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On the Grapevine  by Colin Kaye


The Singing Life

The Anakena Winery

For twenty-four hours every day, music is played to the vines at the De Morgenzon farm in Stellenbosch. But not any old music, you understand. According to owner Hylton Appelbaum, the vines respond best to Bach, Corelli and Albinoni, which I suppose demonstrates their good musical taste. Among the hills of Montalcino in Tuscany, the Sangiovese vines at the Paradiso di Frassina winery are serenaded with recordings of Mozart every day. On the other side of the world in New Zealand, Peter Yealands of Yealands Wine Group plays classical recordings to his vines continually and produces splendid wines that have won many awards.

If music seems to have an influence on the vines, could there be any relationship between wine and music? In his book Postmodern Wine Making, wine expert Clark Smith writes, “Music pairing can greatly improve your chances of enjoying a wine. Wine is liquid music, for it has the capacity to embody a spectrum of emotional modalities, to exhibit harmony or dissonance, and it has the power to transport us from care and circumstance.”

Petr Janata, assistant professor of psychology at the Center for Mind and Brain at UC Davis, claims that the areas of the medial prefrontal cortex responsible for identifying familiar music overlap with those for sensing smells. So perhaps there’s something in it after all.

It seems to be agreed that the human tongue doesn’t convey much information to the brain about taste. Compared to the other sensory organs, the tongue seems to be rather crude, capable of detecting only five different tastes. So how do we manage with complex tastes? Tom Finger, of the University of Colorado School of Medicine at the Anschutz Medical Campus argues that “The sensation of flavour is actually a combination of taste and smell.” Although the tongue can detect qualities like texture and mouth-feel it’s estimated that about ninety percent of what we perceive as taste is actually smell, detected of course by the nose. When you chew, air is forced through your nasal passages, carrying the smell of the food along with it.

Science journalist Jonah Lehrer feels that because the tongue is somewhat vague in its messages to the brain, we are forced to “constantly parse its input based upon whatever other knowledge we can summon to the surface.” The tongue seems to be “a servant of our more efficient senses which help us fill in the perceptual gaps.”

One of these more efficient senses of course is hearing, and studies are beginning to show that music can influence the brain’s perception of taste. A study was undertaken by Adrian North of Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh and it seemed to show that our perception of wine can be influenced by music. He tested the taste perceptions of 250 university students and the results showed that the music had a consistent effect on the participants’ perception of the wine.

Yes, I know it’s all terribly subjective and there’s some long way to go before we have any solid scientific evidence. But I mention all this because Cantavida means “the singing life” and I wanted a musical theme. The wines are made by the relatively new Anakena Winery based in the Alto Rapel Valley. The first vineyards were planted in 1999 and quality has been the watchword. The grapes are hand-picked and the grape-must is fermented in stainless steel tanks to preserve the freshness. The wine makers have already achieved international success and claimed many distinguished awards. It’s easy to see why.

Cantavida Sauvignon Blanc 2012 (white), Chile (Bt. 549 @ Villa and others)

Central Valley is Chile’s most famous wine region and this wine comes from grapes grown near the Andes. It’s a delicate yellow-gold colour, with an aroma of peaches and gooseberry with a faint whiff of pineapples. The Sauvignon Blanc (soh-vee-NYON BLAHN) grape tends produce wine that is firmer and drier than Chardonnay and there’s a pleasing grassy freshness about the smell. It’s dry of course but the taste is full of ripe fruit with a medium body and a fresh zesty quality which gives way to a clean, refreshing finish. There is quite a very prolonged after taste of peppery herbs.  At just 12.5% alcohol this would make an excellent aperitif and I’d be happy to drink this on its own anytime. However, if you want food with it, I’d suggest poultry, seafood, salmon or a simple salad. As for the music, try drinking the wine with something fresh and chirpy.

