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September 17, 2015updated 09 Jun 2023 2:42pm

Seven Wines for Seven Symphonies

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.

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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


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 manylayered 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 singlemovement 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.

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