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March 8, 2011

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Winemaking method hits all the right notes

IF one Austrian's quirky idea catches on, wine tastings could soon sound like this: Is that some Mozart in my glass? A hint of Haydn, maybe?

Convinced that music is a key ingredient for a good bottle of red or white, Markus Bachmann has invented a special speaker that exposes fermenting grape juice to classical, jazz or electronic tunes. The sound waves, he claims, positively influence the maturing process and produce a better-tasting wine.

The eyebrow-raising technique is the latest in a slew of weird ways to make wine, some of which also have a melodic touch.

Take Portuguese winery Jose Maria da Fonseca, which plays classical music in its century-old Adega da Mata barrel hall where it ages its well-known Periquita label wines. Or French company Henri Maire that has sent thousands of bottles of red wine sailing around the world in ships to be jostled by waves. Then there's Austrian Rainer Christ, who swears by full moon grape harvesting, saying it makes his wine more complex and gives it a longer shelf life.

Scientists scoff at such methods, calling them at best harmless, at worst cynical marketing ploys.

Werner Gruber, a University of Vienna physicist and member of a group known as the Science Busters, which aims to debunk false scientific claims, rejected Bachmann's idea as "rubbish."

"Yeast, fungi, don't have opinions," Gruber said. "They really don't care if AC/DC, Madonna or Mozart is played to them."

Bachmann is undeterred by such criticism, insisting his invention will be the next big thing in winemaking.

But the 44-year-old who managed bars and restaurants for about a decade and also worked for an air-conditioning company, is highly protective of his sound-infusing gadget, refusing to have the small, baby blue UFO-shaped object filmed or photographed.

He jokingly calls it a "swimming saucer" and only divulges this much: it weighs 1.4 kilograms and is inserted directly into the fermenting grape juice to stimulate the yeast.

"The wines get more fruity, they get mature earlier," the former french horn player said. "All the tastes and flavors stand alone much better."

Bachmann theorizes that the sound waves emanating from his speaker move yeast particles and, among other things, cause them to eat up greater amounts of sugar, resulting in a wine that has a lower overall sugar content.

"There's an absolute scientific basis for it," Bachmann said.

Florian Bauer, professor of wine biotechnology at South Africa's Stellenbosch University, said sound waves, including ultrasounds, have an impact on molecules in liquids or solids and that may accelerate chemical processes. But he said he is unaware of any established science that music makes wine better.

"Will it improve wine? As always with wine, sometimes, possibly yes, mostly, probably not," Bauer said.

Bachmann has teamed up with six Austrian wine growers and an initial 31,000 liters of so-called Sonor Wines, priced at about 19 to 25 euros (US$26 to 34), will go on sale soon. They include a 2010 pinot blanc infused with Mozart's 41st Symphony and a 2010 zweigelt exposed to a selection of arias.

Franz-Michael Mayer, a winemaker who works with Bachmann, played a sampling of waltzes and polkas performed by the renowned Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra into his semillon wine for about three weeks.

"I get the sense it tastes different, good," the soft-spoken Mayer said as he relished a sip of the golden liquid in a centuries-old wine cellar. "I'm so convinced that I'm ready to continue next year."

Some drink producers have been using music for a while.

Hector Vasquez of the Mexican Los Danzantes distillery makes mezcal, an alcoholic drink made from maguey plants, to both classical and folkloric tunes. He says he cannot be sure any of it works but is confident it does no harm.

"I can't promise that this method, that these beliefs, work, but we're turning it into a good method, and I'm sure that in the three years we have been doing it, it hasn't hurt the fermentation process," said Vasquez, adding he favors compositions by Schubert, Chopin and Rachmaninoff.

Then there's South Africa's DeMorgenzon winery that plays Baroque music 24 hours a day to its vines and wines through speakers that are strategically placed in its vineyard and cellar.


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