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Part 2: Classical Music and Iberian Wine Pairings for Chamber Music

Editor’s note: This article is part of an ongoing series covering classical music and Iberian wine pairings by Burt Frink. To understand its origins, and why Burt felt a series was required on the subject, please read his first piece.

I love the silence I share with myself and a glass of wine. Often, but certainly not always, I bring music into the experience. Invariably it is classical music. Why? It fits.

One of the most suitable choices is the genre of Chamber Music. These are small ensembles of musicians playing with each other. Think about that for a moment. If you are a working musician (God forbid! Such a life.) you spend nearly all of your time suiting your effort to the needs of a large organization; sixty, seventy, a hundred players in an ensemble. If you are part of a chamber orchestra maybe only thirty or forty others. But a chamber ensemble is you as a performer with maybe a trio, quartet or quintet or sextet. You look at each other and most importantly you hear each other.

A few weeks past I sat in on a public master class conducted by the Takacs String Quartet. The Quartet members coached five different string quartets in selections from Dvorak, Beethoven, and Brahms quartets. It was impossible not to be amused by the violist who always included in her suggestions a repositioning of the violist’s chair admonishing the player: so the audience can see your face! Violist are the target of jokes in the musical world. Search on viola jokes and you will see the enormous number of hits you receive.  The point is not the jokes but the eye contact between players. They are accustomed to looking at each. They listen to each other and shape and share performance in a unique way. This colors their performance and is one of my sources of joy in listening to chamber ensembles.

My choices in Music and Wine Pairings featuring chamber works are:

The Brahms Sextet No.2 in G Major

This is my longest love affair with a chamber work. It’s deep mahogany tones and overwhelming emotional richness came to my life when reading the nineteen year old Francois Sagan’s novel’s Aimez-Vous Brahms and Bonjour Tristesse. As a moody adolescent I found what I needed in moody French female writer and in this wonderful moody piece of music. It remains today, decades later one of my go to compositions when I’m in a thoughtful state of mind. The wine for me is a big league California Merlot. These have developed into great buys in recent years due to becoming a déclassé item among the cognoscenti. The fruit forwardness and full mouth sweetness combined with the huge levels of alcohol make a comely companion to the melodic sensuality of this music. It is a wine I don’t care to share with others in most circumstances. Try as they may my wine geek friends look down their noses at the notion of fruit forward alcohol monsters and my friends who don’t follow wine can’t possibly appreciate or care about this kind of bottle. So it is me, the merlot and the Brahms.

Catavino’s Take: Although merlot can be found in several wines throughout Iberia, we suggest going native, and for a grape that shows moodiness, rich layers, a fruit forwardness and a big mouthful of sweetness, why not go with a the Spanish Garnacha from Calatayud which would have a rich juicy fruit quality to pair.

The Schubert Quintet in A Major

This is a light, cheerful, breezy work in contrast to the Brahms. It is jammed with terrific musical colors and so many good feelings. No need to fret with this silvery music. It is uncomplicated and animated with the good feelings of life. Light and graceful it is for very good reason that it is so popular with audiences. In a short time this chamber piece will have you humming along with the players as it is filled with memorable tunes. That may be one of the reasons why it is such a delight to open a bottle of wine and listen to it …alone…where nobody is disturbed by your humming. The wine for me is a Macon. This cousin to the White Burgundies is a simple, pleasant and affordable Chardonnay. Sometimes for me a more expensive or more serious wine is not the best mate with a musical experience.

Catavino’s Take: With a playful, animated work that brings out the child in us, we suggest an equally upbeat Spanish wine style: cava. Whenever we feel in a mood to celebrate, to hold a fiesta for our friends, or simply giggle at the world, cava has never let us down.

