FROM MUSIC TO WINES : A SONIC WINE JOURNEY
When Jo Burzynska was coming to London to talk about Wine and Music, I found myself super thrilled, filled with curiosity but also equally sceptical on where and how my wine skills could contribute and fit into the audio world. Although I do have a classical music upbringing, my wine journey started much later in life, years after my music education stopped - for obvious reasons that I turned into an adult and could legally drink! Since then, the two fields, Wines and Music, have run mutually exclusive to each other. All I knew was that I enjoy wines with music on a Friday evening. The unwinding that comes from sipping on wine while hearing one of the “Feel Good Friday” tracks on Spotify must resonate with many of us. Was there something more to it?
My reason for attending the Circle of Wine Writers ‘Wine and Sound seminar’ by Jo Burzynska, the veteran wine journalist and educator was to establish a connection, something I felt but could not pinpoint. Not only does Jo have numerous accolades in the field of wine but is also an acclaimed sound artist and a classical musician by background, having performed live in London Musician’s Annual Performance of Experimental Music, in addition to many audio album releases under her name. On the days leading up to the seminar, I started fabricating my own stories about wine and sound, knowing well that without any statistical data, there was no way I could prove any of my half-baked anecdotal theories. But as a wine expert, I thought I ought to know about how music affects the wine experience, shouldn’t I? The answer is…. actually no. In truth, there has been very little research done in this field till the 1960s when Kristian Holt-Hansen came out with the ‘Synaesthetic Harmony’ theory based on experiments on participants using two different styles of beers, Carlsberg and Elephant. Through these experiments, it was concluded that for each style of beverage, a certain level of pitch can magnify the tasting experience, especially when sound and taste buds fall in harmony (‘Pitch of Fit’ Bronner (2008)). The next hypothesis of ‘Cognitive Priming’ was developed by Professor Adrian North (2008), while researching at Heriott-Watt University in Edinburgh, working with Montes wines. By using various studies and tests, he established that certain styles of music enhance or stimulate certain parts of the brain, which in turn can actually heighten the enjoyment and perception of wines. Worthwhile trying out some of his music recommendations; in particular, try pairing ‘Honky Tonk Women’ (Rolling Stones) with Cabernet Sauvignon and ‘Spinning Around’ (Kylie Minogue) with Chardonnay.
So, the right kind of music should pull out the best of our vino-senses. But are we able to segregate each and every component of sound and then re-create these interactions to inhibit or enhance our olfactory receptors? How does the auditory stimuli affect our perceptions of taste? To understand and explore the implications of acoustical environment on our olfactory palate, I joined in as part of a team of wine journalists participating in Jo’s research study. Since 2016 she has been working towards her Phd from UNSW (University of New South Wales) under Douglas Kahn, bringing together her multi-sensory approach to wine tasting. Her mission is to break down sound into its individual constituents, understand the links through our neural pathways that are then responsible for creating sensory perceptions. Finally, deduce from them, a unique scent and tasting perception for each sound piece. By using advanced techniques of non-invasive brain imagery, it has been proven that our sensory environment is highly interconnected with each other. Having created numerous installations to evoke the interactions between smell and taste, her PhD research, which is over a year now, involves finding those obscure “cross modal correspondences”, in Jo’s words, that we are unable to detect consciously but that are constantly streamlining our perceptions. Using sound and music as a medium of investigation, she works tirelessly at isolating the innumerable enigmatic connections amongst our hearing skills, scent and taste buds that modulate our olfactory system. From there on, she cross-connects and constructs esoteric multisensory wine art installations. In keeping with her works, Jo co-founded the ‘The Auricle Sonic Arts Gallery’ in Christchurch, New Zealand, where she curated a special “oenosthetic list” every month, matching each month’s sonic exhibitions with specific wines creating a unique concept of ‘wine and sound bar’.