Cantavida Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 (red), Chile (Bt. 549 @ Villa and others)

The black Cabernet Sauvignon grape (ka-bair-NAY soh-vee-NYON) hails from Bordeaux, and this deep ruby-red wine has a powerful fruity aroma of ripe cherries which fairly hits you on the nose. But behind the cherries are more subtle hints of fruit and peppery herbs. There’s also a pleasing suggestion of waxy crayons, which is more appealing than it sounds. The wine has an amazing smooth mouth-feel; almost silky in texture. It’s fairly dry, with loads of flavour and an excellent balance of fruit and light tannins. There is a good longish aftertaste too, usually the sign of a well-made wine.

I’d suggest that you open the bottle about half an hour in advance and in this climate, stick it in the fridge to “firm-up” the body. With its hints of oak, and 13% alcohol content, this is very much a food wine; red meat or fairly rich pasta dishes spring to mind. It could also go well with a rich quiche or assertive cheese dishes.

So, I hear you ask, what’s the best music for Cabernet Sauvignon?  Clark Smith feels that red wines need either a minor key or music with “negative emotion”. Cabernets, he says like angry music. So how about Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13? Or perhaps Mars from “The Planets” by Gustav Holst? You can’t get much angrier than that.

If you want to know my personal choice for tasting wine, it’s easy. I prefer total, complete silence. Even the dogs are warned to keep quiet.

Mistaken Identity

Vineyards in the Marlborough Region (Background photo: DXR)

When these two wines were delivered, it just happened that I wasn’t wearing my glasses. I also wasn’t wearing them when I once affectionately greeted someone I thought was a close friend, only to put them on and realise that I was hugging a total stranger. I mention this embarrassing incident only because I thought the bottle labels said “Mantua” which is the lake-side city in Northern Italy, noted for its role in the history of early opera. The city was a cultural powerhouse during the sixteenth century, thanks largely to the ruling Gonzaga family.  It was Mantua that in 1607 saw the first performance of Monteverdi’s influential opera L’Orfeo. The story was based on the legend of Orpheus and told of his futile attempts to bring his deceased wife back to the world of the living. The city was also the setting for Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Rigoletto whose plot revolved around the licentious Duke of Mantua. You might recall that the city is where Shakespeare’s Romeo spent his period of exile as a punishment for killing Tybalt, the nephew of Lady Capulet. There’s another literary connection with Mantua, but I have forgotten what it is, which shows that that my memory is about as good as my eyesight.

Looking at the bottle labels later in the day with my glasses on, I realised there had been a serious case of mistaken identity and very possibly a Senior Moment because the word on the labels is “Matua”, which isn’t quite the same. In fact, it’s a Maori word which evidently means “Head of the Family”. I was looking forward so much to telling you about the Italian city of Mantua and its interesting connections with opera and literature. But never mind. Perhaps another time.

The wines come from the Marlborough region of New Zealand, which lies on the northern tip of South Island. Matua was created by brothers Ross and Bill Spence, who grew up in a winemaking family in West Auckland. They started in 1969 with little more than a tin shed, and their first wines appeared in 1974. Their shared vision was to revolutionize the New Zealand wine industry by making wines with the best fruit from the best vineyards. Today, the company has earned international recognition for doing just that. These are exceptional wines, and of course the quality is reflected in the price.

Matua Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (white), Marlborough, New Zealand
(Bt. 2,645 @ Q-Wine)

This is a very pale gold colour with a sensational aroma, quite different to that of its distant French cousins from the Loire Valley. There’s a rich and enticing sweet, floral aroma of gooseberries, a tang of citrus fruits and a faint suggestion of herbs. Way in the background, there’s a hint of flintiness. If all this sounds a bit fanciful, these are smells which are typical of Sauvignon Blanc.

When you taste this wine the unmistakable Sauvignon Blanc qualities rush out - that sharp, slightly tart and minerally taste that gives away its identity. Even so, this is a thoroughly New Zealand wine, with exuberant sharp and grassy herbaceous notes that are typical of Sauvignons of the Marlborough region. There’s plenty of fruit on the palate and a long, dry fruity finish. To my mind, this is what a wine should be; not only fun and rewarding to drink, but also with something interesting to say. It has won plenty of awards including the Hong Kong International Wine & Spirit Competition and the New Zealand International Wine Show.

