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Tone Junkies

By |  September 11 2007

Music lovers and musicians alike had allowed improved standards of technical excellence and attention to sound for sound’s sake-to the alluring superficial beauty of sheer tonal quality, homogeneity, smoothness, and surface polish-to become ends in themselves. When it comes to wine, nowadays nearly all of us are-or risk becoming-tone junkies. It’s hard not to avoid expectations of technical perfection or tonal and textural caress. "Sculpting" or "buffing" of tannins, "dialing" of alcohol levels, acid "adjustment," and other "designer" techniques reveal in the very language chosen to describe them an ideal of polished and rich superfice. Nor is the vinous search for homogeneity and richness of tone confined to obvious instances of "intervention" or "manipulation" in the cellar. The very model of uniform ripeness, and the extreme selectivity with which clones, vines, bunches, and berries are nowadays winnowed-out, work to similar effect.

Much worried talk of globalization or creeping uniformity in wine today appears contradicted by the unprecedented diversity of regions, grapes, and winemaking talents that vie for attention in a vastly expanded marketplace. But these worries may well be rooted in legitimate fear lest technique and surface polish become ends in themselves, or one particular tonal paradigm prevail.

This fear simmered beneath discussions surrounding the film Mondovino. Self-styled traditionalists rose in defense of what Michael Broadbent MW termed the "undramatically drinkable," or railed at the temerity of a formerly rustic Bordeaux to get buffed and tanned at the same Salon Rolland as a first growth and emerge free of its former flaws. As if this did not come perilously or paradoxically close to a defense of mediocrity and imperfection, the film’s director offered one interviewer a more direct statement. "The one thing I do know," said Johnathan Nossiter, "is [that] I like defects in wines." Granted, the difference between a blemish and a beauty spot is often in the eye of the beholder. But is it even coherent to refer to something we admire and enjoy in art as a "defect"?

Listen to recordings of the Budapest Quartet performing Beethoven or Casals playing Bach’s suites. One cannot help but notice what are, by today’s standards, tonal roughness and technical imperfection.

This doesn’t mean one would shun those classic interpretations in favor of today’s state of the art. "Where, nowadays," one might well ask, "is the passion, the gritty determination, where the sense of wrestling with the material and with the shade of musical genius that comes through in the artistry of the Budapest or Casals?" But it seems perverse to say, "I miss the mistakes." The fear of those who embrace defect or imperfection should not be discounted. It is a fear that, in the process of ironing, polishing, and perfecting, the character and distinctive personality will be lost. Character and individuality must not become victims of technique, but neither should they be confused with, or used as an excuse for, poor technique or interpretive flaws.

I recently heard Thomas Quasthoff singing a Mahler Lieder that I had grown up learning through Dietrich Fischer- Dieskau. Quastoff’s tonal and technical superiority I’m not sure even Fischer- Dieskau would deny. But Quastoff’s passion, interpretive insight, and nuance were also in a class of their own, and I came away thinking of Fischer-Dieskau with perhaps a bit less tolerance for the occasional barking, roughness, and falsetto that his performances revealed. Still, these traits were undeniably part and parcel of Dieskau’s distinctiveness. And no doubt many who admire the keyboard artistry of Glenn Gould or Keith Jarrett would not want to hear performances stripped of their characteristic humming selfaccompaniment, even if it were possible.

After tasting so many complex and rich yet refined red Burgundies of the 2005 vintage, what taster could fail also to admire their sheer freedom from flaw, or repress the thought that living in an age of high technical standards rewards us with unprecedented opportunities? Those privileged to have tasted the great 1969s might reflect and regret that modern standards alone render it unthinkable today to craft wines with a similar rough, robust intensity. But one could as well imagine and long for what 1969 might have revealed in the skilled hands of today’s legion of idealistic vignerons.

Concern with tone need not imply homogeneity. But many a contemporary musician would lay that charge at the feet of late 19th-century performance practice with its portamento, smooth edges, and continuous vibrato. Since the ’70s, the rediscovery, or at least imagining, of earlier practices has profoundly affected and diversified the performance of music from all eras. And while one would hardly call the penetrating reediness of an oboe, the chiff of an organ pipe, or the nakedness of vibratoless sustained notes "flaws" or "defects," they at least initially disconcert listeners raised on a thicker, plusher sonic approach. It is hard not to see analogies in the aromatic pungency, sharpness of acidity, or tannic grit that some tasters will find interesting and invigorating and others irritating, or in the once unimaginable clarity and transparency of today’s best Pinots or Rieslings.

The late cellist and conductor Mstislav Rostropovich said: "If there is a choice, I would rather have ideas and some difficulties of technique than a perfect technique and no ideas." Some may doubt whether wine can convey ideas, thus rendering intelligible the contrast of tone or style with vinous content. It is an important argument for another occasion.

But the lessons we can take from Holliger’s warning are clear. In wine, as in music, a fixation on tone for its own sake, or reliance on a single notion of tonal beauty, will result in less interesting and ultimately less satisfying performances.

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