by John Stimpfig
Not for the first time, the Antique Wine Company is breaking new ground in the field of ultra-fine wine. On this unique and memorable occasion, Stephen Williams, the company’s founder and current CEO is standing, wine glass in hand, on a stage in central London. Standing to his left is Kathryn McDowell, Managing Director of London Symphony Orchestra and, to his right, the world-famous, experimental psychologist Professor Charles Spence of Oxford University.
Intriguingly, all three of them are talking about a common theme. The focus of their presentation is the thread that connects classical music and fine wine and the stage is located in LSO’s magnificent St Luke’s venue, a renovated Hawksmoor Church that is now the orchestra’s Music Education Centre. The assembled audience is comprised of specially invited philanthropists, oenophiles and music lovers, seated and ready for the evening’s extremely enviable mission. Instigated and orchestrated by AWC, the task in front of us is to ‘road-taste’ an intriguing, insightful and cutting edge piece of research into how music affects our perception and enjoyment of fine wine.
When it comes to fine wine, AWC has an impressive track record of supporting this sort of bold initiative. For instance, a few years ago, the company joined forces with a nuclear study centre in Bordeaux to develop a pioneering method of counterfeit bottle detection via ion beam. Williams, of course, is something of a standard-bearer in the fight against fraudulent wine. But then few, if any, international wine merchants have ever acquired and sold more stellar bottles and collections of fine wine than AWC has in the last thirty years. In fact, in 2011, the company actually set a Guinness World Record for the most valuable bottle of white wine ever sold – an 1811 Château d’Yquem.
Even by AWC’s bold and adventurous standards, this particular project seems a little esoteric. ‘Not at all,’ Williams counters. ‘As a wine merchant and wine lover, I’ve always been fascinated by the physical, sensory and psychological influences related to how we perceive and enjoy fine wine.’
‘An obvious example is how the same wine can be totally different, depending on what food you’re eating. Temperature is another key variant. If the wine is too warm or too cold that will dramatically affect how the wine tastes. In my experience, far too many people still drink their red wines too warm and their white wines too cold,’ he points out.
‘Then there’s the glassware,’ he continues, warming to his theme. ‘If you’re drinking a 1990 Château Latour from a hand-blown Bordeaux Grand Cru Riedel glass, the wine will taste infinitely better than if you are drinking it from a very ordinary Paris Goblet. The point is that it helps immeasurably to know all these different things in order to maximize your pleasure.’
Moreover, Williams has always believed that there is, ‘a very special relationship between music and wine, one which we still don’t fully understand. There is clearly much that these two sensual pursuits have in common, most obviously, that when put together, great wine and great music have the power to affect us both intellectually and emotionally. It can be a very powerful and uplifting combination.’
Consequently, when the opportunity for LSO, Charles Spence and AWC came together, Williams instinctively and unhesitatingly wanted to be on board. ‘Above all, it was a chance to gain some new insights as well as doing something which hadn’t been done before.’
As the pioneering research project began to formulate, Williams, in particular wanted to know just how meaningful it is to compare fine wine and music – and what types of matches work best. Not least because he had always been intrigued by the way in which wine writers often compare wines to a particular piece of music, musical style or artist.
He quotes an example from the wine writer Paul White who once said that some of the works of American composer Steve Reich have, ‘textural aspects which are strongly reminiscent of Champagne.’ Another classic example comes from Hugh Johnson’s vinous autobiography, A Life Uncorked.
In it Johnson writes the following passage:
‘A Stony Hill Chardonnay recently had the subtle harmonies and lilting vitality of Bix Biederbecke. Robert Mondavi’s Reserve Cabernets are Duke Ellington numbers; massed talent in full cry. Benny Goodman is a Riesling from Joseph Phelps, Louis Martini’s wines have the charm and good manners of Glenn Miller. Joe Heitz though, is surely Armstrong at the Sunset Café; virtuoso, perverse and glorious.’
It is unquestionably a great piece of writing by an author at the height of his powers. However, what Williams and Spence really wanted to know was whether this kind of purple prose actually resonated with a wider audience. Are these musical matches purely idiosyncratic to the writer, or do they have a broader meaning which is genuinely relevant and useful to the rest of us?
To find out, a phased plan was established. The first step involved assembling a group of twenty four volunteers in AWC’s luxurious tasting room at its Marylebone offices in Central London. There they were each presented with four, distinctive, fine wines to taste. All of the participants were then asked to assign a score from 0-10 in terms of how well they thought that each of eight, sequentially presented pieces of classical music matched the four wines.
The first thing that emerged from the resulting data was the unequivocal finding that some wines do indeed go well (or less well) with particular pieces of music. For example, Tchaikovsky’s String Quartet No 1 turned out to be a particularly harmonious match for a blissful 2004 Château Margaux; but a strikingly dissonant one for Didier Dageaneau’s wonderfully precise 2010 Pouilly- Fumé Silex. Conversely, Mozart’s lively and witty Flute Quartet No 1 in D major was a big hit with the Silex and completely out of sync with the claret.
These results backed up Spence’s long-held hypothesis that wines with prominent acidity and freshness (like the Dageaneau Silex) offer a good match for musical pieces that incorporate the flute, while red wines appear to be a better match for string quartets. It also meshed with the views of Californian winemaker Clark Smith who once said that, ‘Red wines need either a minor key, or music that has negative emotion. They do not like happy music.’
