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Opulence: Grenache Blanc Meets Sarah Vaughan


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Welcome to 2022's first Jazz & Juice—I'm excited to journey with you into the realm of wine and song in this new year! I think you'll enjoy this month's hedonistic theme no matter what you've resolved for the new year.


Opulence brings to mind abundance, ornamentation, wealth and, well, muchness. A profusion or abundance of something can hazard gratuitousness, yet it also may lead to the delightfully decadent. Opulence brings us past the point of necessity and into the world of the plentiful, especially when it comes to the Bacchanalian realms of music and wine.

Musically, playing a profusion of notes can be a mark of excessive exhibitionism, or be expressive and profound. Making beautiful, technically impressive sounds alone doesn't necessarily mean the music will be great; but the most unforgettable musical examples often feature those displays. (Coltrane's "Sheets of Sound" approach, or the intricate stylings of Art Tatum come to mind.)

With wine grapes, an overly abundant vine will bear diluted fruit. In winemaking, too much of anything (even the most expensive oak) will dominate the wine, which will end up unbalanced and lesser than the sum of its parts. However, the greatest vintages in the vineyard and greatest talent in the winery know that plenty of a good thing (perfectly ripened grapes, for one) can make for unforgettable bottles.

When opulence is a natural expression of the nature of a thing, it is dazzling to behold.

The Jazz

Sarah Vaughan needs no introduction; her sweep of contributions to the world of jazz and vocal music is incredibly significant. Her musicianship is without parallel, yet, it's her unmistakable sound that is iconic. Vaughn's rapturous voice is luxuriant, supple, and rich. Her choices as a singer ensure that every facet of her instrument is on full display. Her range is formidable; she fearlessly dives and soars, scats with clarity even as she indulges the immensity of her voice on an operatic scale. Sarah Vaughn is the aural epitome of opulence in a singer.

Harold Arlen and Ted Koehler's "Ill Wind" from her third recording with the Count Basie Orchestra titled Send in the Clowns, released in 1981, is a celebration of the abundant talent of one of jazz's greatest orchestras, and singers, in ripe maturity.

First, the band: the Basie Band begins the ballad with lugubrious lines, led by the saxophone section. On the first bridge, the band pulls sweet taffy behind Vaughn's vocal. Following the end of the first chorus, the build begins like a sudden thunderstorm, cracking into a burlesque swing with brash trumpets and drums kicking. They then glide back to the indulgent original feel to end the tune.

Vaughan's singing at this point of her career is a concentration of her lifelong style, wonderfully indulgent and wise. The wider intervals of the song provide a perfect canvas for her to explore the drama of her range. She swoops and bends, lifts and dives, broadening and narrowing her sound mid-flight. Working with the excitement of the brash interlude following the first chorus, she leans into the approach with more fervor at her return, adding more improvisation and dimension, landing the song with a pure straight tone.

When extravagance feels this authentic, we can truly revel in it—be it in song or wine.

The Juice

Grenache Blanc is a full bodied grape, known for its rich flavors, generous mouthfeel, and higher alcohol content. Its generosity must be offset by the tension of acidity, or it runs the risk of being unfocused. In the winery, it can easily become too oaky, or oxidized (think a vanilla/butter bomb, or something too nutty and dull on the palette, respectively). In the right proportion to other grapes and with the right treatment, however, it can result in a lush wine, as giving as it is pleasurable.

The 2018 Buil & Giné "Joan Giné" white Priorat (from Spain) has a warm, dandelion yellow color; aromas of baked apple and pineapple, golden kiwi, preserved lemon are joined with a clean minerality and fresh herbs. An underpinning of subtle spices and butterscotch come through as it warms. In the mouth, this wine feels viscous and round, but never oppressive as the acid carries it through to a pleasingly bitter, almost marmalade-like finish.

Making wine on the steep slopes of Priorat is no easy feat, and it takes refined technique to shape a wine made with grapes that are so unfettered in expression. The Joan Giné, name after the winemaker's grandfather (and the winery's founder) is composed of 50% Grenache blanc, and supported by the varieties of Viognier (20%), Macabeo (25%) and Pedro Ximenez (5%.) They aren't just there to support the main grape (for instance, Macabeo and Pedro Ximenez provide acidity), but also to add their own gifts to the mix (Viognier is incredibly aromatic.)

This recipe is part of what makes the wine successful, as is the use of larger than usual new French oak barrels (600ml versus the usual 225ml), which imparts subtle baking spice and vanilla bean to the wine, while preventing too much oxygen exposure. A great deal of technique and control has to be employed to create a wine that feels so exuberant and unabashed.

Even with a perfect harvest, the best grapes need a knowledgeable touch to make them into truly memorable wine. A great musical talent is rare, but rarer still is the taste and technique needed to shape it into a form that expresses its bearer's natural gifts in all their profusion. Opulence is how divine gifts are crafted into high art.

What's Next

Join me next time on the Jazz & Juice podcast to delve further into what makes this recording and this wine what they are. As always, I welcome you to join me on the show's site here to join the mailing list and always be in the know!



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