The wine is just 12.5% ABV and would make a fine partner for lightly cooked shellfish, prawns, crab or sea bass. It would work well with many vegetable dishes especially those with raw tomato, olives and cheese. Sauvignon Blanc is one of the few wines that make a good partner for sushi and sashimi and, oddly enough, cheese quiche.

Matua Pinot Noir 2012 (red), Marlborough, New Zealand (Bt. 2,645 @ Q-Wine)

You might be surprised to know that Pinot Noir is the most widely planted red grape in New Zealand. On the other hand, you might not. Anyway, this one actually looks like a Pinot Noir, which is a good start. It’s an elegant wine, cherry red and slightly transparent, fading to a lighter shade at the edge of the glass. The slightly syrupy “legs” that appear when you swirl the wine around give a clue that the wine is 13% ABV. On the nose, you’ll get a sappy aroma of red fruit especially cranberry and cherry, with hints of darker fruit in the background. There’s good cherry fruit on the palate along with that typical tang of fresh acidity that tends to come with cool-climate Pinots. The wine has a delightfully soft texture; it’s smooth and dry, fresh and light-bodied and has a lovely long, crisp finish. There’s very little tannin on the palate, so that opens the door to many Asian food partners. Mushroom dishes, ham or cold meats would work well too. Pizza or pasta with Bolognese sauce would go a treat, if you like a bit of contrast between the food and the wine.

These fine wines are available only at Q-Wine in Bangkok at the moment. I admit that they are expensive, but in the world of wine you tend to get what you pay for, though not always. Next time you find yourself in Bangkok, you might like to seek out Q-Wine. There’s a branch at Major Cineplex on Soi Sukhumvit 61, near to Ekamai and adjacent to Scoozi Italian Restaurant. There’s another Q-Wine branch out of town at The Paseo Shopping Mall at 318 Ladkrabang Road, next door to the big local Toyota dealer and not far from Suvarnabhumi Airport. Use the QR code to see the maps and full wine catalogue on their website.

Oh yes, I have just remembered another literary connection with the Italian city of Mantua. The poet Virgil was born near there in 70 BC. But perhaps you knew that already.

Mozart’s Wine

Krems, Austria, between 1890 and 1900.

Mozart came from the charming city of Salzburg, known today for its music festival, baroque architecture and Mozart souvenirs. The climate of the region was never particularly conducive to growing vines so it is more likely that Mozart drank wine produced elsewhere. We know from his letters that he was extremely fond of a glass or two. And sometimes even more. Of course, they’d been making wine in Austria long before Mozart’s time, for thousands of years in fact. Remnants of wine vessels have been found that date back to the fifth century BC. Viticulture thrived under the Romans and amazingly they grew at least one grape variety that is still cultivated today - Grüner Veltliner.

By the 11th and 12th centuries, Vienna and Krems were exporting wine all over Europe.  Wine production was so important that the penalty for stealing grapes was having your ears lopped off. If you didn’t help out during the grape harvest, you risked having your hands chopped off too. History does not record how many ear-less and hand-less people were wandering around Austria during the early middle ages.

The first Austrian wine I tasted was somewhere in the Austrian Tyrol, that narrow bit of the country sandwiched between Germany and Italy. I was driving from London to Innsbruck although I’ve forgotten exactly why, but it must have seemed a good idea at the time. The wine was a light ruby-red Kalterersee, pleasant fruity and undemanding with aromas of cherries and perfect for a summer evening. Most of Austria’s vineyards are at the opposite end of the country, packed into Niederösterreich, or Lower Austria.

