How to Pair Music with Wine

by Dwight Furrow

Wine and music pairing is becoming increasingly popular, and the effectiveness of using music to enhance a wine tasting experience has received substantial empirical confirmation. (I summarized this data and the aesthetic significance of wine and music pairing last month on this site.) But to my knowledge there is no guide to how one should go about wine and music pairing. Are there pairing rules similar to the rules for pairing food and wine? Is there expertise involved that requires practice and experience?

In fact, there are no rules for pairing food and wine. Every so-called rule is subject to so many exceptions, it is misleading to think of these guidelines as rules. Yes, white wine often goes well with seafood but not always, and there are some red wines that are enjoyable with seafood. The same is true when pairing music with wine. There are general guidelines with many exceptions. Thus, like food and wine pairing, experience is important, and some expertise can be helpful. Below I describe my own process for generating wine and music pairings and the generalizations that can be drawn from it.

Generally, you want to pair a wine with music that shares its most important features. That might surprise you. What features are shared by an abstract formal system of organized sound and fermented grape juice? It turns out there are many similarities between the tone and timbre of musical works and the aromas, flavors, and textures of wine.

Tone—the overall blend of frequencies in a sound—is analogous to the brightness or darkness of a wine’s aromas. Bright fruit with clear, precise aromas, and crisp flavors that seem to sparkle can be associated with higher sound frequencies. Wines that seem dark, murky, and dense create associations with lower frequencies. The tonal balance of a wine changes substantially as the wine evolves on the palate just as the tonal balance of a musical work shifts as instruments enter, pause, or shift their dynamics as the music unfolds. The envelope of a sound—its attack, sustain, delay and release—applies also to the properties of a wine as the various structural components interact. The overall sound of a piece of music has a texture just as the mouthfeel of a wine has a texture. Both wines and songs can be thick, smooth, dense, or sparse, the result of several layers of “voices” interacting over time.

I use the term “congruent” to refer to pairings in which wine and music share tonal and textural characteristics. Congruent pairings enhance the enjoyment of a wine. However, if a wine has a negative trait or flaw, pairing a congruent piece of music may accentuate the flaw and harm the taste of the wine. In these cases, we engage in “sonic seasoning,” using music to highlight less dominant features of the wine to bring it into better balance.

Although generalizations are risky, there are some congruences between wine and music that tend to work well together. Big, rich, aggressive Cabernet Sauvignon will pair best with loud, thickly textured, aggressive music with prominent bass notes. That kind of music likely will not enhance a delicate Pinot Noir or zesty Riesling. However, there are many loud, thickly textured, aggressive musical pieces that will not work with every Cabernet Sauvignon. In what follows, rather than articulating rules to follow, I will point out features to look for, dimensions of both wine and music to explore in which the good pairings can be found. However, to be successful at this you must be comfortable with a process of trial and error. Musical works and wines are individuals. Ultimately, we are not pairing types with types but rather individuals with individuals and generalities can be nothing more than rough guidelines.

One thing to keep in mind, when pairing wine with music, is that many musical pieces change substantially as they unfold. Thus, a wine may pair well only with one section of the music. This is especially true of classical music. Symphonies have several movements with different textural, pacing, and tonal characteristics. Even shorter pieces are formally structured to employ sharp dynamic changes and varying emotional resonances. Rock and pop songs, on the other hand, are easier to pair because their character usually doesn’t change substantially over the course of a relatively short song. Jazz can exhibit both continuity and discontinuity. However, I’ve found that successful pairings are independent of genre. You can successfully pair a wine with most genres. What matters most is your familiarity with the genre. The more knowledge you have of musical genres the easier it will be to predict which musical piece will go with the wine you’re pairing.

I typically start with a wine and then find the music to complement it. One might wonder whether you can start with the music and then find the right wine to drink. The answer is yes but it’s impractical. There is inevitably a lot of trial and error in finding a good match. If you start with the music, you will have to open several bottles of wine (or spend a fortune on Coravin capsules) to find that good match. That is impractical. It’s far easier to start with the wine and then use your favorite music app to sift few the limitless musical possibilities there.

