Four Part Harmony

Words. Wine. Song. Voila, the three realms that give color, flavor, texture and an esquisse (sketch) of sense to this old boy’s romp through the life cycle. While each in its own way is hugely responsible  for forming the collective bundle of pleasure, pains and ideas that led to my particular here and now, they all more or less inform and color one another (quite handy when it’s time to reach in the metaphoric bag o’ tricks). I often think of books in terms of wine, music in terms of books, wine in terms of music...and so forth.

I find this little habit of mind especially useful when tasting wine. Thinking of wine in terms of music doesn’t just make for a nice set of metaphors, it’s actually an amazingly precise way to describe—and evaluate—wine.  Texture, ripeness, residual sugar and alcohol readily lend themselves to orchestral or acoustical interpretation. Think of red Burgundy in terms of Debussy, brilliant, elegantly balanced whites as Mozart (or Beethoven) string quartets, and the Rhone as Ravel’s orchestral works (for example). On the other side of the Atlantic, old school California cabs are the Stan Kenton band, while Zinfandel is a bad-ass tavern band…and all those overripe, over-oaked, ego-centric expositions of plushness are everything from a metal band turned up to 11 to “smooth jazz” laced with layer upon layer  of digital delay—walls of lush, silky, sentimental, processed sound.  Oak is the wild card, the magic tool, the special touch, the producer’s ace, everything from lush strings to saccharine vibrato --think Leonetti Cellars wines channeling Kenny G offering a prime example (for those who have the means).

Perhaps the most useful musical reading of wine is in terms of basic harmony. The basics, the roots, the timeless stuff that gave birth to most of everything else that matters, musically. Think Bach chorales, for example. Four voices: Soprano, alto, Tenor, Bass. In well-balanced, cleanly rendered wines, all voices sing clearly, cleanly and in harmony. Solo or featured voices will stand out, of course, due to varietal or vintage considerations, but the parts should always all be present. White wines, for example, should see the soprano as featured soloist, or in strong support of an alto soloist, (Too often, overripe white wines become lush textures of alto and tenor, with no voice in the soprano part.), with tenor and bass present, but laying down the proverbial foundation. Likewise, red wines should tend to feature tenor and bass voices, but not to the exclusion of the altos and sopranos. Those high harmonies provide a bright contrast, providing depth and context for the profundity of lower voices.

You get the idea. There are endless examples, of course, but check it out over your next bottle or four. Think in terms of basic, four-part harmony and find the individual voices in the wine. See how they contribute to the texture and provide counterpoint for one another.  And, of coursed, a little Bach (or Basie, Beethoven, the Beatles or Buddy Miller) on the side doesn’t hurt, either…

More about: wine, wine and music, wine descriptions, wine tasting

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