Nature and nurture aren't topics limited to biosocial science. They also are hotly debated in winemaking and may determine what you'll drink with dinner tonight.
Wine -- fermented juice -- is essentially natural. Because bubbling, roiling fermentation is a spontaneous process, wine production originally was not so much "making" anything, as much as standing back and shielding your eyes.
Ross' choiceChardonnay "Overlook"
Sonoma County, Calif.
• Suggested retail and availability: About $28 at wine and liquor shops (distributed by Southern Wine and Spirits, Bolingbrook)
Lush and lively, with plump apple flavor highlighted by bright acidity and mineral pop. Eighteen of Sonoma's finest Chardonnay vineyards contributed fruit, with batches of whole clusters delicately pressed, then allowed to ferment spontaneously -- without adding cultured yeast -- in French oak barrels. The balanced flavors of this affordable luxury make it equally delicious on its own and with seafood (grilled sardines, salmon), meats (calves liver, charcuterie) and non-spicy vegetarian fare (pumpkin ravioli, onion tart).
Wine's breakthrough technology (circa 1 A.D.) was the wooden barrel, intended for transport and storage but discovered to impart more, or less, subtle flavors. For the next two millennia, farmers and vintners massaged wine's every step from the field (vine spacing) to the table (container closure) to nurture fruit into a potable product. Note: not delicious, mind you, simply potable.
In the 1900s, wine took crucial and divergent directions.
In Europe, age-old technique was codified into law (such as France's AOC), designed to identify and protect each region's typical flavors. Note: not delicious, simply typical.
In the U.S., with "how to make wine" books for technique and little regulation, producers decided to make wine that was potable, sometimes typical, but always with flavors that people wanted to drink (i.e. purchase.)
That Yankee spirit yielded spectacular success with oceans of well-made values (from wineries such as Gallo and Sebastiani) and ripe, food-enhancing elegance (Clos du Val, Trefethen and recently Landmark Vineyards.)
It also yielded the sweetened Chardonnay, "white" Merlot and the over-oaked everything of McWine.
Today, U.S. sales are drifting back to Old World wines with lower alcohol, higher natural acidity and unique, regional flavors. In "Authentic Wine" (2011 University of California Press) author Jamie Goode decries interventionist winemaking, including artificially increased acid, decreased alcohol, genetically modified yeast and commercial rootstock.
Yet winemakers like Landmark's Greg Stach offer the best of both worlds: well-crafted, delicious wines that express time and place, produced from a partnership of nature and nurture.
Irrigation and reliable transportation allow modern farming to produce relatively consistent fruit year after year. Stach doesn't "monkey around" with his crops, preferring to blend fruit from various vineyards for flavor and complexity rather than manipulate the fruit at the winery.
Few of us have time to mature wine longer than the ride home from the wine shop. For his "Overlook" Pinot Noir ($40), Stach allows whole clusters to rest five days in tank, developing color and flavor while reducing bitter flavors. Partial whole cluster fermentation enhances fruitiness, reducing hard texture. The result: a wine that's enjoyable either a year or a decade after bottling.
Landmark made its reputation early for opulent, oaky Chardonnay; impressive to critics but hard on food. Stach dials back on oak and doesn't stimulate a secondary, malo-lactic fermentation (which would increase buttery flavor) for a wine that complements richly seasoned international cuisines, possibly being served on your table this evening.
• Write to Advanced Sommelier and Certified Wine Educator Mary Ross at firstname.lastname@example.org.