Seven Wines for Seven Symphonies
By Frank Ward as featured in David Matthews: Essays, Tributes and Criticism
Wine, wrote Robert Louis Stevenson, is "bottled poetry." He could equally
well have called it bottled music. Wine and music dovetail beautifully. Most
enophiles love music, and hosts of musicians, composers not least, love
wine. Beethoven's very last words, uttered on his deathbed ("Pity, pity, too
late!"), expressed his anguish at the fact that his favorite wine had not arrived
in time. Both music and wine exist in time, in the fourth dimension, and
need time in which to divulge their full complexities, opening up as the seconds
tick away, revealing fresh nuances at every moment, with full disclosure not
occurring until the very end.
In both cases, start and finish are inextricably linked. Daniel Barenboim makes
the cogent point that "the last sound is not the end of the music […] the last note
must be related to the silence that follows it." The aftertaste of a fine wine performs
a comparable function.
My friendship with David Matthews began some years ago, and it was
precisely music and wine that brought us together. By chance, he and I were
buying fish at Jenkins & Son's excellent fishmonger's shop in Deal, Kent.
Impulsively, I introduced myself, thanking David for the many superb
concerts he'd organized while director of the annual Deal Music Festival. It seemed
only natural to invite him back to taste a couple of wines in my 18th-century
cellar, and that turned out to be the start of a rewarding friendship in which both
music and wine have played a big role.
I can't read a note or play any musical
instrument, but music has flowed through me like, well, wine for as long
I can remember. And many a wine tasted in the course of the week calls
to mind a particular piece of music. The comparisons I make below are half
playful and half serious, but as I start to think about which wines best match
David's symphonies, I cannot suppress the notion that we should one day try
to prevail on him to write a symphony to match a wine.
Symphony No.1 - Champagne (Krug or Pol Roger)
Of his debut symphony, David writes that it is made up of three movements in one. Trios and
trinities manifest themselves throughout nature and art and, not infrequently, in wine. Some
Champagnes are fashioned from each of the three main permitted grapes. Each contributes
something unique, but all three meld into a seamless whole - as do the three components
of this first symphony. Champagne seems like an ideal choice here, being the liveliest and most
effervescent of wines and also the most aural. (Think of the pop of the cork and the tantalizing
susurration in the glass.) It's also the perfect apéritif and can now perform that function by
launching the first of the seven symphonies, which also seems to be infused with freshness
and youthful vitality. Just as the various groups of instruments in the orchestra bring different but
complementary qualities to David's symphony, so do the different grapes confer their separate
but harmonizing traits on the wine. Chardonnay - vitality, delicacy, incisiveness (strings, flutes,
harp); Pinot Meunier - roundness, a kind of unifying warmth (cellos, French horns); Pinot
Noir - structure, depth, volume (double bass, bassoon, timpani, and so on). The scherzo,
David writes, "bursts out energetically" - as when the glass of Champagne is
replenished, causing the wine to seethe and bubble with still greater vitality, sending
almost invisible columns of microscopic bubbles to ascend with ever-increasing vigor.
A heady wine for a heady symphony.
Symphony No.2 - Châteauneuf-du-Pape (Beaucastel, Mont-Redon)
This symphony is on a larger scale and strikes a more serious note - an expansive, purposeful
work that shows great sweep and focus. All of the instruments are given great play but also perform
together, too, to great effect, with the whole adding up to very much more than the sum of its
parts. Châteauneuf-du-Pape fits the bill perfectly, being voluminous and assertive but also able to
show delicacy and subtlety. A maximum of 13 different grape varieties may be used - pretty well
an entire vinous orchestra - with some of them used in tiny quantities, yet each still discernible
in the finished wine (as with some instruments). A Châteauneuf producer, more than any of his
colleagues, really has to act like a conductor, making sure that each grape variety comes into
its own without drowning out any other. David's Second is a Châteauneuf-du-Pape of a work:
dramatic, forceful, heady, full of purpose.
Symphony No.3 - Corton
Only truly great wines have both power and finesse. In some, it is power that has the upper
hand; in others, finesse. Music is like that, too: Think of Wagner and Bruckner on the one
hand, Mozart and Schubert on the other. In this symphony, both qualities are present but in
varying strengths at varying times. To me, the Third's beginning is full of finesse, even if
the power is seldom far away. Of all the red grape varieties in the world, none can rival
Burgundy's Pinot Noir when it comes to sheer finesse. I choose a grand cru, Corton,
because, while exhibiting all the finesse one could wish for, it also shows an almost daunting,
slightly savage power - like this symphony. A silky, subtle wine when mature, it never quite
loses that firm, ferruginous backbone that reminds one of the forces of nature. Again,
like the symphony.
