Study Suggests Music May Enhance Wine's Flavor Profile

Study Explores Music's Impact on Wine Perception


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It's only a matter of time before a California Chardonnay label reads aged in oak and the rumbling sounds of the 101. Pair with sea urchin and punk rock.

After 20 years in the wine trade I've heard my fair share of sales propaganda. The idea that playing Johann Sebastian Bach or Johannes Brahms to the barrel can improve its contents is up there with the best of it. Nevertheless, there's growing evidence that a steady flow of vibrations can help with a wine's gentle maturation and development. What's more, studies are also demonstrating that pairing music with wine can change, even improve, our perception of what's in the glass. So next time you find your Pinot Grigio too flat, or your Zinfandel too sweet, changing the playlist might help.

In Puglia, Italy's heel-shaped peninsula, winemaker Pasquale Petrera has been applying what he calls music therapy to his cellar. His goal is to "emphasize the elegance, freshness and authenticity of Primitivo" by optimizing the oxygenation process. This happens naturally through the wood, but he believes the additional sound waves that bounce off the cask help to move the wine particles around in a noninvasive and ultimately beneficial way. Petrera plays bird song and the sound of running water, rustling leaves, wind, rain, thunder, and rolling waves. Does this really make better wine? Intriguingly, his winery Fatalone produces the best Primitivo in the country.

Up in the north, on the shores of Lake Garda, the Olivini family have been using classical music in the cellar since its renovation in 2018. While the local white Turbiana grape doesn't require the same level of softening as a robust red, winemaker Juri Botti believes that this very subtle form of bâtonnage can create complexity and elegance, particularly for his sparkling wines that spend up to 60 months on the lees. "When sound waves move through air, water, or earth, the vibrations affect how those molecules behave. We believe that having the yeast particles stimulated has a positive effect."

There are few scientific studies available that yield conclusive data, but on reflection, there is clearly some logic to it. In Chile's Colchagua valley, Montes has now been administering the rhythmic sounds of Gregorian chanting for 20 years. In recognition of the power of acoustics, Aurelio Montes has constructed his cellar in a semi-circle to maximize the harmony imparted by these monastic tones. He has them reverberate day and night, 365 days a year. Skeptics can be skeptical, and file this pseudo Feng Shui under clever marketing, but the winery's flagship reds are frequently held up by critics as some of the country's best wines.

In Tuscany, Carlo Cignozzi has taken it a step further. More than 35 speakers have been installed on his Paradiso di Frassina estate in Montalcino in order to dispense those same musical vibrations over the vines themselves. Throughout the growing season, he plays only Mozart, due to the composer's preference for lower frequencies. Not only do lower frequencies travel further, some believe they have natural healing capacities. In response, Cignozzi observes healthier vines and grapes with greater levels of anthocyanin (color pigment). "Not only does the music create a beneficial resonance for the plant, pathogens and pests are also put off by the sound. Mozart bothers them and they leave." I know the feeling. Again though, gimmicks not required. Brunello almost sells itself these days.

If music can move the particles in the air and meddle with vines and barrels, what effect can it have on our senses? No doubt background noise can interrupt our concentration, but the idea that it can nudge or even change our opinions is a fascinating topic. In a study titled "Wine & Song: The Effect of Background Music on the Taste of Wine," Dr. Adrian C. North of Heriot Watt University posed the question: Can the thoughts primed by music influence what people actually taste?

Now, as a professional wine writer and critic I'd like to think I can guard against emotional priming. Nevertheless, studies show that pairing music with wine can influence people's sensory judgments, for better or worse. North's work revealed that playing heavy music while tasting a white wine resulted in 32% more references to heavy than when tasting the same wine in silence.

In the UK, various experiments have been carried out on the commercial benefits of priming. In one supermarket, playing French music resulted in an increase in French wine sales. By contrast, classical music resulted in a higher average bottle price than did a random blast of the week's top 40. Susan R. Lin, a Master of Wine who wrote her thesis on how classical music influenced one's perception of a Brut non-vintage Champagne, believes that depending on the definition of "improvement," music can have a positive effect on the drinker.

"Different combinations of musical elements (pitch, tempo, articulation, timbre for example) have been shown to have effects on sensory perception," she says. "Therefore, if you are seeking to elevate the perception of certain sensory characteristics in a wine, say brightness and freshness, you might find music with faster tempo, higher pitch, dynamic articulation and bright timbre. These musical elements have been shown to be associated with these characteristics."

When it comes to tips on what to play, Lin's study suggests that playing your favorite music is enough. It's more about mood. If Metallica lifts your spirits, then that's likely to impact your perceived enjoyment just as much as Beethoven's Symphony No. 9.

"Try different combinations of musical genres with wines, even if they are styles you might not normally listen to or drink! You might be surprised," she says. "The most important is to let yourself feel what your senses take in intuitively; that's where the magic begins."

The wine world is full of variables. We just love the complexity of it all. Giving credence to the role of music, both in winemaking and as we taste, expands that world further. Mark Oldman will share more on the topic at his seminar, Pitch Perfect: How Music Enhances Great Wine, at the 2024 Food & Wine Classic in Aspen.

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