As with all matters aesthetic, there are levels of complexity in pairing music and wine. The degree of complexity one must manage in order to get appropriate pairings depends on what you want to accomplish, how much time you have, and your level of interest in experimentation. Although to precisely fine tune your pairing requires tasting skill and some practice, finding a workable pairing can often be a simple process that requires no expertise in wine tasting. The simplest approach is to think of dry table wines as falling into four basic categories: powerful or rich, elegant and sophisticated, crisp or racy, and mellow or soft. Some wines will fit easily into one of these boxes. These categories also apply straightforwardly to some musical works. Choose a song that fits the category to which you assigned your wine and you’re good to go.

For example, Cabernet Sauvignon is often bold and powerful. Queen’s “We are the Champions” or Carl Orff’s “Carmina Burana” will often pair well with it. Warm climate Chardonnay can be rich with expressive fruit and a lush, creamy mouth feel. A big uplifting ballad from Whitney Houston such as “I Will Always Love You” can provide an appropriate match. Pinot Noir is elegant and sophisticated. It will likely resonate with Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusic or Sarah McLachlan’s “Building a Mystery.” That zippy Sauvignon Blanc, especially if it has tropical aromas, will like something from Brazilian songstress Bebel Gilberto such as “Aganju” or an uptempo, bebop piano piece by Oscar Peterson. Many wine varietals are soft and mellow when made to appeal to the mass market. Among red wines, Merlot is typically in this style as is middle-of-the-road Chardonnay and Pinot Grigio from U.S. commercial producers. Merlot, in this style, might pair well with Rachmaninoff’s piano/cello duet Vocalise or the Commodores “Easy,” and try early Taylor Swift or something from jazz pianist Brad Mehldau with mellow white wines.

It is generally true that sweeter wines like consonant harmonies while more acidic wines can handle some dissonance. Red wines, especially if rich or aged, pair well with legato or elongated phrasing while more active, kinetic wines like active kinetic music.

This approach that links wine types with musical types will get you in the ballpark and for some occasions these pairings will be fine. However, most wines will not fit neatly into one of these categories—there are degrees of fit. Furthermore, the categories aren’t mutually exclusive. Some of the best wines fit all these categories. More importantly, the pairings based on these rough generalizations will not always work because both wine and music are more complex than this schema suggests.

Arriving at finely tuned pairings may require tasting expertise. But before you begin pouring over wine tasting guides or taking a class in writing wine tasting notes, you might try becoming proficient at identifying wine’s expressive properties. Has it ever occurred to you that a wine is cheerful or brooding, delicate, or shy? Go with that thought because these emotional resonances are really the engine behind wine and music pairing. However, thinking of wine as expressing emotions involves a conceptual hurdle. Although we routinely attribute emotional expression or personality characteristics to music, there are fewer such conventions surrounding wine. Such attributions are not unheard of in wine tasting—terms such as brooding, polished, shy, rustic, spicy, and exotic are often employed by wine critics, although they are seldom considered essential by wine educators. Nevertheless, such terms are essential for wine and music pairing. If the wine and music don’t share emotional resonances, the pairing is unlikely to work. Here are several terms that can be easily applied to both wine and music:

Light, dark, bright, dull, charming, delicate, shy, sunlit/summery, austere, bombastic, rustic, polished, cheerful, light, dignified, earthy, lively, exotic, extroverted, exuberant, fierce, flashy, fun, gentle, calm, graceful, intense, languid, opulent, seductive, aloof, perky, plain, playful, resolute, restrained, romantic, sensual, severe, uplifting or hopeful, angry, sorrowful, longing, anxious, somber, and spirited.

Identify which one applies to the wine you’re pairing, find music with a similar description, and you will likely have a workable match. It takes some practice and exposure to a wide range of expressions of which wine is capable in order to for these attributions to make sense, but they tend to be more accessible than the identification of aroma notes.

As noted, the identification of these expressive properties is a crucial step in getting a match that really sings. However, if you want to fine tune the pairings further, especially if you want to enhance the experience of a wine by engaging in “sonic seasoning,” mastering subtle distinctions within various dimensions of a wine will be crucial. With “sonic seasoning” we want to use music to make the wine taste better, and for that we need to identify dimensions of a wine that are lacking or that threaten to become unbalanced. This will require a more analytic approach to tasting.

My procedure is roughly this. I take notes about the type of wine I’m pairing—the varietal and region—and how I expect the wine to taste, noting any positive or negative tendencies it may have. Then I taste the wine taking ordinary tasting notes to develop several points of reference. I’m especially looking for ways in which the wine is out of balance or threatening to be out of balance. If the music calls attention to that feature the wine may suffer.

