Opera and wine seem to sit comfortably together – as evidenced by the tastes of the renowned Welsh baritone. Rosi Hanson met him
Bryn Terfel usually comes off stage with adrenalin pumping. To wind down he goes to a nice restaurant and drinks good wine. A glass of Scottish single malt whisky before bed ensures sound sleep. ‘I’m like a candle – it burns then goes out.’
When I meet him at London’s Royal Opera House I am escorted through the backstage maze as racks of costumes are wheeled past. The set for the new production of Puccini’s Tosca is being constructed. In the quiet dressing-room Baron Scarpia’s very large black leather boots stand ready for action.
‘My interest in wine came purely through music and people,’ says Terfel. The star has a massive, rugby player’s physique but a quiet speaking voice with a gentle lilting accent. Welsh is his first language. He grew up in North Wales, where his father farmed sheep, and still lives there with his wife and children. He was, as he puts it, ‘thrown into the limelight rather suddenly’ after studying at London’s Guildhall. It was then he discovered wine.
The conductors he has worked with have directed Terfel’s wine drinking as well as his singing. ‘Neville Mariner introduced me to Château Palmer. With Claudio Abbado it’s always Italian. With James Levine it’s American. With (the late) Sir Georg Solti everything was made available. But Zubin Mehta is the perfect conductor – he doesn’t drink! We did Beethoven’s 9th together in Japan. They love that piece there. Afterwards we went to a beautiful restaurant whose owner feeds you like a king. If he knows you are a performer he chooses a wine of your birth year. For Zubin it was La Tâche 1936 – Zubin just tastes the wine and I’m like the cat with the cream with the rest of the bottle.’
Wine quickly developed into a passion. Terfel began keeping a book to record performances, conductors, the restaurants they eat in and the wines. ‘I’m pretty good at memorising words and music, but I forget the wines and their vintages, so I stick the etiquettes [labels] in with a few notes.’
Opera singers spend a lot of time travelling and rehearsal periods in unfamiliar cities can be lonely. Terfel uses the time to learn about local wines – he discovered Austrian wines when performing in Vienna and particularly likes their sweet wines.
Champagne and stars surely go together. ‘When I made my debut at the Met, Placido Domingo sent me a bottle of Dom Pérignon with a little note. I love Champagne – especially rosé – from Ruinart to Grande Dame Veuve Clicquot, Roederer… but you can’t beat Dom Pérignon can you?’
Not surprisingly, Terfel has a special fondness for operas that mention wine. He cites Tosca, in which Baron Scarpia suggests that some wine from Spain will take away the pain, and the famous dinner in the final scene in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Wine guru Len Evans, ‘a wonderful Welshman’ despite making his life in Australia, started this train of thought by asking him how many arias feature wine when they met in 1999. Tricia and Denis Horgan, the opera-loving owners of Leeuwin Estate in Margaret River had booked Terfel to give a concert at the winery. He found himself on the receiving end of the legendary Evans hospitality, but drew the line at raiding Evans’ cellar in his absence, despite being urged to do so. ‘I couldn’t do it – I just couldn’t choose a Palmer or Pétrus without the owner.’
Virtue was rewarded by an invitation to Evans’ celebrated Single Bottle Club dinner, featuring the wines of the Domaine de la Romanée-Conti. In awe of the knowledge of his fellow diners, who included James Halliday, Terfel was horrified to be told by Evans that it was his turn to comment. He had been enjoying the flight of La Tache – vintages 1988, 1985, 1978, 1972, 1966 and 1942 – so much that he had stopped making notes. ‘I don’t feel up to it so I’ll sing you a song,’ he announced.
It was on this trip that Terfel got into a conversation about music with winemaker Vanya Cullen, who exemplified a Terfel theory. ‘You can tell a lot about a person’s character from the music they like – she loves Fauré, Schubert and all the composers who like nature. I wasn’t a bit surprised that her vines are cultivated biodynamically.’
Terfel relishes the little time he has at home. Here he keeps life simple and the same goes for the wines. ‘We drink dry whites – grassy Sauvignon Blancs from New Zealand are a firm favourite. Pinot Noirs, too. I like Ribera del Duero – well, I like Riojas full stop. There’s a wine from Napa, Kongsgaard, I like a lot.’
Terfel revelled in the ‘sheer opulence’ of Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons in Oxfordshire last year – his wife arranged a surprise weekend to celebrate his 40th birthday – and he was happy to let the sommelier match wines to the dishes. One discovery was the Californian sweet wine Elysium with foie gras. Another was finding two Welsh chefs among the large kitchen brigade – ‘that was beautiful!’
It’s obvious that music is at the heart of Terfel’s life, but wine runs it a close second. He loves to combine the two. ‘We singers are very easily led when wine is concerned…’