Niederösterreich is the home of Winzer Krems (VINT-ser Kremz), Austria’s largest wine producer. It’s a cooperative made up of over 1,500 grape growers located in and around the town of Krems which has a winemaking history that dates back more than two thousand years. The entire Winzer Krems harvest is carried out by hand. And in case you’re wondering, the German word winzer means a vine grower. These fine wines are imported by Siam Winery but I’ve just learned that they’re not yet available in Chiang Mai. In Bangkok, you can find them at (a) Wine Focus, 981 Silom Terrace, Silom Road; (b) Surface Restaurant at 107 Soi Sukhumvit 53 and (c) The Beer Bridge Restaurant, Soi Langsuan, 1st floor of The Portico on Ploenchit Road. Depending on the venue, these wines will cost in the region of Bt 1,600 per bottle.

Winzer Krems Grüner Veltliner “Plus” 2012 (white), Austria

The white Grüner Veltliner (GROO-ner Felt-lee-ner) accounts for fifty-five percent of the Winzer Krems’ total harvest. It’s the signature grape of Austria, and by far the nation's most widely planted wine grape. When I first tasted this wine it was in such a dimly lit room that it was impossible to discern the exact colour. I could see that it was white, but that was about it. In the bright light of my tasting room, (which everyone else here calls the kitchen) I could see the bright straw colour with its unmistakable tinge of green. The first aromas are of flowers, fresh green apples, lemon peel and pomelo. There’s also the trade-mark tingle of fresh white pepper and a hint of peach, although the peach kept me guessing for a while. This is a crisp, clean wine with a lovely refreshing zing of racy acidity. It’s totally dry, but there’s plenty of fresh fruit on the palate as well as that characteristic spritziness that you find in a Grüner Veltliner. It’s light-to-medium bodied and has a remarkably long lemony finish.

I think I’d prefer this wine pretty cold, probably straight out of the fridge, because the low temperature will preserve the freshness and keep the body firm. In any case, in our climate it’ll warm up in the glass all too quickly. It would make an excellent apéritif to kick the taste buds into action. Grüner Veltliner has a reputation for being exceptionally food-friendly. Traditional Austrian cuisine like Wiener schnitzel comes to mind and the citrus overtones would also make it an excellent partner for fish. It evidently works well with sushi, a quality it shares with Sauvignon Blanc, with which Grüner Veltliner is often compared. I have a feeling that it would be perfect with Thai chicken and lemon-grass dishes or even a good old-fashioned quiche. If Mozart enjoyed wines that matched his own vivacious personality, he would probably have loved this one.

Winzer Krems Blauer Zweigelt “Plus” 2011 (red), Austria

We tend to think of Austrian wines as mostly dry whites, but about thirty percent are red.  Mozart certainly wouldn’t have tasted this wine because the Zweigelt grape appeared only in 1922. Also known as the Blauer Zweigelt (BLAH-wer TSVY-gelt), it’s a cross between two older grapes, the St. Laurent and the Blaufränkisch. The grape is now the most planted red variety in Austria. It makes a light-style red wine vaguely similar to Grenache and was designed specifically for commercial wine. The grape was developed by the Austrian wine expert Fritz Zweigelt who, with touching modesty, named it after himself.

The wine is a bright, ruby red with floral aromas of dark fruit. On the palate it’s absolutely dry, a suggestion of fruit and a refreshing dash of acidity which is fairly typical of a cool-climate red. The wine is fairly full-bodied and surprisingly mild in character with very little tannin and a pleasant velvety texture. I found the wine softened considerably after some time in the decanter so I’d suggest that you leave it to aerate for up to an hour, especially if you are new to Blauer Zweigelt. It’s a rather interesting wine and it would show its best with food. The wine company suggests drinking it with ham or sausages which sounds a bit mundane, but I suppose they’re taken more seriously in Austria than elsewhere. Being Austrian, I presume Mozart also enjoyed this kind of food with his wine, although the thought of The Great Man chomping his way through a pile of sausages seems ever so slightly incongruous.

HEADLINES [click on headline to view story]

The Singing Life

Mistaken Identity

Mozart’s Wine