Felix Mendelssohn

Lieder ohne Worte – Songs without Words

If you don’t know Mendelssohn, you should. His music is brilliant and utterly enjoyable. As I write, I’m listening to his fourth symphony called “Italian,” played by the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell. It’s filled with gorgeous tunes you could easily hum after a couple of hearings. Also check out his violin concerto. The recording—better yet the DVD—of German violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter performing it live with Kurt Masur conducting the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra is amazing.

Mendelssohn also wrote a series of piano pieces called “Lieder ohne Worte” or Songs without Words between 1829 and 1845. The eight volumes, each containing six songs, were written at a time when the piano was just becoming popular in European middle class households; hence the demand—and popularity—for well-crafted works that could be played by amateur and professional alike. His intent, like so many other composers of his time, was to write a series of lyrical pieces for the piano; in effect songs for the piano that didn’t require lyrics much less singing.

But this post is about tasting.

Any student on the M.S. exam track must practice tasting both individually and as part of a tasting group to have any success. Both are valuable experiences and irreplaceable. However, for everyone the tasting exam is also about memory–primarily olfactory and palate memory. Improving one’s memory doesn’t require having a glass of wine in hand. After years of coaching innumerable students, I’ve come to believe that associative rehearsal of tasting—as in practicing tasting without a glass of wine physically in hand or what I call Songs without Words—is just as valuable as actual tasting. Why? Simply because once a student gets to or beyond the Advanced level, they’ve tasted a good deal of wine and have a considerable, sometimes remarkable, database of memories of previous wines. To point, I strongly believe that someone at the Master’s level needs to be able to mentally call up the complete experience of any classic wine—as in how it looks, smells, tastes, and feels on the palate—and do so on command. 

I suggest students preparing for an exam regularly—even daily–take time to mentally mock up a flight of six classic wines in an exam-type setting (again, all of this in terms of visualization) and then talk through the wines out loud using the MS deductive grid just as they would during an actual exam. During this rehearsal the student needs to remember and experience each wine as completely and intensely as possible; seeing the wine clearly in their mind’s eye, smelling it completely, tasting it fully and noting the flavors and structural elements accurately, and finally nailing the conclusion of the wine while feeling confident. In short, practicing tasting using associative rehearsal accomplishes several things:

  • It connects you to your previous memories of the various aromatics/flavors found in wine as well as your memories of classic wines in a sensory package of sight, smell, and taste.
  • It builds recognition and memory for wines using the auditory channel–as in hearing your own voice as you describe a wine. 
  • It improves one’s multi-sensory memory for the overall tasting experience. In effect, it improves the number of ways that you can “get” to the identity of a wine using more than one sense. In this case, practicing “talking about wine” becomes yet another key for memory.
  • Practicing talking through wines out loud using the grid also helps to build your inner exam comfort zone in terms of being confident when you have to speak aloud in front of examiners. That’s important too.
​What other aspects of wine can be practiced without having a glass of wine physically in hand? Plenty. Here are a few worth noting:  

  • Color: practice seeing the important major colors in wine in your mind’s eye: straw, yellow, and gold for whites; purple, ruby, and garnet for reds. Make the colors intense, bright, and really get then difference between them. Be able to put them in a color strip out in front of you in your mind’s eye. Once you’ve got the colors down—and that shouldn’t take much time—begin to make them closer in appearance until you can spot subtle differences and combine two different colors to best describe a wine (yellow-gold or ruby-garnet, etc.)
  • Aromatics: practice your memory of the major aromatics in wine; there are around thirty of them (see previous posts on the “Basic Set”). Develop an excellent working memory for any fruit in the five major fruit groups for white wines and the four fruit groups for red wine. Do the same with the major non-fruit elements including flowers, spices, herbs, vegetal elements, and more.
  • Fruit condition: take your memory of a common aroma/flavor such as black cherry. Once you have your memory of black cherry (i.e. your image) squarely in mind begin to change its condition: first make it young, tart, under ripe, and barely edible. Reset it. Now make it riper until it’s over ripe, then stewed, then dried. Reset it again. With some practice you can do this to practically any component in wine, from flowers (fresh to dry to pressed) to oak (new to used) and beyond.
  • Wine age: once you can change the condition of a fruit aroma/flavor doing the same thing with a complete wine. Start by taking something easy like a straight ahead Napa Cabernet: first make it youthful—as in just bottled—with intense, youthful fruit and astringent tannins. Then gradually morph the wine’s age until it’s old, oxidized, and barely drinkable. Then reset it. Magic.
  • Wine faults: practice your memory for the major wine faults including TCA, H2S, mercaptan, Brett, VA, and others. In doing so you’ll also develop more sensitivity to them as well.
  • Structure: call up any wine that’s easy for you to remember—New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc is a good example. Taking the structural components one at a time–the levels of acid, alcohol, and tannin—gradually change the level from high to low or vice versa. With acid, start with the level intensely high (feel the acidity on your tongue, gums, and salivary glands) gradually lower the level down to medium-plus then medium then medium-minus and finally flabby. Then take the level up gradually again back to “high.” You might be curious to see how the quality of the fruit changes from tart to over ripe at the same time. Do the same with the alcohol, tannin, and even the length of the finish.
  • Prime factors: it’s critical that you have a good working memory for the major prime factors in wine such as pyrazines, lees contact, stem inclusion, use of oak, terpenes, and more (see post from April 6th for the complete list). I could argue that your ability to remember and/or recognize these factors—and how you use them logically in your conclusions–is a gauge of your level of tasting experience and expertise.
  • Grape varieties: practice your memory of the best examples of the classic grapes/wines you’ve ever tasted. With enough repetition the major grapes/wines will become so distinct that it will become difficult to confuse them. Personally, the major grapes occupy different “locations” in my mind’s eye.
  • Conclusions: practice taking the major components found in a classic wine and making the “right” conclusion.” Do it forwards and backwards. By backwards I mean starting with declaring a grape, origin, and vintage and then explaining to yourself why and how you got to the conclusion. Then explain why it can’t be other grapes that are often confused with the grape/wine in your conclusion. Example? Nailing the conclusion for a Chateauneuf and explaining internally—or out loud—why it can’t be Tempranillo/Rioja or Sangiovese/Brunello-Chianti Classico. You get the picture.

I can’t recommend practicing tasting using associative rehearsal strongly enough. So much of the tasting exam is about having confidence with one’s own internal experience, sensitivity, calibration, and above all memory.  There’s no better way to improve them.