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The perfect wine for the Ring
by John Axelrod©2012


With the advent of 2013 for opera houses and orchestras, one name will figure prominently on all programs. His name is synonymous with both the agony and the ecstasy of Classical Music.

Mention the name Richard Wagner, and depending on where you are, and to whom you speak, you will get a different answer. What is sure, the name Richard Wagner, the person and his music, elicits many a varied response, from praise and adoration to disgust and resentment. He is both god and devil. His opera are either the hohepunkt of German music and gesamtkunstwerk theater or the end of it all. There have apparently been more books written about Wagner than anyone except Jesus or Napoleon. His musical views were revolutionary, while his politics were more reactionary, and his music continues to be subject to censorship. And yet, in 2013, for his 200th anniversary, there will be more Wagner performed around the world than any other time in history. And no work of music or opera is more expensive to perform than his Ring of the Nibelungen Cycle. Economic crisis, be damned. People shall have their Wagner and let the Gods of Valhalla pay for it, if the Greeks cannot.

In a previous article in Crescendo, I have written about the perfect Riesling to go with a Bayreuth Festpiele performance. In 2013, there will be many Ring Cycles, many other opera, many overtures, many conductors proving their mettle in Wagnerian tradition and many singers getting laryngitis. Therefore, since Wagner (and his operatic nemesis Verdi) will dominate the year around the world, a special, world-experienced wine will be necessary to sustain the high notes and the inevitably low ones.

Some people cannot drink red wine fearing headaches. White wines can also be refreshing for the 19 hours required to produce the full cycle, but hardly offering the depth needed to absorb Wotan's anguishing arias. What about a combination of both? In fact, many wineries offer a selection of grapes and varietals all linked by the winemaker's vision and philosophy. Much as Wagner's Ring is connected by leitmotifs, many wineries offer red bordeaux, white chardonnay, luscious pinot noir and spicy syrah. The winery whose wine and food center I used to direct, Robert Mondavi, still offers nearly 10 different varieties of wine, from Cabernet Sauvignon to Fumé Blanc to a Riesling to a Sangiovese and everything in between.

My suggestion for the best wine to best enjoy the Ring Cycle would be to choose a winery that best matches the romantic, intense esprit of Wagner's opus. If the music stirs our souls and symbolizes our struggle with mortality and power, so to the winemaker must offer wines that do more than simply taste great. They must illuminate our minds to the greatness of the fruit of the vine.

Not many wineries offer such wines, certainly not for an affordable price. And yet, there is one. The wines have a particular taste and a history as tragic and dramatic as was Wagner's life. Châteauneuf-du-Pape: The wine of the Great Schism, when the titans of the Papacy were at war, from 1378-1415. Here, the Provençal passage land around the Papal Palace of Avignon, was ideal for grape growing, and continued long after the Great Schism ended. Corruption, power, intrigue, seduction: Not only plot lines of the Ring, but also of the history of the national and factional conflict that led to the worst division in the history of the Catholic Church.

I know the wines well. Since my early indoctrination to the joy of wine, when I was a budding 15 year old on a Classical History school trip to Europe, we visited the Papal Palace and even toured the Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe winery, one of the most esteemed names of the appellation. I recall when my rebellious friend Peter and I snuck away from the tour and found ourselves in an enormous room filled with oak barrel casks. We could not hesitate. Our open mouths gave us our first realization of a wine that can hold as much as 15% alcohol. The love affair with Châteauneuf du Pape began and has never ended. Today, a Vieux Télégraphe can conjure up this wonderful memory just as does Wagner remind me of my first rehearsal in Bayreuth in 2000, when I was the 1st conductor for the "Blümenmädschen" of Parsifal.

Vieux Télégraphe comes not only in the classic rouge. The Family Brunier offers a large collection of vintages. There is also white wine Vieux Télégraphe, a lighter red named Le Télégramme, and even a rosé named Au Petit Bonheur les Pallières. Start with the white for Lohengrin for its transparence and structure. Then a tender red for Siegfried, and onto the rosé for a tempestuous Die Walkyrie. But you need the full-bodied, flame-throwing, spell-binding red, made of Grenache noir, Syrah and Mourvèdre once Götterdammürung begins. The powerful effect of this wine is something you will never forget. Like the Ring when heard for the first time. Then you know the Gods are still with you, even as the music lingers into the twilight.