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Music and wine: notes from the glass

Sauternes and Strauss? Blaufränkisch and Brahms? margaret rand looks at which wines strike a chord with works from the classical music greats

A CD has landed on my desk. Rendezvous Wine and Music is intended to provide the perfect wine to match with diffrent music. As it’s an Austrian production, all the wines are Austrian and most of the music is Austrian or German. Apart from some Prokofiev, Dvorák and Tchaikovsky, we’re in Mitteleuropa – which raises the question of terroir. Can only German wines go with Germanic music? Do imported grapes correspond to imported composers – like Handel, perhaps, an honorary Englishman? And does Mosel Riesling go with Wagner?

No, Riesling does not go with Wagner. It would be like lemon juice on Christmas pudding. The texture is wrong: all that lush orchestration demands something far richer. Vintage Port for ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’ from Götterdämmerung perhaps, or 5 Puttonyos Tokaji Aszú for the ‘Dutchman’s Theme’ from Der Fliegender Holländer. On the other hand, Isolde’s heart-wrenching ‘Lieberstod’ from Tristan und Isolde defies all attempts to match it with music. Wine doesn’t do death and loss; there’s no market for it. Music does, in spades.

This is the problem in the end. Music is intellectual and emotional, dealing with life in all its complexity. Wine can be intellectual and it can have a temperament – there are cheerful wines, serious wines, wines with a sense of humour, overbearing wines and wines that take themselves too seriously – but its range of emotions is small. We want to be refreshed by wine; we don’t look to it for catharsis.

So cheerful music goes best with wine. I can’t think of a match for Schubert’s melancholic Winterreise, unless it’s Eiswein, and the best match for Britten’s disturbing Peter Grimes would be a strong gin and tonic, easy on the tonic. For Debussy’s Pelleas et Melisande, a listless, wan absinthe. But Beethoven’s Fidelio – all that heroism and hope – is a fine match for good red Burgundy, while young red Burgundy, itself full of hope, and never to be the same again, would do for ‘Tatiana’s Letter’ from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. Beethoven’s 3rd Piano Concerto would go with top Chianti – imperious, grand, utterly confident. And Montrachet would have to partner Britten’s Illuminations.

Sweet sounds

Texture is crucial. Chamber music, with its transparency and detail, requires those qualities in the wine. Schubert’s Death and the Maiden quartet with Château Margaux, perhaps? The Trout quintet with a Mosel Kabinett? And the complexity of a late Beethoven quartet with old Dom Pérignon or Cristal Champagne? Early music seems to have a minerality which makes it easy: Handel’s Acis and Galatea would be good with red Chinon (‘Oh ruddier than the cherry, Oh sweeter than the berry’). Rossini is easy – all those notes help, somehow. Uruguyan Tannat, perhaps, or a lighter Argentine Malbec? But the lushness of Richard Strauss needs Sauternes, or even a Séléction de Grains Nobles for the Four Last Songs. By contrast, the purity and linear quality of a dry Alsace needs JS Bach’s Goldberg Variations. Mozart’s Horn Concertos could partner grand cru Alsace, too.

Which brings us to the opposite end of the spectrum – wines with generous oak, extraction and alcohol. Easy: concept opera. All those productions where the producer has forgotten the meaning of the word ‘subtle’ and rams the point home. (Collectors of Trophy Wines are like those soprano-spotters who aren’t interested in the bigger operatic picture.) A loud, shouty Toro would do. And a big modern red, all texture and weight – perhaps a cult California Cabernet or Priorat – would partner Birtwistle’s Mask of Orpheus – the lack of strings make the match. For his grand but subtle Minotaur, perhaps a northern Rhône.

If weight in music equals oak and tannin, high notes equal acidity. Thomas Adès’ Tempest, agonisingly high, could only be matched by Austrian Schilcher. The Austrian CD has Muskateller with Bizet’s Symphony in C Major and the finale of Mendelssohn’s Fourth Symphony, which both work. The fairy music from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream would be good, too. Fresh and peppery Grüner Veltliner Classic is highly suitable for the fourth movement of Haydn’s La Chasse: bright, lively and young, but with some weight. The weightier Reserve Grüner Veltliner is put by the Austrians with Schubert’s ‘Unfinished’ Symphony, and its harmony and proportions fit perfectly. But they have Austrian Riesling with Bach’s Third Brandenburg Concerto; I’d put it with the Taverner.

Where I really part company with the Austrians is on Sauvignon Blanc. It’s too racy and brisk for the second movement of Tchaikovsky’s Pathètique, which needs mature white Pessac-Léognan, or a Hunter Semillon: something with a bit of gravitas. But their matching of Blaufränkisch with Brahms’ Hungarian Dances is fun, bringing echoes of the Austro-Hungarian Empire to a wine that until recently was only drunk locally.

The Spanish are at it too. Sourcing the Earth, which promotes Spanish wine and food in Asia, has collaborated with a Japanese record label to create Music for Wine, an 11-track CD by jazz and ambient artists. Each song has been paired with a different Spanish wine, from Cava to Ribera del Duero. Ultimately, it all makes for a fairly pointless occupation, but it’s a fun party game.

Authentic opera matches

Champagne: Don Giovanni’s ‘Champagne Aria’ from Mozart’s Don Giovanni (catch Wenarto’s performance of this on YouTube); Violetta’s ‘Sempre Libera’ from Verdi’s La Traviata, the ‘Champagne Aria’ from Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus. Admittedly, Don Giovanni doesn’t actually mention what he’s drinking. Violetta celebrates her freedom with Champagne – a little rashly, as it turns out – and whether they were drinking real Champagne in Strauss’s 19th-century Vienna is anyone’s guess.


Marzemino: Don Giovanni again. He drinks it with his dinner of pheasant, just before the Commendatore flings him down to hell.

Claret: Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore. The only time that cheap red Bordeaux has ever been thought of as a love potion.


Manzanilla: Bizet’s Carmen (pictured). It’s the standard drink of Spanish gypsies. Unless she meant camomile tea, of course.


Sherry: Verdi’s Falstaff. He’s been dumped in the Thames, he’s wet and humiliated – and he has a drink. Life returns.

Written by Margaret Rand

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