Wine and Music

(Please click links below for musical references)

There is a wonderful moment during Agnus Dei in Bach's B Minor Mass (Frans Brüggen & Orchestra of 18th Century) where the countertenor Michael Chance finally reaches "peeeccata muuuuundi” at the end of one very, very, very long breath. Chance demonstrates consummate musicianship on many levels, the most important being that his performance hinges on singing a castrato alto part without the benefit of having had his goolies lopped off in childhood. That factor alone requires absolute breath control to support the difficult, low-end range of a head- voiced falsetto, from breaking down into a chest voice, as the phrase chugs slowly to its solemn end. This particular passage-hauntingly brittle and heroically stretched to the brink of collapsing-always makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck. It also always reminds me of the taste of two-decade-old, well-roasted Côte Rôtie.

As irrational as all that may seem, it makes sense on one level, because wine and music have a long and natural emotional association. It's not all that hard to imagine someone in the deep and distant past humming a happy little song of discovery the first time a human licked a finger dripping with the naturally fermenting mustofrotting grapes. Both are powerful, old forms of magic, each of which is capable of creating sublime harmony and discordant noise.

Boiled down to its essence, isn't wine fundamentally about performance? It's a performance that begins when the cork is pulled, then reveals itself as the glass is filled and sniffed and sipped and slowly consumed down to the bottom of the bottle. And it only ends after the last perception of the last drop evaporates in the mind like a final note echoing off the back wall of a concert hall.

Accepting, then, that drinking is a performance and the drinker the audience, what about all that comes before that moment? Growing grapes has much in common with the creative process a composer goes through when laying notes down on a page; both produce the raw material of artistic expression. A winemaker often behaves more like a musician, working through the hard slog of practice, incessant rehearsal, and the finely tuned process of interpretation

Traditionally, the French bundle all this up into the unified role of vigneron, not unlike today's singer-songwriter or jazz improviser. And where this may lack a little polish, the connection back to the original creative impulse is clearer, more direct—think Randy Newman or Burt Bacharach. New World production, on the other hand, has traditionally diminished the grape-growing aspect, elevating the winemaker to an overriding artistic role. This creates a tendency toward more mannered wine styles. Both are valid expressions intent on different outcomes.

Pervasive influence

It seems to me that we all develop different ways of perceiving wine over time, mostly shaped by our own unique background and experiences. It's all, necessarily, quite subjective stuff: what is liked or not, how and why...

In my case, music has often managed a subtle but pervasive influence over how I sense and orient wine. If I recall correctly, one of my earliest encounters with wine was slugging down a jug of Ripple at a Grateful Dead concert in Iowa City around 1968. At the moment, a hip-hop remix of Astor Piazzolla spins along on the stereo while a half empty bottle of Japanese Chateau Mercian Koshu 2002 sits next to my keyboard. So there they still are, wine and music, tangoing on alongside one another. Wherever one dares to tread, the other closely follows, each as busily cross fertilizing as it is cross-referencing the other.

My interest in wine first turned serious when I latched on to "cool-climate" Pinot Noir while studying undergraduate music in Oregon during the 1970s. Later, I moved to Europe to study historical performance practice and build 17th- and 18th-century bassoons. That, in turn, opened up wine's classical regions to me. Eventually I shifted to Britain to pursue a final degree in Music History. It was there that I discovered my university had a blind wine tasting team that offered an opportunity to study wine at a semi-professional level.

Blind tasting is a discipline that naturally serves up a quick education in how to deconstruct varietal character, vintage, terroir, appellation, and so on from a glass of wine. It's a lot like playing “drop the needle," an old musical game where a person listens to a few notes and then has to "name that tune" or identify the composer: “Mozart or early Beethoven or late Haydn?"

Eventually my role evolved into a coaching position, and musical pedagogy seemed a logical place to look for inspiration on how to teach wine tasting. Music is built on intervals, which stack into chords, and these, in turn, flow from one to another in progressions, eventually assembling into compositional forms. All of which are bound up within various genres, national styles, and historical periods.

Similarly, individual grape varieties take on varying aromas, flavors, and structures as they shift ground through different soils and climatic conditions. This raw material, once transformed into wine, also absorbs stylistic traits that are strongly influenced by technological orientation and their functional use within differing cultures and time periods.

And so, broken down into components and stereotyped along the lines of intervals, chords, and progressions, Chardonnay character in Chablis can tend toward razor- sharp acidity and lemony flavors, before fleshing out and softening up with more apple-like characters in the Côte d'Or, and eventually becoming peachy, tropical, and flabbier by the time it reaches the Barossa. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to sense how Chardonnay character suddenly shifts from minor to major when it jumps from France to the New World. Or that recent Australian Chardonnays, while obviously still Australian in nature, are more subtle compared to those common in the 1980s.

