A DIFFERENT TAKE ON MUSIC AND WINE
Recounting an epic dinner in his wittily engaging book, A Life Uncorked, Hugh Johnson links various epic First Growth Bordeaux to numerous composers. Building on that I thought it may be also intriguing to apply a musical lens to what are arguably the most famous vineyards in Burgundy if not the world.
THE FIRST GROWTHS FIRST
As this odyssey begins, we revisit Hugh’s dinner.
The first wine poured on that epic evening was Chateau Latour 1961. This is one of the most stunning wines ever made: a wine of majesty and harmony, aromatically profound, deeply layered, intense and yet as it has evolved, increasingly elegant. In a palate muddle with Foie Gras, Hugh’s violinist companion suggested Smetana. Perhaps that works, with Smetana’s nationalistic fervor and at times aching vivacity. Today for this wine, I nominate Dvorak, his successor, for sheer classicism along with an almost Wagnerian breadth and drama.
The next wine served was Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1959. Other than the ’29 and ’53, this is arguably the greatest Lafite of the 20th century. It takes the sensuousness of the ’59 vintage and overlays the Lafite grace, a feline grace almost, velvety with a core of honeyed sweetness. It is lyrical and lascivious in equal parts, a stunning wine. Handel was proposed as its musical exemplar. Elaborate, yet almost pastorally accessible, with a messianic fervor at its core.
You have to swoon when seduced by Chateau Margaux 1953. The Margaux spice mixture is so alluring on the nose here, and you have such a lovely medley of sweet fruit, lacy silkiness, with violets and cassis tingeing a gracious, delicately structured, yet appealingly lingering finish. A sensual yearning at the core, animating and coursing through a delightfully delicate yet so unforgettably vital structure led them, as it leads us, to Mozart.
Chateau Haut Brion 1949 came next, a vintage that takes some of the richness of ’47 and some of the concentration of ’45 but gives it such a sophisticated expression. A more masculine nose, truffles and dark fruit, the wine continues to blossom in complexity and sophistication in the glass. It is intense, earthy, with notes of caramel. The proposed composer was Haydn. Representing as he does stylistic evolution, variations to established forms so beautifully rendered, a masterful bridge to other examples of greatness – it is an aptly intriguing selection.
The finale was Mouton Rotshchild 1945, one of the great wines of all time. You have a glorious confection of eucalyptus, figs and clementines on the nose. Johnson likened it to a “roll of drums,” and it is precisely that on the multi-faceted palate profile. Unfathomably deep, bold, with effortless graceful chutzpah in sheer waves, each embodying a transfixing note, rhythmically perfected. Beethoven comes readily to mind, perhaps the Moonlight Sonata itself in a glass, with the intensity of energy building to a focused yet furious, emotional finale.
Here, I thought we should go not to multiple wines or vintages, but the key vineyards of arguably the most important Domaine in the world, Romanee Conti, which produces the most stunning and stellar constellation of wines imaginable.
I also consulted, given both his ardent yet sophisticated love of Burgundy, and for his clear depth of musical insight and erudition, David Chan, Concert Master of The Metropolitan Opera.
This is perhaps the greatest white wine in the world, full of depth, precision, vigor and complexity. As it develops and picks up weight, it paradoxically challenges and well as caresses the palate at the same time -- an incomparable experience suggesting Mahler, who can verge on the excessive while leaving such an indelible imprint, almost a world unto itself.
Sweet, ripe cherries abound on the nose. This is a granular wine, quite precise, not seeking for undue complexity. But it is enticingly expressive at its best. Mendelssohn is proposed, bringing his own brand of power without any hint of weight, and like the wine, precocious.
While recalcitrant in youth, the wine tends to be a little sweeter, more profound as it ages, rusticity dueling with elegance more avidly here, mushrooms and gaminess, a slew of shifting alliances on the palate. Bruckner suggests himself, for his massive, monolithic symphonies that take time to reveal themselves. The later delicacy and sweet laced purity of the wine once mature (I’m thinking of the incandescent ’69 tasted last year) though almost suggests a Mozart quartet.
Romanee St. Vivant
Here is a wine of surpassing delicacy, grace and finesse. There is less sweetness, and more spice, a flirtatious, balanced, unprepossessing charm and beauty. Even in a difficult vintage like ’06, as we recently tasted with Aubert de Villaine, this is a wine of clearly captivating gracious appeal. Dvorak comes forth again, though for a different hue of his work, the hint of the exotic and the sheer sensuousness of the sound.
Often called “the kidney of the slope,” this wine often conveys an almost alluring roasted ripeness. It is somewhat ribald, jocular, full of personality and punch, and from a boisterous hedonistic youth it mellows into a more beguiling seductress. So of course we go to Brahms, because of both the warmth and the roundness.
We have greater subtlety here, exceptional length, more suggestiveness, elegant rigor. It is tannically unyielding in youth, but when it finally is wooed by time and development, it reveals itself with ravishing expressiveness, yet always bedecked with courtly elegance. Beethoven again, perhaps as he found more of his own voice, with jagged edges giving way to transcendent singular beauty.
So here we are, at the summit, the wine of princes: all velvety enchantment and multi-faceted appeal, but a masterpiece of balance, nothing excessive here. The 1980 we drank recently first stopped conversation with the rose petals consorting with cherries on the nose, and then with its gorgeous deeply savory and yet also sweet aplomb, unlike anything else you can encounter. It is a wine inviting meditation, a sonnet, devotion, and we are led to Schubert because of a touch of austerity being enveloped in sheer beautifully encompassing poetry.
Music and wine you ask?
Surely after the above, the inspiration is almost overwhelming not to ask, but rather to find a beautiful vinous companion, and then strum the chords of your taste buds and seek after true melodies for the soul.
*Musical post-script: we have stayed largely in Austro-German territory here to keep it “apples to apples.” Blend in French or Russian composers and you are then tasting very different varietals.