When the seasons change and the summer sun stops simmering, when the autumn brings a welcome shade, when the harvest moon is shining and the grapes beg to be picked, so do the seasons start anew, with symphonies, songs and soloists competing to be heard.
There is a parallel between the “spielplan” of an orchestra or opera house and the variety of wines a vintner may select. Just as it is necessary to understand the compositions and characteristics of different composers and how repertoire should be performed on a program for the benefit of both audiences and musicians, so too should the characteristics offered by different grapes and how they are expressed in wine be understood to fully appreciate wine.
Bach, Beethoven and Brahms may all be German, but their music and their styles are quite different, based on their location and epoch. The Baroque inevitably led to the Classical which evolved into the Romantic, and yet each composer who followed borrowed elements of their predecessors to balance the demand for tradition and innovation. Understanding how each composer, in his time and place, inevitably influenced the result of the next composer, even as each voice was authentic and original, is critical to understanding which composers have withstood the test of time to become part of the canon of classical music. Of course, there are always new composers to discover from the past, drawn from the same schools or movements defined by the greats, and there are new works by their contemporaries and from those living today, that compliment the concert program. If Beethoven is expected, what can be proposed to offer context or contrast? If Brahms is the attraction, who can be the player to bring a persuasive performance? If Bach is the purpose, where and on what instrument is Bach heard best? These kinds of questions are essential to ask when programming a season. Usually the public wants the warhorses, those masterpieces that withstand the test of time and demand to be heard and rediscovered every year. They are the “meat and potato” diet of the orchestra, and yet sometimes the tried and true can also be made anew. The music is alive, organic and needs to be heard not just for how people expect it to be played, but how it can surprise us again and again.
With wine it is the same. Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Corvina are all red grapes, but as wines their personalities are quite different. Even when grown in different appellations and areas and vinified using different techniques, a varietal wine will demonstrate different aspects, which are inherent in the grape’s personality. The Carignan, a Spanish/French grape grown throughout the Mediterranean and most typically found in the wines of the Languedoc in Southern France, carries the high alcohol fruit and flavor similar to the Primitivo of Southern Italy. The Corvina is the foundation of the Amarone wine, the king of the Veneto, filled with intense sugar and wild berry flavors. Cabernet Sauvignon, the emperor of Bordeaux, is marked by plum, currants and firm tannins. Understanding what a grape should be and where it is grown are fundamental, and knowing what a grape can achieve at its greatest is the essence of fine-wine appreciation.
In Europe, wine is known primarily by geographic location, and composers are also defined by their nationality. Cultural identity is often connected to the names of the composers. What would German musical Bildung be without its 3 B’s? Wine has a similar identification process based on the name of the varietal grape. For example, in Europe, the grapes are matched to soil and climate and are identified with the location: Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, for instance, are the major grapes of Burgundy. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Malbec and Petite Verdot are the red grapes of Bordeaux.
European orchestras often reflect composers with regional names, and very often soloists will be selected based on their country of origin. Ravel will be a French music night, with a French conductor. Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninov will be the basis of a Russian program with Russian soloists. As an American, I have even been categorized and therefore have been invited to conduct more Bernstein and Gershwin than other composers.
However, the parallel ends here. Artists should not be limited to nationality. Wine should not be confined to only one region. The grapes of Bordeaux are now grown in wine regions from California to Chile. Most artists I know are not limited to their country’s repertoire, and Russians are quite capable of playing Bach just as Americans are capable of recording Brahms. We are encouraged and inspired to know the full repertoire, not only the repertoire that may be in our DNA due to our country of birth. While there may be a temptation for orchestras and opera houses to program that way, with the even greater temptation to follow trends of youth and gender to more easily package and promote for their public, it creates an unfair and limited approach to developing artists and educating and entertaining its audience. Building a public through programming should be based on quality, not on nationality, age or gender. After all, we are a globalized gender free society now. Orchestras are as much a combination of nationalities as wines have become a melange of grapes. Region becomes irrelevant. Quality is the only criteria. The ultimate test is how it sounds. And how the wine tastes.
Here is a composer and wine unable to be categorized that just might be the unexpected example of the perfect pair:
Rossini was famous for his operas and musical virtuosity written closely in the classical style of Mozart, and was therefore nicknamed the “Italian Mozart” or Il Tedeschino, “the little German,” Rossini was an Italian growing up in Bologna who composed in the German style and then became an unofficial food critic in France. There is perhaps a reason, however far fetched, that Rossini had these German instincts: The wines of Emilia-Romagna were influenced by Barbarian invaders with a protein and starch diet who desired a sparkling wine to balance the fat, hence the Lambrusco of Emilia, while Romans colonized the area with an olive oil rich diet demanding a more structured wine to balance the flavors, therefore the deep tannins of the Sangiovese grape. During his years in Paris, being on the forefront of Grand Opera, the Cabernet Sauvignon reigned supreme.
One can listen to the Lambrusco sparkle in his early comic operas, like the Barber of Seville. One can hear the intensity of the Sangiovese in his tragedies, like La Donna del Lago. And the grandeur of the Cabernet in Guillaume Tell. This was a musician without limits who gave the world quality and retired from the world to savor the success it brought. This superman of music is perhaps best paralleled with Super Tuscan wines: using grapes from Italy, the Sangiovese, and France, the Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, with a Nietzschean designation, to create wines few can equal. Some prices can be astronomical, as are tickets to hear the Barber of Seville. But once you taste even the most available of the Super Tuscans, the Antinori Tignanello, with its supple yet structured body and a taste that lingers on your tongue like Rosina’s aria “una voce poco fa,” you can simply appreciate the quality of the wine and the melody that Rossini composed.
When wine and music are free to be expressed by those who imbibe and those who make it, then wine and music will be freed from their limitations and generate a wider panorama of appreciation. Is that not our raison d’être?