None of the above is all that different from picking out the definitive sound qualities of Mozart's “Classicism" versus Verdi's “Romanticism” or the tighter progression from the raw "street" sound of early rap through more slickly produced, contemporary hip hop. Both wine and music have a capacity to pack themselves into neat little genres, each with distinct national and historic flavors.

Internal language

The deeper I was drawn into blind wine tasting, the more it seemed to offer up an increasingly heady mix of sensual experience and intellect. Like music, wine creates its own universe, its own internal language. That can be as base and insidiously irritating as an advertising jingle or as profound and expansive as a Mahler symphony. And the wide swathe of landscape between those extremes is as border-free as it is limitless. I liked that wine, in common with music, had serious sides, with tremendous historical depth, a wide array of cultural influence, and distinct national styles. And that it, too, produced art that lived purely in the realm of the senses-temporal, ephemeral, and full of impressions that defied explanation. I especially liked that words ultimately fail to describe the essential nature of both wine and music, and yet both, somehow, still manage to gather in so many words around them.

So, as new musical frontiers were becoming harder to find, wine appeared to offer up a whole new playing field Music soon played second fiddle to wine as I took on the new challenge of analyzing and writing about it. In looking back, what is odd about this transition is that, while my perception of wine has been heavily influenced by music, it hasn't surfaced in my wine writing in obvious or logical ways that one might expect.

For instance, I've rarely resorted to describing wines through musical terminology (staccato, crescendo, rubato, riff, etc) or made direct associations between tunes and individual wines: “This Riesling is so middle-period Nirvana...” That's not to say those aren't valid expressions; it's just not the way I've sensed wine and tried to lay it out in words. To be frank, I've always feared how easily that sort of discussion can end up sounding trite or pretentious or simply slink off into esoteric nonsense.

Multilayered complexity

It is true, though, that I often perceive wine in terms of tone, color, and individual notes-similar to how I hear music. I also tend to transpose structure, form, rhythm, timbre, genre, voicing, and, probably most of all, dissonance and harmony on to wine as well. But this tends to be an internal, usually nonverbal discussion that rarely ends up on paper.

Perhaps stranger still, I often “see" things in wine, though “feel” and “intuit" are necessarily rolled up in this imaginary visualization. Aromatics sing (or don't) in one, two, three, or four parts (bass, tenor, alto, soprano), and I follow these the same way a conductor reads an orchestral score. A really great bouquet might add a little baritone and contralto, expanding from a tight ensemble into a multivoiced choir: Monteverdi vs Thomas Tallis.

Strongly perfumed wines I sometimes see behaving like the high "partials” of chords (13ths, 15ths...), floating above the main musical discussion, their influence diminishing almost to a level of intuition and hint. Other times they remind me of the twilight, upper range of human hearing, where we can't really pick out sound with any precision but can definitely “feel” a greater acoustic presence. In a real sense, perfumed floral characters do act like high-frequency waves that, because their wavelength is so short, quickly dissipate: aromatics as musical shooting stars.

Again, I see similar choral connections continuing in the mouth: broad tannins lay the foundation, spikier acids above, textures (fruit extract and alcohol) spreading laterally inhabit mid-range, with flavors and spice floating up top. Odd as it may seem, while I'm feeling multilayered complexity with the tongue, it comes out visually in my mind's eye.

Why or how that happens is anyone's guess. But it may all stem from my undergraduate music days, when I was strongly impressed by Wassily Kandinsky's manifesto Concerning the Spiritual in Art and his essays on music and color in the Der Blaue Reiter. Kandinsky admired music's pure emotional expression and saw it as transcendent because it was unfettered by the forms (houses, trees, people, things) that distracted people from correctly perceiving the inner spirituality of painting. All of which led Kandinsky and others away from representational art to the exploration of pure emotional content of colors juxtaposed upon each other through abstraction—not unlike the way musical notes clash and harmonize over time (see Kandinsky's Four Parts here, Klee's Rhythms here, Dove's Sentimental song here).

So as Kandinsky was trying to free up visual art from its firm grounding in formalism, I've somehow managed to flip that on its head, anchoring music in lines, shapes, and colors instead, and then transpose all that from music on to wine. The net result is that I tend to read Merlot and “clone 5" Pinot Noir as being cigar-shaped; Malbec more often a chewed-up stogie. Sauvignons, Cabernet and Blanc, look like roller coasters. Pinot Noir and Nebbiolo present stiletto like profiles, while dry Chenin Blancs, Loureiro, and Clare Valley Riesling are more like fencing swords.

Textural allusions show up in the most unexpected ways. For example, it's hard to think of music that is more transparently effervescent than Steve Reich's Octet and Music for Large Ensemble. Both have textural aspects strongly reminiscent of Champagne. Bouncing along optimistically, motifs advance and recede like the frothy mousse of a freshly poured glass: bubbles forming and popping with little explosive jolts, instantly replaced by others. I've listened to these pieces hundreds of times, and full of perpetual motion, they sparkle along and never sound quite the same.

