Golden Dawn is a bar in a gentrified inner-city suburb of Auckland, New Zealand. It has a not-really-from-anywhere aesthetic – stripped-out Edwardian building, French bistro chairs, long wooden trestle tables – and is popular with a mix of hipsters and older, loaded, creative types. There is no sign and the front door is blocked off; the initiated know to mosey in from the side. It has a very fine outdoor fireplace.
Recently, a bunch of wine enthusiasts gathered in the courtyard out the back to taste wine and listen to music at Wine & Sound, an event billed as “a multi-sensory tasting experience.” The courtyard was attractively festooned with strings of lights and participants arrived to find three glasses set before them.
The event was led by Jo Burzynska, an English wine writer and sound artist who lives in the earthquake-damaged city of Christchurch on the South Island of New Zealand. She has turned recordings she made during aftershocks from the city's February 2011 quake into a sound-scape called Body Waves. It's being featured in the International Computer Music symposium in Slovenia later this year. For the Wine & Sound event Burzynska was sporting an artful black bob, and a dress indebted to the impossibly upbeat prints of Marimekko.
Why wine and sound? “It’s a pairing close to my heart,” said Burzynska. “Many an evening I’m to be found, wine glass in hand, going through my record collection searching for that perfect match.” She’s done it for years, but lately decided to adopt a more scientific approach.
It’s an interesting idea: that what you’re listening to might influence the taste of the wine. And also rather terrifying, implying that you not only need to consider what you’re drinking, at what temperature and in what glass, but what's on the stereo, too. The theory – explored at length by Californian winemaker Clark Smith – runs thus: light, fruit-driven whites might go nicely with light, cheerful music (Burzynska); cabernet is dark and moody, so sits well with angry music (Smith).
Pinot noir likes sexy music, but you must not match a heady red with light and cheerful sounds, lest you bring out the tannins. “Just as there’s some great marriages and a handful of horrendous clashes with food and wine, the same is true with music and wine," insisted Burzynska. And some music is a total no-go. “Never play polkas with anything,” Smith told the San Francisco Chronicle.
One theory is that the brain, in a sort of synesthetic confusion, manages to blend signals from the ears and from the tongue, so influencing the two. You would be right to be skeptical, but could there be something in it? Power of suggestion? Confused synapses? The sheer impossibility of requiring your brain to make not one but two subjective judgements while consuming alcohol?
To test the theory, Burzynska had chosen a range of wines to go with a mixture of music. First up, a Te Whare Ra Toru from Marlborough, New Zealand, which is a mix of gewürztraminer, riesling and pinot gris (“toru” means three in Maori). It’s a rich, oily, but light sort of white wine that is fruit-driven and cheerful all on its own. To accompany this? First, silence, in which the Toru was fragrant and pungent, a rich and textured wine. With Nouvelle Vague’s “Just Can’t Get Enough” on the sound system it seemed to become less fragrant, sweeter, a little lighter. Or so it seemed to me. “I thought the Nouvelle Vague brought up the aromatics,” said Burzynska.
With “AFFCO” by the Skeptics – grungy, gritty, difficult – the wine became slightly bitter and the acid came through. Others at the tasting were less open to the power of suggestion/persuasion. What went best with what? asked Burzynska. “All I can smell is fish,” one man volunteered. “I just think it needs food,” grumbled a food writer, last seen judging competitors on TV's MasterChef New Zealand.
We moved on to a chain store pinot gris – $8.99 ($7) on special offer – testing the theory that good music could make cheap wine taste better. This was accompanied by a 2009 Chateau de Ripaille Vin de Savoie and a 2010 Sacred Hill Wine Thief Chardonnay. At first, the chain store wine didn’t have much to it. It tasted sweet then bitter, a pretty basic pinot gris. The Ripaille was toasty and yeasty, almost nutty, and the chardonnay was quite sweet and oaky – a good, gutsy wine in the New World style.
Burzynska’s selection of music might be described as unusual. There was “La Legende d’Eer” by Iannis Xenakis, which was tinkly and jangly and metallic, and which did, indeed, make the pinot gris more pleasant. Or was it rather that anything would perk up such an ordinary wine? “That’s kind of scary for a wine writer,” Burzynska mused. “That you can actually recommend music with a cheap wine and make it better.”
The next track was “Some Summer Day” by John Fahey; predictably, it seemed to make everything happier. Where I disagreed with Burzynska was over her choice of “Amarun 2” by Roland Kayn – an angst-filled, distressing piece of music that seemed to throw everything out of balance. I hoped it would end sooner than it did. “It added complexity and weight and richness,” said Burzynska. Did anyone find their perfect match? “Silence,” said one brave man up the front. “All the music was fucking awful,” muttered the food writer.