alcohol, amphitheatre, barrel, Carl van der Merwe, Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, dance, DeMorgenzon, grape, Hylton Appelbaum, loudspeaker, mathematics, mobile telephone, Mozart, Pinot Noir, playlist, Prince Charles, pruner, psychoacoustic music, rhythm, rock and roll, Stellenbosch, Syrah, tannin, terroir, vine, Wendy Appelbaum, wine
In a gentle valley near Stellenbosch in the Western Cape [South Africa], the vineyards at DeMorgenzon estate are serenaded by Baroque and early classical music day and night, all year round. And once the grapes are harvested, the maturing wine gets the same treatment in the cellar.
Winemaker and general manager Carl van der Merwe smiles when asked whether he is seen in the same light as Britain’s Prince Charles, who was scorned for admitting that he talks to his plants to encourage their growth. “We have a lot of people who are very skeptical about what we are doing and why we’re doing it, particularly neighbors” he says. But he is a firm supporter of the musical approach adopted by the owners of the estate, prominent businesswoman Wendy Appelbaum and her music-loving husband Hylton, who founded Classic FM radio in South Africa.
The Appelbaums bought the estate in 2003 and introduced music in 2009, following in the footsteps of farmers who have serenaded everything from cows to pigs in an attempt to improve production and quality.
While there was no scientific proof of music’s effects on wine, they thought there was enough evidence of the positive influence of dulcet sound to try to combine their love of both. “We do things in life sometimes because we believe in them and often we find out later that there was a very strong scientific reason why those things worked,” Van der Merwe says.
So if wine and song go together in more ways than one, why does it have to be Baroque rather than rock? “Well, we only use Baroque and classical for the reason that those two have mathematical rhythm and those sound waves have been proven to have a positive effect on natural life,” he says.
Van der Merwe, 37, is no wild-eyed evangelist trying to spread a message about music and plants, but has a modest belief that the music works – helped along by the terroir and, of course, his winemaking skills. He says he sees a difference the music makes through the slower and more regulated growth patterns on the vines where it is focused – a trial block of four hectares out of the fifty-five hectares under vines on the estate. “The Syrah that comes from here is very different to anywhere else on the property and it’s much more pronounced in terms of flavor, has smoother tannins and tends to have slightly lower alcohol and really is just a much more balanced, much more approachable wine,” he says.
Ten regularly spaced loudspeakers carry the music of Bach and Mozart, among many others, across the vineyards, producing a surreal effect in the quiet valley. Van der Merwe points out that the farm is like an amphitheatre scooped from the mountains, and the music’s influence extends the length and breadth of the estate. “It’s not so much about the audible music that we can hear, it’s more about sound waves,” he says.
The music also affects the farm workers, of course, though Van der Merwe says wryly that many seem to prefer their own playlists on their mobile phones. But one of the local women in a pruning team stated, “We like the music. It’s nice to work here because it lifts us up and sometimes you feel like dancing.” Spring is approaching in the Cape, and the team of pruners is moving slowly through the vineyard, preparing it for the next growing season.
The estate has a strong focus on Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay, but also produces classic reds Syrah and Pinot Noir. In South Africa the award-winning wines are sold in the mid-to-upper price range, retailing from about R75 up to R250 a bottle. DeMorgenzon exports to the United States and to Europe, where the wines sell from about 10 euros to 18 euros.
Between the vineyard and the retailer, however, the wine matures in oak barrels while “listening” to the same music as the vines it came from. Surely, Van der Merwe is asked, even if one accepts that a life form like a plant can respond to music, it is a bit much to expect the same of a liquid? Happily, he points out that “wine is alive with various bacteria, and the fermentation process itself is done by living organisms”.
Perhaps in time, if the idea catches on, wine critics will be telling us to look out not only for “notes of berry and mushroom” in our glass of red or white, but “notes of Bach and Mozart” as well.