On a similar note, I rarely sense wine colors literally. I was at a dinner party a couple of years ago when a tape-looped composition by Gavin Bryars, playing in the background, gradually captured everyone's attention and conversation trickled to a halt. It was constructed around the haunting voice of an old tramp singing, “Jesus' blood never failed me yet," continuously repeated with increasingly denser orchestration. I remember thinking how rancio it felt: old, woody... Cast in a mellowed amber/brown patina and caramelized without a drop of sentimentality, it dripped of ancient, well-used oxygen and sounded-to me like the color of rare old Amontillado (Bryar's full length version here).

Perhaps rhythm is too much to project on to wine. But wine most certainly does have a linear element, as it carves out a space for itself over time, and can have a degree of pace.

There is a definite temporal aspect to wine in the way that it travels through the nose, mouth, and brain-up-front attack, mid- to back-palate execution, and finish. Whether this merits metronomic markings is debatable. While more than a few of the Robert Parkers of this world bank on timing a wine's persistence with a stopwatch, this seems more applicable to sport, where winning counts. Wine, like music, is more about what comes between its beginning and ending. Ever hear of a music critic pegging differing versions of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra higher on a 100- point scale based on one interpretation lasting a few seconds longer than another? Come to think of it, does any art form really deserve to be squeezed into a 100-point scale?

As for pace, I've often marveled at Sauvignon Blanc for how it manages a kind of Vivaldiesque “fast/slow/faster” sonata form. Racing in all allegro, it can suddenly slow way down to largo mid-palate, only to sprint off again at a vivace clip as it's retasted up the back of the throat through “retrofaction." That's a cool musical trick if ever there was one.

Where wine is often described as harmonious, it's strange that dissonance—its mirror image-is rarely mentioned. Describing a wine as “disjointed” isn't really the same; that's more about unintentional cacophony, I reckon. Dissonance purposefully creates tension in music that begs for a harmonious resolution. It's there for good reasons, working on several levels: structural, as a colorant, and, most importantly, simply to keep boredom at bay. Wine's nervosité probably comes closest to this. Like dissonance, edgy acidity spends its time either clashing or harmonizing with sweetness. And through that tension it shades flavor and spins the palate forward with an expectation that tension will eventually find a definitive ending.

Defying expectations

I recall listening to a passage in Philip Glass's Akhnaten that made me think of Sercial, really old Sercial. Like all Classical music should be, I had this opera cranked way up on my car stereo. After the orchestral intro, Akhnaten (countertenor) enters with a disconcertingly, high soprano-like voice that is soon topped by the soprano's entry, higher still. Chirping away, she leaned in on teeth-gratingly dissonant intervals, all of which begged for resolution, either widening into more harmonious thirds or dissolving back into the safety of unisons. Amid this aural toothache, the female alto enters below them; rounder, plummier, and more welcoming. Meanwhile, way below all this, equally weird rumblings were bashing against one another in the bass section, creating ultrasonic “resultant tones” within my inner ear. A slightly blown speaker added its own contribution to the havoc, to the point where the music almost hurt.

Although the combination of dense orchestral busy-ness and dagger-like dissonance created more than a little discomfort in the middle of my head, I just couldn't take my ears off it. It was confusing and uncomfortable, but it also interested me. I wanted to know how and where it would all end. And suddenly, the idea of Sercial popped up.

Simply put, Sercial is a bastard to describe. Ever since my first encounters with early 19th-century Sercial, I've groped to make sense of it. It can show up crammed full of enough volatile acidity to strip paint and loaded up with enough iodine minerality to stock a pharmacy, and yet neither of these extremes necessarily plays out negatively. And then, at other times, Sercial simply sings of purity and balance. Even when still young and fresh, say at 50 to 100 years old, Sercial can be searingly dry - edginess X 100 - and as contrarily difficult to enjoy as it is to explain. More often than not, you can't even fob it off as a "food" wine (considering turtle soup was THE classic pairing). Sercial can be a bastard on all fronts.

And then there's really, really old Sercial. It defies expectations because there's little to compare it with, never mind figuring out whether it's a good or even a sound example. But none of that matters, and that's not because it's too rare and precious to spit out or turn down. Sometimes Sercial's presence simply can't be ignored purely because it's survived so long. About all you can do is shut up and listen to whatever it wants to say, regardless of whether that's understandable or not. And even though Philip Glass's music wasn't profoundly old, for a few seconds that's also how confounded it made me feel.

Didn't I say something earlier about that fatal drift into esoteric nonsense? That's always the danger. But then, sometimes, winemaking, grape growing, and even wine writing, can be a bit like a jazz soloist who's wandered off on a great riff only to realize suddenly there's probably no way back to where the rest of the band is playing.

Sometimes, “no guts, no glory" doesn't end in glory and illusive allusions remain what they are.

A version of this article by Paul White first appeared in The World of Fine Wine issue 21, 2008.

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