Sat 13 Aug 2011
Thursday in The New York Times, James R. Oestreich, reviewing a performance of Mozart’s “Jupiter” Symphony by the Budapest Festival Orchestra, conducted by Ivan Fischer, wrote, “The orchestra played well, with a full-bodied sound and yet a transparency that helped clarify lines in the occasionally dense counterpoint.”
Reading that tremendously sympathetic assessment, I couldn’t help thinking that Oestreich might have been describing the attributes of a great wine. What we desire, even yearn for, in the experience of a wine is the impeccable and risk-taking balance that sets in finely-tuned equilibrium qualities of intensity and full-bodiedness, of density and concentration with transparency of effort and effect, with lines of character cleanly and persistently etched and clarified. In the same way that a particular theme or motif is threaded through the melodic narrative and harmonic architecture of a string quartet or a concerto or symphony, certain qualities and elements weave through a great wine: a touch, say, of smoky black cherry and rhubarb in a pinot noir or hint of lilac and black olive in a merlot or thread of ginger and quince in a chardonnay that remains consistent from first sniff through the last savoring of the finish, at some points (or counterpoints) more revealed than at others.
Like the complicated “up-and-down” score of an orchestral work, on which each measure relegates some portion of melody and harmony to different instruments — here the violins and violas, the flutes and oboes with tremors from the string basses and tympani, there all the strings, the clarinets, the trumpets and trombones and horns, the full complement of percussion — just so a great wine offers depth and breadth of character that opens the dimensions of tannin, acidity, minerality and oak (if that’s part of the package), inextricably bolstering and permeating the details of fruit, spice, flowers and all the other flourishes that make a wine irresistible.
Oestreich’s point about transparency is as important for wine as for music. However deep and profound a wine might be in its structure and potential, it will possess a sense of immediacy, a completely bearable lightness of being that expresses the essence of its grapes, its vineyard and its little patch of geography, the fundamental imperative of its existence.
Must all wines embody this theoretically parallel nature with musical composition and performance? No, of course not. The tasty Argentine malbec you had with a burger last night, the pert and sassy sauvignon blanc from New Zealand that you quaffed with fish tacos, the robust primitivo you knocked back with barbecue ribs at a family picnic; in their simplicity and directness and one hopes authenticity, these wines were exactly what you needed at the moment. After all, even Bach, Beethoven and Brahms had whimsical impulses. We expect more from certain other wines, however, whether posited in terms of cost or place or property or winemaker — or (most desirable) all four — and when such wines deliver the goods from top to bottom and meet all expectations, then they provide the complete allure and gratification of which a great wine is capable in full symphonic regalia.