An evening of music and wine

About a year and a half ago, I was approached by the brilliant Michael Koenig, who is a doctoral student in Music and Global history here at Oxford University. He had recently been to a talk on synaesthesia and wanted to try and replicate some semblance of this blending of senses to those of us who don’t experience it.

As a prize-winning Fellow of the Royal College of Organists and a recipient of the Silver Medal of the Musicians’ Company, Michael was more than capable of covering the music and listening part of the event and was hoping to pair each piece of organ music with a wine that would evoke the right feeling and sensation for the smell and taste elements of the evening. And thus began several anything-but-arduous iterations of listening to organ music on YouTube and going to wine tastings with Michael!

With Exeter College Chapel as our impressive backdrop for the sight element, we’ve been lucky enough to have just held our third iteration of the event. I’m pleased to say that the feedback on the pairings has been the most positive so far and, without further ado, here’s what we did…

It wouldn’t be a wine tasting without any bubbly, so we kicked the evening of with a Blanc de Blancs from Ernest Rapeneau. Unlike other events I’ve done, these bottles were opened in time to Johann Sebastian Bach’s Toccata and Fugue in D minor – always a tricky feat but it makes for a dramatic start and sets the tone for a fun evening! We heard that the rich and toasty characteristics from the Blanc de Blancs were a good contrast to the playfulness of the piece.

Our first white of the evening was a Sauvignon Blanc. We went with Jean-Max Roger’s Le Clocher d’Amelie Sancerre and this was paired with Théodore Dubois’ Marcietta. With both wine and composer hailing from France, we thought in this case that the light, zippy acidity of the wine worked well with the light melodic tone of its musical pairing. Next up was Dönnhoff’s Oberhäuser Leistenberg Riesling Kabinett from Germany that was accompanied by compatriot Franz Xaver Schnizer’s Sonata in D major. Similarly light, a touch off-dry and quite lively, it helped to underscore the “uncomplicated and pleasing style of music” of Schnizer’s time where the focus was on “showing off the organist’s virtuosity without overpowering the listeners’ ears” (Michael’s words, not mine!).

We then moved onto the red wines and started with a fresh and fruity but subtly complex Pinot Noir from Anton Bauer. The Pinot Noir was paired with Gordon Young’s Prelude in Classic Style which Michael, in previous conversations, described as a “well-rounded and slightly spicy organ piece” – a perfect match indeed. Moving back to France again for both wine and music, a Bordeaux blend from Château Malmaison was coupled with Jules Massenet’s Méditation from the opera Thaïs. We thought the serious, intense and dense wine was an ideal match for the beautiful and contemplative opera excerpt where, fittingly, the character is “captured between shallow pleasures readily available to her and the pursuit of a deeper meaning of life”.

To conclude the tasting, we had my absolute favourite pairing of the evening: Oliver Zeter’s Goldschatz Trockenbeerenauslese with Charles Marie Widor’s Toccata from Symphony No. 5. It takes a specific series of circumstances and a certain kind of magic to make a noble rot dessert wine where all the concentrated fruit flavours and lively sweetness and acidity just dance around on your palate – and I think it just works exceptionally well with the powerful, bold and impressive Toccata that is pretty magical in itself.

All in all, a superb evening thanks to Michael’s outstanding command of the organ, and honestly the highlight of my tasting calendar.