Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Wine and classical music matching

Much has been made of music and wine matching of late, so I was excited to receive an invite to a wine and classical music matching event hosted by leading New Zealand producer Villa Maria and the London Philharmonic Orchestra.

Rocking up to Henry Wood Hall, the LPO's rehearsal venue in Borough, my imagination had clearly run away with me – I was expecting the entire orchestra to be in attendance, playing snippets of the classical greats while wine journalists frantically swirled, sniffed and scribbled, trying to decide their perfect matches.

I arrived ten minutes late to find a small group of people sat in church pews around a tape recorder. I quickly took my place next to Philip Tuck MW and Charlotte Read, European market manager of Villa Maria.

There were six wines in front of me: Sauvignon Blanc, Guwürztraminer, Riesling, Rosé, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot, all classic New World expressions of their varieties. Our task was to listen to six snippets of classical music performed by the LPO and match them to the six wines. At the end we would be asked to explain the reasoning behind our matches.

It turned out Philip, Charlotte and I were the only 'wine' people participating, the rest being members of the orchestra. I was looking forward to hearing their views from the musical side of the fence. Of the six pieces, I only recognized two: Haydn's The Creation and Wagner's Die Walküre. I matched Haydn with the Riesling and Wagner with the Guwürz for its feminine aggression, but switched to the weightier Cabernet Merlot after hearing all six pieces.

When choosing a wine for each piece, I tried to align their characteristics: bold with bold, delicate with delicate, complex with complex. Some matches were easier than others. On hearing the second snippet, Rachmaninov's Symphonic Dances, Op. 45, I knew it could only be matched with the Pinot Noir. Beautiful, delicate and haunting, the music seemed to wonderfully echo the contents of the glass, or at least the highest possible expression of the grape. I later learnt the moving snippet was his last ever piece, written while he was dying. 

Whilst listening to each piece, I looked at the six glasses and tried to imagine the notes coming out of them. This seemed to help in the elimination process. I'd changed a few of my answers by the end, finding the Rosé and the Riesling the hardest to place.

The exercise was fiercely subjective, and often people matched their least favourite piece of music with their least favourite wine. The musicians' knowledge of the composers and the pieces also tended to affect their decisions. 

Some of our matches were almost unanimous – Sauvignon Blanc with the frantic, jazz-like Scherzoid by Mark-Anthony Turnage. The piece is only five years old, and so suited a young wine, its urgent, disjointed, Hitchcock-esque nature pairing well with the racy white grape, while Jennifer Higdon's feminine Percussion Concerto was an obvious match for the floral Gewürz.

Interestingly, I found myself aligning more with the musicians than the wine buffs, my answers being almost identical to one of the double-bassists. Ultimately, music is intellectual and emotional, and while wine can both convey and inspire emotion, its emotional range is far more limited than music. At its heart, wine is meant to be enjoyed, not scrutinized. And while it may cause an emotional response, we shouldn't look to it for catharsis.

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