheet” (things you really, really should know)

Fortified wine cellar maturation

So now that we’ve covered 6 solid tips for acing the WSET D5 module on Fortified Wines, let’s take a look at the major learning goals and themes that often come up in the exam and, therefore, what you definitely need to know going into it:

  • Know what grapes are used to make each fortified wine, the soil they’re grown in, and when they are picked. Are they underripe, ripe, or overripe? In Sherry, for example, Palomino is harvested at 12% potential alcohol—ripe—while Moscatel and Pedro Ximenez grape varieties are harvested later for their higher concentrations of sugar, which makes the grapes' drying process easier.
  • Know how the wines themselves are fortified: at what stage in their production are they fortified and with what? For example, Rutherglen Muscat is fortified with a neutral grape spirit prior to maturation.
  • Know how the various fortified wines are matured and in what size and material vessels. For example, Vintage Ports are aged for a maximum of three years in large, old wood vessels. Rutherglen Muscats are aged in two sizes: small (180 - 500 L) or large (1300 - 9000 L) barrels and always in warm conditions, while Sherries are aged in old 600 L barrels.
  • Know your Ports and Sherries really well: they’re heavily tested in the WSET Diploma D5 exam.
  • Know which fortified wines are dry and which ones have residual sugar (and why). For example, Fino Sherry will always be dry; Rutherglen Muscat will always be sweet. (Also remember that this has a lot to do with WHEN they're fortified.)
  • Pay attention to acidity, which is used to balance alcohol and concentration. Sherries, for example, have lower acidity, which is actually a hallmark trait of theirs.
  • Practice tasting and taking SAT-savvy notes! A lot of these wines look the same or very similar so if you struggle to distinguish two wines apart on appearance alone, practice tasting them side-by-side. Note the presence of any new wood, acidity, tannins, and sugar levels to help you tell them apart, for example, in Sherries, Madeira has high acidity; while Pedro Ximenez looks like motor oil in the glass.
  • In your tasting notes, make causal links and show the examiner that you understand WHY the wines taste and look the way they do. For example, the smaller the barrel and the warmer the maturation area, the faster oxidation occurs, so how does that impact the wine? When it’s fortified, did it have flor? How does flor affect the wine? If the wine is fresh and fruity like a Muscat Beaumes de Venise, why isn't it aged in small oak barrels?

Final thoughts on the WSET D5 module on Fortified Wines

So, there you have six super useful tips for passing the WSET D5 exam on Fortified Wines, as well as a suite of insider tips on things to know (and look out for) on the exam:

Tip # 1: Don’t underestimate the WSET D5 exam

Tip # 2: Make sure your D1 Wine Production knowledge is FRESH

Tip # 3: Prepare your brain for an information tsunami

Tip # 4: Use flashcards: a powerful tool for learning and consolidating the facts

Tip # 5: Dry facts aren’t enough to do well

Tip # 6: Make use of the WSET’s Diploma Assessment Preparation Scheme

Now all that’s left to say is that we wish you the very best ahead of this important exam. Don’t forget to get your hands on our expert-curated set of WSET D5 flashcards and know that with dedicated daily studying, question practice, and review you can and you will rise to the challenge of the WSET Diploma!

And when you’re ready to move onto your next module, know that Brainscape has got your back with these awesome resources:

*Disclaimer: Brainscape has worked with top wine experts to supplement the official publications and preparation offered by WSET. We are not officially endorsed by or connected to WSET itself.