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A Winter's Daydream: Coteaux du Layon and Tchaikovsky's 1st symphony
by John Axelrod©2013


Tchaikovsky's 1st symphony has a delightful title, but it was hardly tranquil in its genesis. His routine of composing day and night caused him great mental and physical exhaustion to the point doctors had declared him "One step away from insanity." Not so far from Anna Karenina. Fortunately, Tchaikovsky did not come to the same fate.

During a recent series of concerts in the Pays de la Loire, France, entitled Pushkin, after the famous Russian writer of tragic stories, I took the chance to see the recent film of Ana Karenina, to soak up that Russian spirit. Tolstoy was of the same romantic mould as Pushkin, and captured well the psychological mind of 19th century imperial Russia as well as the frigid tundra of its vast landscape.

Tchaikovsky's 1st symphony, Winter's Daydream, is a sonic soundscape of similar proportion. The 2nd movement, subtitled, Land of Desolation, Land of Mists, conjures up the atmosphere and emotional color of his home country under a blanket of heavy snow. But what defines this 1st symphony, like all other works from Tchaikovsky, was his gift for melody. That sweet tune that defies formal structure or rules. That was reason for criticism in his day. But it is also reason for his enormous popularity even to this day, particularly for his ballets, operas and late symphonies.

A wine that can best be compared to and enjoyed with the sweet melodies of what is considered to be Tchaikovsky's first mature, but rather unknown work, is that of the rather unknown, but mature Coteux du Layon, the affordable, sweet wine of the Pays de la Loire that is often dominated by those expensive Bordeaux sweet wines from the Sauternes, such as Châteux d'Yquem. Made from the Chenin Blanc grape (or Pineau de la Loire), the Coteux du Layon retains its sugar content from its "noble rot" character. As the morning mists rising from the Layon river create a moist, dense atmosphere, a blanket of fungus, called Botrytis cinerea, envelops the grape, creating the perfect climate and cool conditions for this special wine.

Like the difficult evolution of Tchaikovsky's 1st symphony, causing Tchaikovsky no shortage of pain and suffering, the Coteaux du Layon is a labor of love. Because the noble rot can turn from hero to villain, the grapes must be picked manually ("Vendange Manuelle") at the right moment, otherwise the fungus can destroy the grape.

Yet, magical things can happen among the misty elves. Just as Mendelssohn's fairy march in Midsummer Night's Dream can delight any child's imagination, and which inspired Tchaikovsky, the wintery dreams of the 1st Symphony's scherzo can satisfy the fantasy of any musical aficionado. The Coteux du Layon can also please any gourmet's wish to warm the soul with a taste of sweetness while the winter world freezes outside. Tchaikovsky's Nutcracker may be the perennial winter favorite family experience, but this winter's daydream symphony accompanied by this sweet wine makes for the perfect musical meal.