All is quiet when I arrive in the sleepy Southern Italian province of Irpinia. Grapes growing in the patchwork of vineyards that cling to its steep hillsides are still some months off harvesting, while wines from the previous vintage have largely finished fermenting. Such peace is not usually a problem on my travels, except in this instance I'm here to capture the sounds as well as the tastes of the region's wines, to create a multisensory installation exploring the synergies between the two.
It's a project that's come about from the cross-pollination of my work as both as a wine critic and a sound artist, which led me to become increasingly aware of an unmistakeable interaction between what I was drinking and what I was listening to at the same time. To test my hypothesis, I ran a series of experiments on myself and a group of audio-vino guinea pigs and discovered that while some combinations of wine and music created sweet harmonies, others resulted in distasteful discords.
Armed with strong empirical evidence that my hunch was not the product of the wine-addled mind of a muso, I took my findings on the road, running a series of wine and music-matching workshops across the country. In these I was able to demonstrate how the aromatics of a glass of sauvignon blanc can be decimated by a dose of heavy rock or heightened by a well-chosen piece of pop and how the silky texture of a pinot noir can be amplified with a gentle ambient soundscape.
RECORDING IN THE VINES
News of my work with wine and sound filtered through to the organisers of the Interferenze New Arts Festival, who offered me an exciting artist's residency in Irpinia and the opportunity to take the concept to the next level. Through this I would create my own music designed to enhance a selection of local wines, making a work that would use recordings I would make in the region's vineyards and wineries.
So in the middle of a sultry Italian summer, I found myself in the stunning mountainous landscapes of one the country's historic but off-the beaten-track wine regions, dotted with ancient hillside villages and castles and home to the traditional wines of Greco di Tufo, Fiano d'Avellino and Taurasi. Its tranquillity is in stark contrast to the car horn-blasting hubbub of Naples, less than an hour's drive away.
As I listen in the vineyard I hear the gentle rustle of leaves and the wind transmitted through the wires on which the vines are trained and the crunch of the volcanic "tufo" soil, which gives the local wines their crisp and minerally character.
In the winery there's the drip and hum of the modern cooling systems that help preserve the fruit and freshness of the region's traditional white wines; the rhythmic pulse and clatter of the bottling and labelling lines launched into action for me by one helpful winemaker and, finally, the hiss and crackle of the one fermenting barrel of wine I'm able to track down on my travels.
Fermentation has become one of my favourite wine sounds, and one of which I was completely unaware until I embarked on my first wine and sound project. That involved recording the rich sonic activity of vintage at New Zealand's Pegasus Bay winery, which I made into an installation at the Taupo Erupt Festival a few years ago.
Here in Tufo, I was keen to draw on resonances right inside the barrel, so came armed with a hydrophone. This device, designed to record underwater - or in this case, wine - was viewed with extreme suspicion by the winery's owners and subjected to some rigorous disinfecting before I was permitted to lower it into their prized cask.
It was worth the wrangling, as I was convinced that the higher pitch produced by a fermenting wine would work wonderfully with the crispness of the region's whites. While this was an aesthetic decision based on my observations of the way frequencies seem to fit with tastes, it's also a combination supported by a scientific study that's part of a growing body of research into the connections between our senses.
THE SCIENCE OF SOUND AND WINE
A few years ago it was proved that mood has a strong influence on our sense of taste, with a study conducted by Professor Adrian North - a specialist in music psychology at Britain's Heriot-Watt University - revealing that the mood evoked by music can significantly change a wine drinker's perception of what they're tasting.
Participants were given a red and a white wine, which they tried in silence and with four different styles of music. When drinking wine with the music that had been selected for its "powerful and heavy" properties, those tested tended to likewise rate the wine they were drinking to be more powerful and heavy, and when a wine was sipped with a tune chosen for its "zingy and refreshing" character, it became more zingy and refreshing to the tasters. When the styles of the wine most closely corresponded to that of the music, the most significant shift in perception was seen.
This is something that had been previously proposed by the winemaker and wine technologist, Clark Smith following his extensive personal experiments in the area.
"We associate different wine types with different moods, just as we do with music," he says. "Cabernets are angry, pinots romantic, rieslings cheerful." To find the perfect pairing, you need to be as sensitive to the mood of a wine as to that of the music.
At the forefront of current research into the resonances between sound and taste is Professor Charles Spence, head of the Crossmodal Research Laboratory in the Department of Experimental Psychology at Oxford University. Spence has worked with the likes of celebrity chef Heston Blumenthal, with research leading to the development of audio-gustatory delights such as "The Sound of the Sea" where the diner's enjoyment of this seafood dish is heightened by the accompaniment of crashing waves from an iPod.
I was particularly interested to learn that that Spence's studies had also linked sweet and sour tastes to high pitch tones and bitter ones to lower sounds.
It seems our senses are not as separate as was once surmised. It used to be thought that only those with the rare condition of synaesthesia - in which the senses become crossed - combined different sensory cues, but this research suggests that when we start sipping to we're all synaesthetes to some extent.
This building body of research, as well as evidence from my own trials, gave me confidence that there's plenty of common ground within people's perceptions that's ripe for exploring through dishes like Blumenthal's or musical works, such as Oenosthesia, the installation that was the final product of my wine sampling and recording in Italy.
OENOSTHESIA: A MULTISENSORY EXPERIENCE
Despite this, it was still with some trepidation that I awaited the reception of Oenosthesia, which premiered at the end of my residency at Interferenze's "Factory for Rurality, Art and Media" festival (Farm 2012).
I'd created a work with three definite sections. The first was made from the mid-range tones of the vineyard, matched with a mature, mellow Greco di Tufo. The next segment paired the high tones of fermentation with a fresh young Greco on one night and on the other, a local spumante. In the final section, crafted from the deeper and more rhythmical tones of winemaking technology, the pitch called for the rich local red, Taurasi.
Armed with a glass of the appropriate wine, participants - who ranged from international sound artists to festival-goers from Rome and Naples, winemakers to a few initially incredulous locals - soaked up the vinous soundscape pumping out from the surrounding speakers. To my relief they seemed totally engaged in my multisensory experience and appreciative of the affinities that it suggested.
No longer hushed, Tufo and the hills of Irpinia now rang with a synergistic symphony of wine and sound.
The few wines from this region available in New Zealand are well worth trying. These include the Terredora "Loggia della Serra" Greco di Tufo 2009 ($29.95, Scenic Cellars) and the Vesevo Fiano di Avellino 2010 ($27-$30, see the list of outlets on eatily.co.nz), whose subtle notes of peach, hazelnut and cinnamon are lifted by its zesty line of lemon and mineral. For a local red, the Vesevo Beneventano Aglianico IGT 2007 ($22-$24, see eatily.co.nz) is a big, ripe and wonderfully juicy example, combining bright blackberry and sour cherry fruit with notes of dark chocolate, liquorice, earth and herb.
Irpinia is in the wider region of Campania, less than an hour's drive inland from Naples. It's a beautiful hillside district overlooked by the Partenio mountain range, which as yet has remained largely unexploited by tourism and offers a genuine taste of rural Italian life. More information about making a trip to the area can be found here.