Allen Balik: Discovering Texture Through Music

Allen Balik: Discovering Texture Through Music

Written by Allen R. Balik

I am a lover of music and was excited several years ago to join Chamber Music in Napa Valley (CMNV), so expertly orchestrated (pun intended) by John and Maggy Kongsgaard. Together the Kongsgaards bring celebrated soloists and chamber groups from around the globe to Napa for intimate performances featuring carefully selected compositions and programs from many of history’s greatest composers.

John is a world-renowned and highly respected vintner and winemaker who exercises his vast and constantly expanding skill set in the production of acclaimed wines sought after by collectors, retailers and top-tier sommeliers here and abroad. And observing how he and Maggy approach CMNV and their quest for excellence, one can readily appreciate how they’ve applied the same objectives to sharing their enjoyment of Chamber Music in the Napa Valley.

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate to attend the CMNV performance by the gifted American pianist Garric Ohlsson with a program of Beethoven, Chopin and Mussorgsky that absolutely staggered the imagination. As I sat enjoying the beautiful and inspiring notes brought to life by Ohlsson’s mastery of the piano, I discovered a newfound appreciation for the textural quality of the sounds.

Each piece resonated with me as more than an expression of musical notes and chords. Instead, they seemed woven together in a fashion that reminded me of similar impressions I’ve grown to appreciate in a fine wine experience. The texture of a wine — whether it is lush, rich, delicate or rough — is not the expression of each individual aromatic or flavor component often related to specific fruits (raspberry, plum, citrus etc.). Or in some cases, other notes of tar, grass, cola, coffee, chocolate, etc.

Rather, I appreciate how a wine feels in the mouth and texturally expresses itself in relation to other wines and perhaps a dish I am enjoying. I look for the individual elements in the nose and on the palate to coalesce around each other yielding an expression of how the wine feels in the mouth and the overall impression it leaves.

I became aware of a similar sensation while listening to an impeccable performance by Ohlsson. He interpreted the notes of heralded composers and their works written almost 200 years ago while conveying a fresh reflection of their feelings and life experiences from the time.

When most critics review a wine the focus is usually on detailing the various aromatics and flavors often with little attention paid to mouthfeel and texture. And this is unfortunate.

A Champagne will feel decisively different in the mouth from a rich round chardonnay, as a lissome Chianti differs from a bold yet balanced cabernet sauvignon. The more “feminine” character of Burgundy in contrast to the “masculinity” of Barolo can be appreciated as much for their differing textures as their individual aromatic and flavor profiles. These differences set the wines apart more so than whether there is an impression of red fruit in one and black fruit in the other.

Acidity (a positive in the case of wine), tannin, alcohol and other components combine to determine the textural nature of any wine, and when in proper balance the impression can range from delicate to velvety on the lighter side to rich, bold and “mouth filling” on the heavier side. Think about it. Does a tannic petite sirah feel the same as delicate Beaujolais? Of course not and that’s in large part why we appreciate their individual appeal.

As I was captivated by Ohlsson’s performance and the music he was playing, I became aware of similar changes in the texture of his music that I look for in wine. Beethoven’s Sonata was a bit brooding in nature and reminiscent of a young cabernet with flashes of brightness and expressions of depth while being restrained as it waits to emerge in full glory.

Chopin was very much on the full-bodied side with deep notes resonating throughout the performance. And the Mussorgsky ensemble best represented the broad range of texture from the elegance and grace of a Grand Cru Chablis to the sweetness and profundity of Vintage Port.

While my revelation about the relationship of similar textural impressions in classical music and fine wine may seem esoteric, it certainly stuck a note with me. Hopefully, John Kongsgaard shares this perspective as he so expertly weaves his two passions of wine and music together.

Allen Balik has been a wine collector, consultant, author, fundraiser and enthusiast for more than 35 years. Each year, he and his wife, Barbara, produce the Evening Of The Culinary Winemasters event at Warner Bros. Studios, a benefit for Cystic Fibrosis.
He regularly appears on CRN Digital Talk Radio's What's Cookin' and What's Cookin' on Wine programs.

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