As part of Jo’s research to analyse how pitch and timbre of the music interact with human perceptions of wines under different sonic simulations, here are some of the tasting observations of our team. Each tasting was paired with a unique track type, some of which have been composed by Jo herself. For every track, we were asked to submit a tasting note.
Astrolabe Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc, New Zealand 2015
Track 1: The first one was the controlled ‘silent’ condition which is how wine experts conduct tastings. For this wine, this condition gave the most accurate perception, as per Charles Metcalfe, the renowned wine critic to which I agreed as well. Those sharp lemon, gooseberry aromas with a bit of herbal essence, floral lemon blossoms, all came out precisely with a straight shot.
Track 2: “Just can’t get enough” track by Nouvelle Vague: Any guesses? A peppy, rhythmic number. The floral aromatics were noticeably heightened, adding jasmin and white flowers, there were less of the gooseberries but more of the long, spicy and sweet floral appeal that lingered on and on. Jo asked us to clean our palate before the next track was put on.
Track 3: “Skeptics” by AFFCO : Hard drum beats, loud guitar strums, this is classic Kiwi rock at its most profound acoustic intensity. And the utter tasting disbelief that came about surprised most of us in the panel! Intensely pithy, harsh, rustic and highly saline, acidity going through the roof, heights of muskiness; pulsating palate were some of the comments; some of us were forced to abandon our taste buds temporarily and eat a cracker in order to stop the ‘torture’! Christine Austin, wine writer for Yorkshire Post thought that the wine completely lost its definition in this track.
What was surprising was how the same wine was interpreted differently for each track! Our findings concur with Jo’s deduction that loud music such as hard rock and fruity aromatics just do not pair together. They numb the fruit scents while magnifying the umami and savoury flavours, which is the same reason why in aeroplane cabins, white noise evokes a desire to drink savoury tomato juice. Our sensory receptors are able to function and process harmoniously only within a certain range (decibel) of background noise. This is exactly as was established by Kristian Holt-Hansen (1968, 1976).
Torres Sangre de Toro Catalunya Garnacha, Spain 2015
Here we experimented with one track composed by Jo using her sound expertise, but tasted the same wine at three levels of pitch and timbre, working out the influence on our taste perceptions. Lower pitch brought out astringency in the tannins while high pitch and jarring noise raised levels of acidity. We were in line with Jo’s conclusions which state that, “Sweet tastes are associated with slower tempo, sour tastes are mapped to dissonance, fast tempo and staccato articulation. Fruity notes are enhanced by piano and wood wind instruments. Musky, bitter chocolate and woody notes come out stronger under lower pitch especially with brass instruments.”
Whilst cultural differences also play an important role in perception of the levels of consonance and dissonance, the studies that Jo conducts aims to be broad based, covering as many religions, nationalities and backgrounds to lend itself to a more realistic conclusion. According to Charles Spence, experimental psychologist at University of Oxford, there is tremendous value addition studying these “cross modal correspondences”. Charles explains that aspects of the cross modal research findings can be used for wine marketing as he did through creation of “Sonic Season” a 13 track playlist he curated to be served along with in-flight meals for British Airways. Further he goes on to add that matching the origin of music with origin of wines can turn on the cross modal pathways. Charles notes, “It is well proven that higher sales of French wines can be achieved if consumers are served French wines with French music”.
Pegus Way, Waipara Reisling, New Zealand 2014.
The aim here was to work out the cross modal pathways of two or more contrasting sensory stimuli such as sweet-sour tastes in wine.
Track 1 – Tasting under controlled silent mode and then cleanse our palate for the auditory challenge ahead
Track 2 – ‘Amazuppai’ Jo’s composition: Aromatics and acidity were in balance but the track did magnify the spicy, smoky and more of the tertiary characters of the wine. The off dry note of the wine comes out very elegantly making this wine thoroughly enjoyable.
