If you don’t like the wine, change the music

Wine educator, Laura Clay, reveals the fascinating experience she had matching champagne with music.

We know that music has the “tingle factor” – evokes memories, can reduce us to tears and raise our spirits; but it also affects what we taste.

According to Professor Barry Smith of University of London, tasting generally and wine tasting in particular is not an independent experience.  We look, smell and taste a wine on its own, but actually all those senses we use, and many others besides, come together in how we assess wine – and this includes the sense of hearing.

We like to think we are not influenced by outside factors, that we really can make an independent and intelligent assessment of what we taste, but who has not had that great wine on holiday/rubbish wine at home experience? Our interpretation and appreciation of the same wine can be influenced by mood, the sunshine, the lapping of the waves in the distance.

They are all factors which make a wine taste like manna from heaven when on holiday.  While under grey skies, on a damp and miserable evening with the radio playing in the background, the same wine is not so appealing.

It does not mean that the wine wasn’t good when you first drank it but that our combined senses (and Professor Smith suggests we have between 20 and 33 and not five, as Aristotle would have it) conspired to make it seem ultra-delicious. We cannot control that.

Our brain has already made an assumption of what to expect when it has seen, smelt and even heard something which then lands on the taste buds.

So the experiment that Barry worked on twelve of us wine professionals was how sound, and in this case music, affects how we taste a wine, in this case champagne.

To celebrate the tenth anniversary of the Ambassadeurs du Champagne competition, the Comité Champagne invited the UK ambassadors to the impressively beautiful Rosewood Hotel for a seminar and tasting, brilliantly presented by Barry, who is not only a Professor of Philosophy but also the Founder of the Centre for the Study of the Senses.

We began by correctly identifying the music which he had specially composed to represent sweet, sour, bitter and salty tastes, proving that we have a cerebral conception of what each might sound like.

We tasted five very different champagnes, first of all in silence and then with two diverse pieces of music carefully chosen to emphasise acidity, softness, balance. Barry had hoped to select pieces that we might not already know so that we were not affected emotionally by any personal associations that we had.  He wanted the changes in our perceptions to be purely down to the music.

It was a fascinating experience.  There seemed to be little subjectivity about what the differences were – we were agreed that the wines tasted different with music and also in what ways they had changed.

One piece of music always made the wine taste better than the other and we were agreed as to which it was. It mattered not that some of us might have been music nerds, others tone deaf – our findings were the same.

The music was matching acidity with high notes; low notes emphasised bitterness; and the speed of the wine across the palate worked with the tempo of the music. Possibly the most mystical finding of them all was how the texture of the champagnes changed depending on the sounds we were listening to.

This was a fascinating experience and one that I am sure would be of interest to many.  So should you want to share our experience, these were the champagnes and pieces of music we ‘paired’.

Larmandier Bernier 1er cru Blanc de Blancs Longitude

1.    Mozart Quartet No. 1 in D Major for Flute – Arife Gullson Tatu
2.    J’y suis jamais allé  – Yann Tierson from Amelie

Laurent-Perrier Ultra Brut

1.    Rybycon (7” single) – Tangerine Dream
2.    Himmel og Hav – Valkyria Allstars

Mailly Grand Cru Blanc de Noirs

1.    Sure Thing – St Germain (Tourist)
2.    Mountain Wind – Eagle

Bruno Paillard Blanc de Blancs Première Cuvée

1.    This Lamb Sells Condos – Owen Pallet (Final Fantasy)
2.    Take Five – Dave Brubeck

Bollinger La Grande Année 2004

1.    No Rest for the Wicked – Cervantine (A Hawk and a Handsaw)
2.    Lums O’Lund – Catriona Mackay (Starfish)

For the savoury notes:

3.    She’s Gone – Gonjasufi (The Caliph’s Tea Party)

For balance:

4.    Now that We’ve Found Love – Third World