The Beethoven Quartet String Quartet in F Minor, op. 95 Quartetto “Serioso”

The Quartet Companion as I recall claims the oft repeated notion that the Beethoven String Quartets are to chamber music what the plays of Shakespeare are to drama and the sketchbooks of Rembrandt are to art. This is an exceptional claim. Perhaps it is true. I have a comfortable acquaintance with Shakespeare but I don’t draw or paint. I have, however, spent a lifetime coming back again and again to sample from the quartets of Beethoven.

Which of the quartets do I listen to? It changes every time. Which wine do I choose? Bordeaux! Every time Bordeaux! This is an oeuvre of music big enough for this monumental wine region. The task with both the music and the wines is to comprehend all of their complexities. From the most acclaimed chateau to the most elusive garagistes the Quartets work. And if you think a great deal of a modest Bordeaux discovery you have personally made in your wine buying travels here is music with which to celebrate your ingenuity.

Catavino’s Take: If you want “Bordeaux from Iberia” then turn to Somontano, or the Emporda, where you find wines with rich complexity and often employing similar grapes and blends.

The Ravel Piano Trio in A Minor

This trio came to my personal world through the French movie Un Coeur en Hiver ( The Heart in Winter). The movie is a melancholy tale of two men in love with the same woman. They are business partners and service top echelon classical musicians with their string instrument repair service for exotic and rare violins, violas and cellos in Paris. Their business and personal relationship is upended when both fall in love with a violinist. It’s a French movie which means little action and mostly talk. The French do dialogue better than anyone and I re-watch this film at regular intervals for the cinematic style and the music score. It is elegant and complex music. The trio is filled with rich textures and wide dynamic ranges of energy from the cello, violin and piano. This is a highly technical piece that is interesting to read about, and if you are so inclined, try this link to Earsense blog.


I like this with an American Zinfandel done in the Bordeaux style; lean, mineral not at all showy on fruit. One made by serious winemakers in Northeastern California for a very limited market who appreciate this fashion. For me this music wants a subtle wine with attenuated flavors that cause you to seek and search because after all this is a Zin; or is it. This is a learned preference as the wines in this niche seem to have no relation to the candy store quality of the big lake of red zin that gets quaffed in back yards and on porches.

Catavino’s Take: We’re talking big wines here! And Douro reds from Portugal, or a Priorat from Spain, generally match the fruit and alcohol of a California Zin.

Duo Works of Music with Chamber Music

Ojos Negros I am not a fan of the duo literature. I find the violin strident and the piano simply gets in the way of the cello for my taste. But I love these two: young cellist Anja Lechner with ancient Argentine bandoneon artist Dino Saluzzi.

This is a perfect mate to the Brahms sextet. Moody mahogany. Is it classical music?

It seems this has been the argument at ECM for forty years. ECM makes little of the boundaries between genres. ECM’s motto is The Most Beautiful Sound Next to Silence. I find this accurate for my taste. If I enjoy silence with my wine why would I introduce music unless it enhances the experience? For me this duo works with any of the bottles that the wine press word merchants like to describe as brooding. It wants to be deep, inky and thoughtful. My first choice is an Amarone. This monster from North of Venice is often a sorry guest at a dinner party. It is not vaguely food friendly. And that sounds like heresy. The prevailing belief is that food and wine must be great partners. In my outlook sometimes these partners just tolerate one another.

Catavino’s Take: Clearly, Port wine has been thoughtfully considered the brooding drink with its viscous and sensual aromas, dark and inviting flavors and a lingering finish that lasts well into the moonlight hours. However, it’s Spanish fortified counterpart, Oloroso, should also be considered. This is equally a dramatic flavor deserving of a pensive musical work.

This is music that makes me look inside and I involuntarily hunch my shoulders, bend my head and listen deeply as my finger circles the rim of my drink creating a glass harmonica for my own accompaniment. I can do such things forI am alone…..with my wine and my music.

Next time Music and Wine pairings for your private times with recordings of Vocal Recital (read here): the sopranos, the mezzos, the tenors and baritones and the bottles they go with.

Burt Frink

(Flickr photos by Haags Uitburo)

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