What also emerged quite categorically was that social wine drinkers do indeed make “cross-modal” associations when wine and music are paired. ‘When we ask people to pick an instrument, or any notes on the scale that they think match a certain wine, the responses are always consistent and reliable’, says Spence. ‘So our findings do provide prima facie evidence to suggest that when wine writers compare particular wines with music it’s not just a private or personal flight of fancy.’
‘For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the research was just how much the music enhanced people’s enjoyment of the wines,’ says Williams. For each wine, tasters marked it as providing a significantly increased level of pleasure when tasted with music than without.
‘As a professional wine taster, I always taste wine in total silence, without distractions, because I want to make a completely accurate and critical assessment of the wine’s quality. But when I am drinking a great wine for pleasure with friends, I often put on some appropriate music to enhance the experience,’ Williams continues. ‘I’ve always believed that this only adds to the emotional vibrancy of both the wine and the music. It brings out hidden nuances in the wine and can take the experience to an entirely new level.’
‘That said, I’m afraid that it really only works for exceptionally fine wines. Don’t expect that great music can have the exact same effect on ordinary, commercial wines. In order for music to really bring out these hidden qualities, they have to be present in the wine in the first place.’
More controversially, Williams also asserts that music can even go so far as changing people’s perceptions of the taste of a wine. ‘It sounds extraordinary,’ he acknowledges. ‘Yet we actually proved it with a controlled study a couple of years ago.’
This involved members of the public tasting five wines whilst listening to different pieces of music such as Debussy’s delicate Clair de Lune and Wagner’s thunderous Ride of the Valkyries. Participants were asked to rate each wine’s colour intensity, nose, fruit and quality. They were also told to put the wine into a prescribed descriptive category such as ‘subtle and refined’ or ‘powerful and heavy’.
‘But we also played a trick on the participants by not telling them that the first and last wines were exactly the same,’ adds Williams. ‘What came back from crunching all the data was astonishing.’
Even though the first and fifth wines were one and the same, a staggering 90% of the tasters rated the latter higher than the former. Secondly, no less than 70% of the participants claimed that wine number 5 was their favourite wine; whereas nobody at all had chosen wine 1. Thirdly, a remarkable 40% went from describing Wine 1 as subtle and refined (with the Debussy) to describing Wine 5 as powerful and heavy (with the Wagner).
‘In each instance, they tended to think that the wine had the qualities of the music they were listening to,’ says Williams. ‘It was fascinating to witness.’ The technical name for this behavior is called ‘cognitive priming’ or ‘transference’ whereby the music sets up the brain to respond to the wine in a particular way. ‘To me this is yet more incontrovertible evidence of the enormous influence that music has on us when we are drinking fine wine.’
‘In fact, the music we happen to be listening to can affect everything – from the wine we choose to buy and the price we are willing to pay for it, to the rate at which we consume it, through to the bar tab at the end of a restaurant meal,’ Spence points out.
He cites a famous study in the UK which revealed that people were five times more likely to buy French rather than German wine if typically Gallic accordion music as serenading shoppers. In contrast, when ‘oompapa’ German Bierkeller music was played, the German wine outsold the French nearly two to one. Another study in the US showed that shoppers would buy more expensive drinks and more valuable items when listening to classical music.
Although no-one definitively understands why this connection exists, Spence believes that the answer may lie in a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex, which determines whether a particular experience is or isn’t pleasurable. Critically, this area of the brain also identifies familiar music and senses particular aromas, which, of course, play a key role in our perception of flavour.
‘I’m not yet sure where this latest research is going to lead in practical terms,’ says Williams. ‘Maybe we will see a new mobile app that will scan a wine label and then recommend suitable musical accompaniments for it?’
Meanwhile, some fine wine producers are also using the connection to their advantage. At a dinner in Hong Kong, Olivier Krug recently unveiled several vintages of Krug Champagne alongside live classical music pieces performed by members of The Hong Kong Philharmonic. According to Krug, each had been “selected to pair audibly with the rich complexities of the most prestigious cuvées from the house of Krug.”
‘All this is yet more confirmation of the close psychological connection between wine and music,’ Williams adds.
If anyone in the LSO St Luke’s audience was surprised or skeptical at the beginning of the evening, they were undoubtedly delighted, convinced and converted by the finale. As ever, the lavish event was a brilliantly conceived, organized and executed recital and tasting that crystallized and echoed the key points of Spence and AWC’s complex and innovative study.
Of course, the real proof in the pudding was the audience’s response to the four wines tasted with the four live pieces of music, all brilliantly performed by a young LSO String Quartet and the Orchestra’s principal flautist, Gareth Davies. Naturally, there was some variation in personal preference but the collective experience uncannily backed up and replicated the findings of the research. Ultimately,what none of us could argue with was that the power and pitch of the music made these great wines taste even greater.
The Fine Wines and Accompanying Pieces of Music
Wine 1: 2010 Pouilly-Fumé Silex, Domaine Didier Dagueneau
Musical Accompaniment: Mozart Flute Quartet in D – Movement 1, Allegro
Wine 2: 2009 Clos de la Roche, Domaine Ponsot
Musical Accompaniment: Ravel, String Quartet in F Major – Movement No. 1, Allegro Moderato
Wine 3: 2004 Château Margaux
Musical Accompaniment: Tchaikovsky String Quartet No 1 – Movement 2, Andante cantabile
Wine 4: 2004 Château Climens
Musical Accompaniment: Debussy Syrinx for Solo Flute