SLSO Sip & Learn: Pair These Wines With Classical Music

The SLSO's monthly Lunch & Learn shifted to an evening event for January 2021, when we explored the pairing of music and wine. SLSO Creative Partner Tim Munro was joined by Principal Oboist Jelena Dirks and sommelier Aaron Sherman (who happens to be a trained percussionist himself, and married to Dirks). While a technical glitch prevented our usual recording of the Zoom event, Sherman has provided his post-event recommendations.


Richard Strauss' “Mit Mir Waltz” from Der Rosenkavalier

Paired with Cantina Ostro Prosecco

The Rosenkavalier Waltz is wonderful music, light, a bit sweet, and rather twirly, much like the dance. We paired a beautifully fresh Prosecco from the area of Grave in Northern Italy, by Cantina Ostro. It is light, and bubbly—and twirly—like Strauss’ music.


I chose a Prosecco over other sparkling wines because it tends to be more fruit-noted in flavor (than Champagne, for example, which will have more flavors of toast, or brioche, or buttered popcorn); the Prosecco seemed somehow to convey the sweetness, as the fruitiness of Prosecco sometimes signals sweetness in the mouth.


And by the time the music gets really wild and intense, well, you’re through most of the bottle, anyways, so everything feels just a bit more... twirly.

Aaron Copland's Fanfare for the Common Man

Paired with Chappellet “Grower Collection” Chardonnay


For me, Copland’s music is incredibly evocative of broad, open vistas. I can see the montage of imagery: amber waves of grain, perhaps, or majestic mountain vistas. The brass for Fanfare is singing and bright, though there is a warm, golden richness to the sounds (especially in the SLSO brass!). My initial notes were: broadly sweeping, brassy, shining, and full-throated.


We selected a wine that could keep up with all of that, and still feel loving and poetic while being intense and heart-stirring and all the while feeling “quintessentially American.”


Chardonnay has this golden (brassy?), rich quality, with the balance between golden, buttery richness (the low-brass) and vibrant freshness of acidity (trumpets?), along with the mouth-filling power (percussion!).


Chappellet is one of the great California producers, iconic and historic. They also make incredible wines that speak of being from California. The Chardonnay I chose is one of their “Grower Selection” Chardonnays, which has incredible richness and depth. If you like the brassy-ness of the trumpets, look for the “El Novillero” Vineyard (brighter and more vibrant). If you lean towards the low brass, ask for the “Calesa” Vineyard (softer and richer).


Sangiacomo vineyards

The winemaker describes the wine as: “a dazzling wine that combines hedonistic depth, with elegance and finesse.” Doesn’t that sound like the Copland?

Erik Satie's Gymnopédies

Paired with Mommessin “Moulin a Vent” Beaujolais


Satie’s piano works are beautiful because of their simplicity, not in spite of it. They are not powerhouse, overpowering works, but there is something exceptionally compelling about the transparency of the writing. They also, to me, evoke a sweet sadness.


I picked a Beaujolais to pair with this because the wines from this area tend to be very pure, simple and more transparent. They are light and delicate, but have this incredibly evocative sense to them, like a single, perfect rose in bloom. The Mommessin is light, it is beautifully pretty, and it is gentle, almost fragile, in its structure.


Like the music, I think it doesn’t lose its presence without having mass, intensity, or power. Instead, you can find each flavor and subtle texture in the glass, in the same way that you can hear every single note.

Ottorino Respighi's "The Pines of the Appian Way" from Pines of Rome

Paired with Le Ragnaie Rosso di Montalcino, Tuscany


This piece for me has always conjured such incredible imagery: A phalanx of soldiers; muscle, sweat, dirt, power. The Finale creates a massive wall of sound and intensity from start to finish, a real punch in the mouth.


We talked about how Tuscan wines feel the same way: dark, muscley, powerful. I chose a Tuscan red from the town of Montalcino that has amazing power and depth. It is packed full of flavors of red and black fruit, meat, smoke, dust and really socks you in the mouth with tannin and acidity. It’s a big, bold wine.


It also, if you really want to get into it, would go perfectly with a Bistecca alla Fiorentina, a classic steak preparation from Florence: porterhouse or T-Bone steak, grilled over a flame, rubbed with a grilled lemon and doused with some garlic, herbs, and really good olive oil. Yum!

