The nature/nurture debate
There is a central theme within psychology that is concerned with the extent to which behaviour is a product of either inherited (i.e. genetic) or acquired (i.e. learned) characteristics. It seeks to explain how much of a person’s character, personality and behaviour can be attributed purely to evolutionary biology, and how important environmental factors such as education, parenting styles, social status and geographical location are in defining an individual.
There are those who come under the term nativists who believe that genetic characteristics are pre-eminent, and that to a large extent there is genetic ‘pre-wiring’ that is the foundation of all behaviour. On the other hand, there is school of thought labelled behaviourism that suggests humans are a ‘blank slate’ upon which anything can be written.
Anyway, enough of the psychobabble. What has this got to do with wine? The analogy will I am sure be obvious to many of you. All you need do is replace ‘nature’ with ‘terroir’, and ‘nurture’ with ‘winemaker’.
In the 80s and 90s there was a well-documented move towards the winemaker being paramount, particularly prevalent in the New World. This ‘Cult of the Winemaker’ phenomenon, exemplified by such luminaries as Michel Rolland meant that certain styles of wine could be created via specific cellar techniques, which lessened the importance of the raw ingredients and ‘terroir’. This move also coincided with the rise of the superstar wine critics such as Robert Parker whose commentaries not only reflected their tastes and inclinations, but also helped shape the style of wines being made. Even if the effects of ‘Parkerization’ are debatable, the mere fact that the word itself exists suggests an impact of sorts. If nurture, in the guise of the Winemaker and the Critic, were the focus of the final decades of the previous decade, it seems that nature has been making a comeback in this millennium.
Biodynamic techniques, natural wines, and a pointed re-focussing on allowing the land to speak for itself seem to have come back into vogue. Arguably, it is the improvements in cellar technology and techniques introduced by modern Winemakers that have allowed producers to once again champion the primacy of their soil and vines in characterising their wines. Certainly there is a very real sense that individuality is the current keyword for winemakers, and that the best wines being made today have nature rather than nurture as their heartbeat.
The very best wines have always been the expression of their terroir, and it is this link to the land that had made generation after generation fall in love with particular wines. The fact that a vineyard a few hundred yards up the slope from another, or just along the road from another, can produce a wine that is distinct and unique from its neighbour is one of the most fascinating aspects of wine making, and the root of much that intrigues us. Increasingly it is the role of the winemaker to allow this land to express itself eloquently with minimal intervention. The true mark of a great winemaker is now seen as how they can allow the terroir to shine through, rather than how distinctive their ‘signature’ wine making style is.
In recent years there has been a growing consensus within the world of academic psychology that we are now in a post Nature v Nurture world – that no further intellectual currency can be gained by debating a polarised topic when the answer is clearly an amalgam of the two. The interaction and ‘feedback loops’ between the two positions mean that it is a fool’s errand to work out which is more important when it comes to explaining behaviour, and in the world of wine I suspect the same story will play out.
Great wines need both great raw products and great winemakers to help them realise their full potential. To suggest that great wines can be made from average grapes is clearly illogical. Equally, it is unreasonable to think that average winemakers can turn an incredible crop into incredible wines.
History suggests that there are certain plots of land where alchemy can happen. It also shows that there are certain people who can, through talent, hard work and a drop of genius make the products of this land into elixirs. You cannot speak of Montrachet, Hermitage and Cote Rotie without mention of Leflaive, Chave and Guigal.
We do feel in our bones that as wine is the product of an agricultural process, one should accept that what goes on in the field is the number one priority for any producer. But you’d better have a great cellar and great people in it if you want to make magic…
Posted in: Fine wine appreciation,
Tags: biodynamic wine, Chave, Cote Rotie, fine wine, Guigal, Hermitage, Leflaive, Michel Rolland, Montrachet, natural wines, Robert Parker, wine, winemaking,