Symphony No.4 - 1978 Château Lafite
David describes this work as a "classical archetype" in five movements. The most
classical of all wines, surely, is claret, and the most classical of clarets is Château Lafite. It,
too, has four movements (or four grapes at least), the fifth component being the moment when
as a quartet they fuse together to create a unified whole.
The essential nature of claret was brought home to me as never before when a bottle of
'78 Lafite was sent to our table at the Parisian restaurant Le Taillevent by its owner, the
late Jean-Claude Vrinat, surely the greatest restaurateur who ever lived. The Fourth
Symphony's "light and flowing" opening calls to mind the initial bouquet of that lovely wine,
which to start with was dominated by the lightest and most delicate of the four grapes,
the Cabernet Franc, the other four being subdued at this early stage. (As with the
symphony's movements, the grapes in this particular wine presented themselves in
sequence.) Soon the round, voluptuous Merlot took over, exhaling its round, sensuous aromas.
Then came the intense, structured Cabernet Sauvignon, which stayed in the ascendant for
quite some time. Finally, the densest variety of all, the Petit Verdot, brought its fascinating
truffle-and-licorice flavor to the ensemble. I'm sure that any musician could suggest one
or other instrument that plays such parts in the orchestra. Last of all, the quintessential
character of the wine asserted itself, a fusion of all four grape varieties, ennobled by the unique
Lafite vineyard, melded into a seamless whole, expressed in a long aftertaste that, like David's
Fourth, concludes on a note of "lusher harmonic textures." Neither wine nor symphony is a
blockbuster, but both show superb harmony and great tensile strength. They are the very
soul of classicism.
Symphony No.5 - Hermitage Les Bessards
This work, in David's own words, has a "dark and restless mood," and its "energy hardly relaxes."
This makes me think of that powerhouse of a wine Hermitage, and of the choicest part of
that fabled vineyard Les Bessards, where the granitic subsoil supplies a massive backbone
to the wine. Hermitage has famously been called the manliest of French wines. I enjoy the
thought that it is in fact made from one of the few French grapes that is of the feminine gender:
la Syrah. In the symphony, too, power and subtlety are intertwined. The music is complex
and structured; so, too, is the wine from the Bessards section, that unique plot covering just
a few precious hectares. I relish the notion that the vineyard, because of its steepness, is divided
into many terraces, a visual parallel to the many-layered structure of David's work. But Hermitage,
like the Fifth, is not about power alone. The wine can be elegiac, just as in the third movement
violas provide a gentler theme. There are no violas in an Hermitage, but it often carries a whiff
of violets. The mood of the symphony's finale is "brightly energetic." When the second glass of
Hermitage is replenished, the wine is reanimated, and a whole range of redoubled scents and
flavors emanate from the glass. The finish of both music and wine is full of energy, and both
reverberate long after the last note, and drop, has faded away.
Symphony No.6 - Riesling Smaragd (Prager)
The rousing, tinglingly fresh opening and the use of Austrian cowbells, not to mention David's
allusion to Mahler's evocation of the Austrian Alps, turn my thoughts instantly to the great
bone-dry, cracklingly alive Rieslings of that country. A glass of fine Riesling is almost like an
electrical charge, so full of energy is it. Its scent brings thoughts of birdsong and wild flowers.
But classic Riesling is about more than bouquet and freshness of flavor. The grape variety, more
than most, extracts all manner of minerals from the subsoil, which gives added texture almost
in the way the multiple subsidiary themes of David's piece do to the music. When David writes
that "the timpani hammer out the first notes of the opening," I have an image of the Riesling
hammering out its complex mineral aftertaste, which is given additional intensity by its bracing
fruity acidity, comparable in its way to that blast of brass and timpani in the symphony. Some
passages, indeed, deliver a kind of delicious shock, comparable to the moment when the
Riesling releases its manifold subsidiary flavors, forming part of a rolling finish that is dry yet
contains a kind of honeyed sweetness at its core. Both wine and music have a finale that's both an
aftertaste and an aftershock.
Symphony No.7 - Chambolle-Musigny Les Amoureuses
One leading critic has written that this single movement piece "rings endless changes on
a rapturous viola melody, heard […] over the tremulous violin." This rare Burgundy red is a
single-grape wine that rings endless changes on the Pinot Noir, producing rapturous sensations.
It, too, has a tremulous quality, the wine village of Chambolle-Musigny giving the most delicate
and subtle of all Burgundies. (You can almost feel the wine tremble as you taste it.) This apparent
fragility does not prevent the wine from being one of the most structured and long-lived of the
whole region. This one-movement symphony has many parts - as does this one-grape wine,
whose delectable ripe-grape sweetness is given backbone and structure by the iron-rich subsoil
and the complex mix of minerals and metals therein. Acidity and tannin - which function a
bit like timpani and brass in a symphony - give rigor, while lightly toasted oak in the barrels, in
interaction with the Pinot Noir grape, provides a slightly exotic touch of spice. The finishes of both
wine and symphony are very long.