In the years directly following WWII, the Hungarian essayist Béla Hamvas wrote The Philosophy of Wine, a passionate argument positioning the intoxication that comes from drinking a glass of wine as a pathway for relearning how to embrace life, live in the present and experience joy.
He communicated this belief system without a trace of jargon, describing wines the way one might an old friend. For Hamvas a wine could be flirtatious and talkative, even tragic. They were never full-bodied, overtly fruity or concentrated. Wine, after all, had helped knit him into the fabric of life—to discuss or judge it in a vacuum where the only context is other wines would be nothing short of heretical.
Fast-forward 60 years. Fine wine is being made and consumed in almost every corner of the world, and sommeliers and other industry pros have been tasked with differentiating between regions and explaining the type of experience a particular wine will offer. With this, a highly specialized language has emerged to convey the flavor and structure of what’s in the glass. What might have been flirtatious to Hamvas is, in contemporary parlance, fruit forward, high-acid and floral. It’s true that these descriptors can be helpful in certain contexts, but are they the most natural way to communicate about wine? Does wine act on more than just our sense of taste?
When Franz Weninger, the winemaker at Austria’s Weingut Weninger, encountered a study by the neuroscientist Gordon M. Shepherd positing that the part of the brain that registers taste and the part that processes language are located on opposite sides, he experienced a eureka moment. Franz thought of his hero, Béla Hamvas, and how the philosopher’s exuberance for wine did not depend upon being able to nail the flavor profile of a particular vintage. All that mattered was paying attention to what one felt when they sipped. Then he thought about music—he’s Austrian, after all—and how people intuitively understand the emotion of music. A wistful melody played on the French horn inexplicably brings you to tears. A salsa rhythm causes you to throw up your arms and tumble onto the dance floor. He suspected that most people understand wine in the same way, but lack the language to express their thoughts.
“We listen to different music for different moods, it is the same with wine,” he says. “Sometimes we are melancholy and want a wine we can cry on. Sometimes we feel light and want a wine that makes us feel as if we could fly.” He wondered whether or not someone with little or no wine knowledge could match wines to the emotions evoked by a piece of music. He obsessed over the question for months. Finally, he devised an experiment.
It began with wines he knows intimately, his three single-vineyard Blaufränkisch: Dürrau, Steiner and Saybritz. He described the feelings he associates with these wines to his friend, the conductor Michael Glatter Götz, and asked him to choose a piece of music to match each one.
The Dürrau is deep, round and worthy of cellaring. It comes from old vines planted in loamy clay-rich soil in eastern Burgenland near the Hungarian border. Franz called it, “pensive, like a well-read aristocrat ensconced in a cold castle,” and the conductor suggested a melancholic musical pairing with “The Moldau” by the 19th-century Czech composer Bedřich Smetana describing the river that runs through Prague.
The Steiner is lean with exceptionally fine tannins, flavors of dried cherries, herbs and spice. It comes from a vineyard with stony soil in Balf, Hungary near Lake Neusiedl, which, for four centuries, has been identified as one of the region’s prime sites. When Franz compared the Steiner’s power and precision to that of an endurance runner, the conductor recommended an electronic drum piece with a fast beat by the Belgian group, Safri Duo.
The Saybritz, which hails from southern Burgenland, combines the more accessible qualities of its two siblings. Franz dubbed it, “a crowd pleaser that is at once light and full-bodied,” and conductor chose the iconic theme song to television series Hawaii Five-O.
Conductor Götz scored the three pieces—one melancholy, one rhythmic, one a pop anthem—for an orchestra of homemade instruments fashioned from materials found in wine production. Bottles filled with water became flutes. Hoses attached to funnels were converted into trumpets. Barrels sawed in half were drums. And those strung with training wire became harps. Arranging music for these instruments posed a unique set of challenges. The instruments didn’t play at the same volume. In fact, they were not even calibrated to the same scale. And recording the orchestra in the cellar proved equally difficult given the colossal echo.
With each test, the project grew in scope. Ultimately, a concert hall was secured in Raiding, Austria, birthplace of the celebrated 19th-century pianist and composer Franz Liszt, for the orchestra to record a 30-second audio and video clip of each of the three songs. The goal was to make true vineyard music. While the performance is clever and visually arresting, it makes one wonder whether or not the genuine emotion of the music would have been conveyed more effectively through the original recordings.
Franz put his question to the test. He asked friends who knew little about wine to blind taste his three single-vineyard Blaufränkisch, then listen to the three clips of music and match the feelings stirred by the wines to the emotional content of the musical scores. All of his friends matched the Saybritz with the theme to Hawaii Five-O and he estimates an 80 percent success rate regarding their finding a correspondence between the melancholic Dürrau Blaufränkisch with Smetana’s “The Moldau.” The same goes for their sensing a relationship between the Steiner and Safri Duo’s drumming.
In other words, the answer to his question, “Is wine something that can be understood intuitively?” was a resounding yes. But why go to such lengths to prove that the essence of wine can be communicated through feelings and moods? It seems like a herculean effort if it its sole purpose is to disprove the efficacy of the tasting note, especially since most people who have mastered the technical language of wine, as Franz calls it, learned the language to be able to speak in more detail about the wines they love.
Franz believes that to know empirically that even people with little or no wine knowledge can match the emotion of a wine with that of a musical score is to appreciate that the experience of drinking wine has emotional value. This means reducing wine to a tasting note limits the potential of the interaction.
If his experiment linking music and Blaufränkisch reminds us of the expansive state of mind wine can evoke when we are not reducing it to adjectives and trying to peg down what’s in our glass, it will have been a great success. Franz is asking us to be patient with wine. Let it act on our senses and our nervous system. Don’t be so quick to understand it. Listen to it, the way you might a favorite piece of music. Get lost in it, the way you might a novel.