The Week in Radio: A far from vintage show as Callow uncorks the clichés


Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Alcohol and the airwaves can be a dangerous mix. Anyone who has mistakenly tuned into talk radio after closing time knows as much. Nothing daunted, Classic FM has launched a new show that matches music to wine, actively encouraging listeners to tune in to Mozart and Verdi while getting lightly Brahms and Liszt.

Tasting Notes is billed as a "musical journey around the wine-growing regions of the world". It's a boozy travelogue with added arias, presented by – who else? – Simon Callow, whose voice slithers out of the radio like the fumes from a goblet of claret, all rich chocolaty base notes overlaid with the berryish tang of bon viveur.

The two-hour series goes out at 3pm on Sundays, presumably as a perfect post-roast digestif for the so-called "middle-class drinkers" who have already polished off a Campo Viejo with their beef and need scant excuse to crack open another bottle, or two, before the rigours of Monday. In the interests of research – tough job, but someone has to do it – I looked up the two wines recommended on the Classic FM website for Italian week, found a corkscrew and joined them.

The idea is that each show visits a region, talks about the composers and wines that come from there and matches them up. So the "crispy pear aromas" of a Soave might be paired with a snifter of Rossini, for example, or a heady Barolo with the "Grand March" from Aida. It's not a terrible idea; in fact it could be quite fun. The show's claim – "Music sounds better with wine. Wine tastes better with music" – may not stand up to scientific scrutiny, but there's something neat about yoking together two classical cultures that inspire devotion and ecstasy (not forgetting snobbery) in one big, Bacchanalian Sunday afternoon session.

The trouble is, it didn't sound like much fun at all. Callow, the old pro, gamely injected the odd chuckle into his voice to give an impression of wine-bar bonhomie and rolled his tongue around the Italian grape varieties with relish. But he clearly wasn't rolling his tongue around the wines, let alone "hopping in a gondola" or "turning left" along a Tuscan dirt-track as his patter would have had us believe. Rather, the whole thing reeked of a cold cup of Earl Grey and a basement studio on a rainy afternoon in London.

A real-life journey around the wine-growing regions of the world would bust most budgets but there are ways of evoking Italy that don't rely on the scripted clichés of "stunning scenery, manicured vineyards and wonderful restaurants". Indeed, it was hard to work out who the target listener might be, given the lack of original insight into either travel or music or wine. Pavarotti was glossed as a "larger than life figure who changed the face of opera forever"; Verdi, we were told, had a "genius for melody and profound dramatic instincts". The references to wine were cursory, the only ones to warrant more than a sentence being the featured bottles from the show's partners, Laithwaite's Wine. At the very least a bit of evocative cork-pulling or bottle-glugging wouldn't have gone amiss.

In the event, it all boiled down to an awful lot of adjectives, with a bit of music in between. Take this, a typical description of some Mozart and its matching Veneto white: "A refreshing, luxurious favourite with a zesty grapefruit finish – the perfect partner for Mozart's refulgent, crystal-clear piano concerto in D minor." It was enough to drive you to drink.