Sherman also provided his recommendations for some January-February SLSO concert rebroadcasts on 90.7 KWMU St. Louis Public Radio.


January 23

Maurice Ravel's "The Empress of the Pagodas" from Mother Goose Suite

Pairings: - Domaine Huet “Le Mont” Demi-sec, Vouvray (Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley)

- Oka Kura “Maneki Wanko” (“Lucky Dog”) Sake (in juice box packages)

- Bubbles, really of any variety

Pick up something curbside from Indo, Mai Lee, or Nippon Tei to go along with this movement, too.


Ravel’s music in this section of the suite is highly evocative of the East, with its pentatonic scales, fluttery woodwinds, triangle and cymbals. It is delightful and childlike, as Tim mentioned being based on a Children’s story.


Jelena originally wanted to pair this with bubbles because, well, bubbles is generally the answer. I opted, though, to use a Chenin blanc from the Loire Valley, specifically by Domaine Huet in the village of Vouvray. The Demi-sec (“half-dry,” or lightly sweet) has incredible density and builds flavors that are richly exotic: orange blossoms and marzipan and beeswax. I used a 2019, but if I had my druthers, I would have picked one that was about 8 or 10 years old, as all of those exotic spices blossom with a little bit of time.


As a fun alternative, I also threw out the option of heading straight to Japan with a juice-box of Lucky Dog Sake. Because Sake in juice boxes!

January 30

Felix Mendelssohn's Symphony No. 1

Pairing: Clos du Mont Olivet Cotes du Rhone


Cook up a fine beef stew or Geschnetzeltes (sliced meat in creamy sauce, German-style)


The Mendelssohn is dark and Germanic, it’s true, but not hugely heavy. In fact, this whole concert to me felt similar throughout. Rich and vibrant, easy to enjoy, but not too dark or serious.


This felt like a wine to enjoy, but not to think too much about. Red blends are often those wines for me, meant simply to be enjoyed. Whenever I think of red blends, I instinctively go back to the Rhone Valley, though a blend from California or Argentina would work well, too.


I chose a Cotes du Rhone from Clos du Mont Olivet because it is a serious version of a not-so-serious wine. Cotes du Rhones in general are rich and dark and easy to enjoy. This one has a bit more heft than many, but it is not as brooding or intense as a Chateauneuf du Pape might be (perhaps better suited for Mahler or Bruckner).

February 6

Ludwig van Beethoven's Leonore Overture No. 3

Pairing: Whitehall Lane Merlot, Napa


Order-in some of Olio’s Lamb Hummus Deluxe, Ruth’s Chris’ Ribeye Steak, or Polite Society’s Jimmy Burger.


In Beethoven’s only opera Fidelio, Florestan (the heroine’s husband) begins the story held captive in a dark dungeon as a political prisoner. Perhaps that introductory storyline describes no grape better than Merlot.


Once hailed as the grape that begat the current American Wine Industry (following a 1994 story in an episode of 60 Minutes), Merlot has since fallen from grace more heavily than any other in the wine world. Indeed, though already disgraced, Merlot’s reputation was kicked when already down (unjustly, like Florestan) in the 2004 film Sideways, in which the familiar quote will not be repeated here. It’s definitely worth a watch if you haven’t seen it, though!


In the opera, the main character, Leonore, dresses as a prison guard named “Fidelio” (Faithful) to rescue her husband. And much the same, Merlot has often been camouflaged to blend in with many other things: to soften Cabernet, as the base for many red blends, or unknowingly enjoyed as the base for many great Bordeaux. In fairness, however, Merlot—though often derided—truly reflects many of the attributes of Beethoven’s great overture: serious (enough), dramatic, easily enjoyable (in length and density), and wonderfully rich.


Faithful producers like Whitehall Lane have continued to produce exceptional examples of Merlot, even though it is a grape that is often feared, or derided. This one is a wine of great power, with formidable structure (like this overture), beautiful length of flavors (like the lyrical lines), and boldness and style, like both our heroine and the grand, rollicking finale!

*Note: Radio rebroadcasts of SLSO concerts take place every Saturday night at 8:00pm on 90.7 KWMU St. Louis Public Radio, and online here. If you miss a rebroadcast, visit slso.org to listen to the concerts, available to stream at no cost for 30 days after rebroadcasts.

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