Wine & Music: Together in Tune

John Szabo

Master Sommelier John Szabo was the first Canadian to add the “MS” after his name in 2004. He’s seen the hospitality business from all sides, importing, teaching, writing and speaking, consulting and judging internationally. He was listed as “Canada’s best-known sommelier” in Meininger’s Wine Business International.

Ask anyone what sense is most invigorated by a fine wine and most will answer taste first, of course. Wine lovers also know that smell ranks a strong second; in fact, serious wine experts put smell just a touch ahead (it wins by a nose). After all, great wines offer up hundreds of aromas. Technically, their  handful of tastes can be narrowed down to just five varieties: sweet, sour, bitter, salty, and umami. The sight of shimmering, green-tinted whites… deep, inky-purple reds… and delicately pale pink rosés can whet the appetite, sure. As does the sense of touch, at play when swishing the wine around your mouth to enjoy supple, creamy textures and authoritative tannic grip.

What about the sense of hearing? Even the most accomplished wine aficionado might leave out the importance of sound when it comes to the allure of wine. Think of the sensual flow from bottle to glass. The thousands of gentle but invigorating little pops from tiny bubbles breaking the surface on a glass of bubbly. Sound or, more specifically, what you hear while drinking, has a much more profound effect on the overall experience than most people imagine. Sound, in other words, is the forgotten flavour sense. 

 

The Sounds (and Flavors) of Science

Russian scientist Ivan Pavlov made dogs salivate in response to a ringing bell signalling the arrival of food. Sound can set the mood and expectations. It affects behaviour; and it’s not just music. Think of the grinding, whirring, gurgling sounds of an expresso machine preparing that perfect macchiato compared to the unmistakeable and less appealing ding of a microwave. How off-putting would it be to hear that ding in a fine dining restaurant? They sculpt their soundscape because they know sound can be “diagnostic.” It provides important clues about the tasting experience to come. The ambiance sound helps conjure pre-disposes you to be positive or negative about the entire experience itself.

Sounds also actually modifies the tasting experience while it’s happening, changing what you perceive through the other senses. This is called synesthesia, when sensory information that primarily stimulates one sense actually takes the others for a ride as well. For some, known as Synesthetes, take the experience to another level. They see music as colors and taste textures like “round” or “astringent” when they drink wine. You often don’t have to be a Synesthete to taste what they’re talking about.

In 2008, researchers at Oxford studied how changing the crunch of a potato chip altered people’s impression of how crunchy and fresh it was. Boosting the high-frequency sound when subjects bit down on Pringle made them rate their chip 15% fresher and crunchier then when eaten without the sonic boost. They loved the chip more because of how it sounded (and Pringles definitely were listening).

Chef Heston Blumenthal of England’s innovative eatery, The Fat Duck, used sound to create his most famous dish, “Sounds of the Sea.” Blumenthal served a dish of sashimi, tapioca ‘sand’ and sea foam with a conch shell containing an iPod, so guests were enthralled by the sound of the surf crashing and seagulls flying overhead as they enjoyed. The flavors came in beautiful waves. UK consultancy Sensory Experience said it, “brings back memories of being by the seaside, being relaxed, the sea-spray in the air. Maybe buying freshly caught fish off the boat. The strong sensory memories cross the threshold of consciousness and enhance perception, making the fish taste fresher, the experience more emotional.”

 

Picking Up “Notes” In Your Wine

Using this “cross modal illusion” – one sense affecting the perception of another – can open up a panorama of enthralling experiences for wine lovers as well. We can elevate every sip by playing just the right soundtrack while tasting. Kiwi wine writer and sound artist, Jo Burzynska, loves to harness those  harmonious combinations of wine and sound, and finds them to be universal, “a piece of poppy bossa nova enhanced the aromatics and fresh fruity character of a Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, while a heavy rock track played with the same wine subdued its bouquet and fruit and made its acid feel hard.”