There are many dimensions of a wine that must be assessed. Here is a list of a few that I focus on organized as continua with gradations between their endpoints. (You can quantify these gradations if you find that helpful.)

Bright….Dark, Loud….Muted, Powerful….Delicate, Heavy….Light, Fat….Thin, Round….Angular, Dense….Airy, Subtle….Bold, Simple….Complex, Kinetic….Leisurely, Refreshing….Punishing, Soft…Crisp…Hard, Tense….Mellow, Elegant….Rough, Generous….Austere, Wide Dynamic Range….Narrow Dynamic Range.

I use these to help provide a mental picture of the complexity of the wine, to confirm or disconfirm my original impression, and provide an explanation for why a wine has the expressive properties it exhibits. I then return to the holistic impression the wine leaves using the expressive properties mentioned above but now armed with a sense of which dimensions of the wine might be susceptible to being influenced by musical choices. I then make a judgment about whether I’m looking for congruence, whether “sonic seasoning” is required, and in which dimension that sonic seasoning is likely to make a difference.

Wine and music pairing is not as tedious as this procedure suggests. The holistic judgment about a wine’s overall impression is still the most important consideration and identifying where a wine fits on these various dimensions can be intuited without too much painstaking analysis.

Then it’s time to make educated guesses about the genre and style of the music that is likely to work and start experimenting. Music apps like Spotify and Pandora are your friend, although I find that recommendation engines are only occasionally useful, since they don’t seem to be predicting emotional resonance. Once you have a finely honed impression of what the wine is about, you can often tell immediately if a song works or not. With the right music, the wine will seem more engaging, more coherent, and will strike a better balance between its components.

I will provide one example of how I would pair music with a readily accessible wine—Ruffina’s Chianti Classico Riserva Ducale 2017. Wines from this celebrated region of Tuscany must be made from the Sangiovese grape, although up to 20% of the blend can be other grapes including international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Although wines from lesser sites can be pale and tart, the wines from better producers are full of flavor. Chianti Classico typically a medium bodied wine with high acidity and firm tannins. Sour cherry and the aroma of sun-baked earth are typical.

Ruffina’s version spends considerable time in oak and shows dark berry, cedar, and leather as well as the classic aromas. It is a rustic wine with characteristic hard acidity and astringent tannins with an earthy aroma that reminds me of a clay pot. I think of Chianti in this style as an acerbic yet reserved old man. Neither giving nor highly emotive, it embodies down-to-earth, bittersweet candor. Words such as stolid, gritty, curt, and severe come to mind.

For a high production wine, this is of good quality, but it is on the edge of being too sour and aggressive on the finish. For our music pairing, we want to avoid anything that will focus attention on those characteristics. Yet music that is too soft will simply highlight them and make the wine taste thin. In terms of musical genres, we are in the realm of hard country and blues. To find how much intensity the music needed, I started with something gritty but subdued—Bob Dylan’s “Mississippi”—but as predicted it made the wine taste thin. Only simple powerful rhythms with density in the low frequencies will keep the tart acidity in check. The old Yardbird’s tune “Train Kept a Rollin'” was excellent as was Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road.” Robert Cray’s “Forecast Calls for Pain” was just barely forceful enough, but Joe Louis Walker’s “Man of Few Words” hit the sweet spot.

Classical music is not noted for being rustic or unpolished but textural density is easy to find. The massive, arpeggiated synth-beds and basso profundo vocals of Philip Glass’s Koyaanisqatsi helped the finish of the wine feel integrated. But the surprise was the extraordinary textural match provided by 20th Century Polish composer Grażyna Bacewicz’s Quartet for Four Violins, Movement 1, allegretto. The gritty textures formed by slightly dissonant harmonics made the wine seem almost harmonious.

Finally, for jazz fans, this wine likes the organ. Brother Jack McDuff’s gritty grooves on “The Honeydripper” was a match; for something more contemporary, try Medeski, Martin and Wood’s “Uninvisible.”

Music and wine pairing opens up a new world of aesthetic experience. Enjoy!

For more on the aesthetics of wine visit Edible Arts or consult Beauty and the Yeast: A Philosophy of Wine, Life, and Love.