Track 3- ‘Vivaldi Summer’ recomposed by Max Richter – An impressive pace of the track that brings out the best of this wine highlighting an equilibrium amongst acidity, fruit & floras aromatics sweetness and vibrance. For me, this was the most striking combination of wine and music piece. In general, participants were divided equally between Track 2 and Track 3 and consensus was that both these tracks yielded better appeal for the wine than the silent mode (track 1).
Wine is a great medium to explore sound and taste techniques, not just through its olfactory mode but also using the gustatory profile of acidity, sweetness, fruitiness, flavour intensity and length. While some of the sensory effects on wine’s alcohol and astringency levels are yet to be established, these are set to be part of Jo’s research in near future. But what has been established is that by modulating the components of sounds, it is possible to influence the intensities of pleasure and enjoyment of wine making even a mediocre wine taste better.
Art is now expanding into a multisensory phenomenon and Jo’s contribution to this emerging field have been further confirmed by her recent systemic experimentation in Campania. Her work involves combining auditory cues and matching them with appropriate styles of wines to stimulate the brains into capturing the finer nuances of each style. One such conceptual demonstration in wine and sound has been the creation of “Oenosthesia”. A bespoke audio composition created by Jo, it was sub-divided into three distinct sound experiences, where she has painstakingly recorded the entire journey of wine-making from the vineyard habitat, capturing sounds of the wild nature which included high pitched sounds of crickets, rustling of the leaves, sub soil creaks and vibrations, fermentation moans and gurgles from barrels in the winery all the way to clangorous sounds from the bottling and packing units. Each audio experience was then paired with a distinct style of wine - a light sparkling wine, a medium bodied Chardonnay and finally a full bodied, rich Cabernet sauvignon. The experiment was hugely applauded for its unprecedented appeal.
Jo’s wine and sound tasting seminar has to be one of the stand-out tastings for me. This association of audio with scent and smell is easier for the brain to train than isolated sensory experiences. Not only do we learn the art of maximising tasting perceptions of wine by altering the modalities in sound, but her work has the potential to create alternate future inventions and applications in science and art, one that cannot even be comprehended in the current day scenario. Sound can manipulate the sensory cortices in unbelievable ways and I can certainly say that I have discovered that each of us have a sonic side to us that is dominant enough to influence our sensory perceptions but that seldom gets applied. With each passing day, as lines between science and art get blurred, any next generation innovation in the cross-sensory platform will have a huge ability to seek intellectual and sensory advancement. No doubt the underlying innovation comes with an ethical responsibility to safeguard human consciousness and hedonic tendencies. Some of her works can be used for improving wine appreciation behaviour, possibly even curbing alcohol misuse by fine-tuning our palate to reach its fulfilled mode through bespoke sensory apps and musical selections. The scope of her research is far reaching, even ahead of its time but it is a step closer to steering the world towards a novel path of wine and art innovation.
On this note, my Friday challenge will be to pick wines that will match with the eclectic music style of legendary Indian composer, AR Rahman (also popularly called as Mozart of India). Share with us, what wine and music you pick, using Jo’s tips and whether the paired experience enhances your wine appreciation!
For more details on Jo's work, you can visit her site
Burzynska, J. (2017), Research work discussion and seminar conducted with Circle of Wine Writers at The Institute of Masters of Wine, London
Spence, C., Shankar, M. Blumenthal, H. (2008), “Art & The Senses, Chap 11: Sounds & Bites: Auditory contributions to the perception and consumption of Food and Drink”, edited by Bacci and Melcher
Eplett, L. (2014), “The Sound (and taste) of Music”, Scientific American (Food Matters), https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/
Spence, C., Wang, JC. (2015), “Wine and Music (III): So what if music influences the taste of wine”, Biomed central, Flavour Journal, https://flavourjournal.biomedcentral.com/
Rago, R. (2014), Emotion on the Brain, “Emotion and our Senses -The neuroscience of emotion: From reaction to regulation”, http://sites.tufts.edu/emotiononthebrain/