In Berzynska’s experience, changes in wine perception with and without music is as statistically significant as the crunch of a Pringle, “music shifted the perception of the wine in the direction of the mood expressed by the music by an average of 37.25%. The specific taste of the wine was influenced in a manner consistent with the mood evoked by the music.” 

The evidence that background music influences the taste of wine is mounting. Both music and wine evoke similar moods, like the lift you get from a light, fruit-driven, crunchy Muscadet or Vinho Verde and an upbeat melody, or the more introspective experience of a full-bodied brooding red like Napa cabernet or Amarone and a dark piece of music in a minor key.

Clark Smith, a Californian winemaker and wine technologist has developed his own theories on music and wine matching using panels to sample hundreds of different wines and songs, “When wine and music have the same intrinsic mood, they complement each other. In particular, wines taste smoother, whereas, when it’s a mismatch, they can taste harsh and astringent.” Finding your perfect pairings can be an intimate experience, but when you want to enjoy the journey with others – including wine experts in the know – Monarch Wine has the perfect place to indulge…

 

Come Clubhouse With Us

The rich intermingling of wine and music has never had a more perfect stage than Monarch’s “Varietal Vibes” get-togethers on Clubhouse, where the artistry is as varied as the conversation and flavors. Listeners there have enjoyed sounds that vary from the chill house and hip hop of DJ Beatific to the neo-classical piano of composer Lori-Ann Speed – all while taking exclusive advice on what wines will suit the sounds from Sommelier hosts who are enjoying the music too. Most recently, guests laid back to take in the folk storytelling of Ross Newhouse. It’s truly a room to visit again and again, as the guest list continues to find intriguing new voices and delicious bottles to sip for each one.

 

Mood Music… and Mood Wines

That choice can stay personal, or get a guiding hand from an master in the know. Sometimes it’s best to ask: So, what goes with what? We’ve already heard recommendations for upbeat bossa nova with a vibrant sauvignon. Matching wine and sound comes naturally for anyone attuned to both. “You can make pretty good guess guesses about what will work with what by learning to be as sensitive to the mood of a wine as to the mood of a piece,” Clark Continues. “Anyone can tell happy music from sad, from angry, from romantic from lustful. Wines are the same. Cabernets are angry, Pinots are romantic, rieslings cheerful. After that, it’s trial and error.”

Working in reverse, musicians, too, can create music to match wines – as Monarch has already dropped right on the site. The original music featured on our “about” page is the aural essence of Monarch Wine, created by French composer and multi-instrumentalist Andy Favre. What mood does the music put you in? What wine do you think Favre had in mind when writing the piece? What bottle does it make you feel like opening? Creating and performing DJ sets under the name Alpine Universe, Favre uses orchestral and electronic instruments to craft soundscapes for some of the biggest brands in the entertainment industry. You can find more of his incredible work at alpineuniverse.com – or right here at Monarch, where we always have him on repeat.

Another fascinating experiment supporting the universality of taste and sound combinations asked different musicians to improvise pieces matching specific taste descriptors. It came up with astonishingly reliable and consistent musical patterns: Bitter improvs, for example, were unfailingly low pitched and legato (no interruptions between notes, salty pieces were staccato (notes sharply detached from one-another). Sour was high-pitched and dissonant, while sweet was consonant, slow and soft (just like a sweet, creamy wine). The mood, tempo and pitch of the music can also be matched with different components of the wine, aromas and flavours, as well as structural elements such as acid, sweetness and tannins. In cross-modal enjoyment, there are no limits!

It’s no coincidence that similar words are used to describe both music and wine. Crossover vocabulary and descriptive phrases like harmony and resonance, bitter and sweet. Sound and taste are both powerful triggers of memory; aromas and flavours possess the power to take us back to our most cherished memories. Wine tasting stimulates the same processing areas of the brain as listening to music, with both wine and music activating, unsurprisingly, the pleasure centres of the brain.

So, when you reach for your next bottle of wine and consider what temperature to serve it at and with which food and friends, spare a thought for the forgotten flavour sense. Tuning that background music to the right tempo for your wine may just turn good into sublime.

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