by Andrea Frost

On music, wine and tasting with all your senses

Just as wine without aromas is a rather dull drink, life without our senses engaged is much the same experience. As I sipped wine and listened to a wind trio play music paired to the offering it occurred to me that somewhere on our path to sensory enlightenment, we stopped tasting with all our senses. 

The performance was at Mt Langi Ghiran in Central Victoria as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival. The dead of winter, the sky was low and grey, the air cold and tight. Fat drops of rain clung to the vines that hung bare and dormant; the only gaiety in the vineyard was the curled tendrils that sprung from the vines like tiny locks of hair. The vineyard sloped toward the humbly sized Mount Langi Ghiran that didn’t so much as loom on the horizon as crinkle it.

Inside the barrel hall the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra musicians performed short pieces matched to the wines. Pieces by Handel complemented the Riesling and Pinot Gris that, much like the music, were light, lively and charming. The Pinot Noir and infamously peppery Mt Langhi Shiraz were paired with the slightly more earnest Cinq Pièces written by Jacques Ibert. Both offered weight, depth with energising levels of pace and finesse.

Discussion ensued and the question was asked, did listening to music matched to the wine improve the tasting experience? Personal preference aside, it hardly seemed like a serious question. What I was curious about was when did we think it wouldn’t?

If I were to hazard a guess, it was sometime during the 1980s when the modern wine industry set out to improve the quality of wine and our understanding of it. We narrowed the band of inputs and compartmentalized our senses in the hope of getting a more precise view of the flavours of wine, right down to the molecule. Wines were assessed in laboratories devoid of distracting colours, aromas, sounds or stimulus. Such sensory diligence paid off. It improved wine quality, revealed the science and gave many of us a way in to this wondrous, ethereal, beautiful, gargantuan topic we know and love as wine.

But as I sipped my wine and listened to the musicians play, I wondered if after a period of well-intentioned focus, we forgot to invite our other senses back to the table. In so doing, had we denied ourselves the full suite of pleasures available to us from of our most beloved drink?

I understand that wine assessment is a technical exercise not an aesthetic one and making such judgments of taste enhances our ability to find and appreciate quality wine. But judging is largely done with the aim of making better, even beautiful, wines. I think the French writer Montaigne speaks for all of us in wine when he wrote, “The thing at which we all aim, even in virtue, is pleasure.” It’s the pleasure from wine I’m curious about here.

To be fair, it is not just technical wine tasting where we have narrowed the band of our sensory inputs. Our once finely-tuned senses that evolved over trillions of years in order for us to survive are not only out of practice but these days, bombarded by the sensory equivalent of junk food – ad jingles, traffic noise and fake deodorizers.

But wine and life are nicer when you notice nice things. And though we don’t need our senses for survival in the evolutionary sense, I think we need them to survive in the world we now live. We already know about the pleasures derived from aromas in wine, but open the window and there’s more to be enjoyed – flowers, warmth, wind, music, fat drops of rain, loose tendrils on bare and dormant vines and mountains that crinkle the horizon.

What’s more, what’s popular is not always good for us. In an age where aesthetic activities are so often replaced with entertaining, mundane or profitable ones, it is even more necessary to cultivate the use of our senses to heighten the good bits and minimize the sensory refuse. Diane Ackerman, who describes the world as “sense-luscious” in her exquisite book A Natural History of the Senses, pleads for us to “return to feeling the textures of life” and not to “fade into the stark, simple, solemn, puritanical, all-business routine that doesn’t have anything so unseemly as sensuous as zest.”

But be warned, once you drop down the rabbit hole of this sensory adventure, the world never looks the same again. Our senses don’t work in isolation; turn up one and they all want a seat on this wild ride of sensory exploration. We start by identifying aromas in wine, and then flavours in food. This leads us on to fresh ingredients and of seasonal produce. Seasons take us to place and to particulars of place – of light, slope, geology and nature’s other great mysteries. This is to speak nothing of the wonder at why humans have made and celebrated wine over the centuries. For awe? Beauty? Wine tasting might start with a molecule, but follow the lead and it ends at breathtaking. As the great philosopher of aesthetics Immanuel Kant wrote, “All our knowledge begins with the senses.”

As I listened, tasted and watched while the musicians played, I wondered what other sensory additions we had ignored that would amplify our experience of wine? It was an exciting idea to think that like an artist or a composer, we too could curate our sensory experiences of wine and life. And when we have such capacity for pleasure in a world that is not always so generous, why wouldn’t we?

With this in mind, may I suggest that the next time you pour a glass of wine, also serve up something for each of your senses: dial up some music and dish up some fare, admire a view or perhaps some art, take the hand of someone you love or someone you hope to, sip your wine and revel in the stimulated senses combined. Some might say this is not the point of wine tasting; perhaps not, but few could deny it is the point of living.

Photo © Tim Atkin MW