Minerality in Wine – Is it a Thing?
Have you heard of minerality in wine? No? Well, you are now entering the kingdom of wine geekedness. Minerality in wine is one of those things half the people totally believe in, and the other half consider it to be nonsense.
The funny thing is, minerality is one of those words that is used a lot by wine experts. But is not in the dictionary!
I last wrote about wine terms in my post titled – What do Wine Tasting Terms Mean? Of the wine terms we use, minerality appears to be the most confusing one.
Therefore, I decided to dedicate this blog post to discussing this elusive term. I want to say up-front that minerality in wine is borderline impossible to define. However, I do intend to rely on some expert opinions in this post.
Tasting Minerality – Sucking on a Pebble
To be honest, I only started to notice the word minerality becoming a popular descriptor in the 1970s/80s. But in the noughties, it seemed to take off! Words like, chalky, flinty, quarry like, sucking a stone and cement. All have eased their way into mineral flavours when describing certain wines.
In fairness, probably because of the ambiguity of the term, its popularity has flourished. This is further emphasised when we hear wine professionals providing contradictory definitions.
I have also heard it argued that there might be a marketing influence at play here. Especially when some wines are described as having absorbed therapeutic minerals from the soil.
These could be the same marketing people who advertise bottled spring water. They argue that it contains geological minerals and are full of healthfulness.
They should not try to portray wines in the same way, in my opinion. It undermines credibility.
When it comes minerality there is a false rationale at play. It is suggested that trace elements of the soil are absorbed by the vine’s roots and thereby into the grapes. Whilst a nice idea, unfortunately it is a physical impossibility as rocks are solids.
It is true that vines absorb mineral nutrients from the water in the soil. However it is extremely doubtful that they would be present in sufficient quantities to be perceptible to the human palate.
How Vines and Minerals Interact
In the book, Vineyards, Rocks, and Soils, by Alex Maltman, (geologist) the character of rocky minerals is examined.
The author provides several reasons why it’s not possible for us to taste minerals from the soil when we imbibe. I’ll try to give a quick summary of his points:
- Roots only drink water and so everything must be dissolved in water first. Anything coming from rocks must be reduced to ions i.e. nutrients which do not import flavour/taste/character.
- The vast majority of the mineral nutrients taken in by vines, come from humus, the decayed biological matter in the vineyard soil. Wine growers supplement this with added fertilizer, which is made up of the same nutrients.
- The particular balance of mineral nutrients that enter the vine is dictated primarily by the demands of the plant. Not by the contents of the soil. Simply put, plants absorb only what they need, very selectively.
At the end of the day, minerals don’t really taste like much, writes Maltman. “Geologic materials are generally tasteless and odorless anyway,” so even if they were present in a glass of wine, how could they flavor it?
So, Why Use the Term – Minerality in Wine?
In my opinion, the simplest way that I have heard minerality in wine described is this. The word mineral is used to refer to three things, and confusion naturally arises when we think of them singularly.
- First of all, it refers to the actual geological minerals that make up the rocks in the ground.
- Secondly, it can refer to the nutrients in the ground that the vines absorb and use in vital processes.
- Thirdly, when used as a flavour descriptor it is to provide us with a mental image of the wine. Just like other words such as honey, cherries, flowers etc.
Science has not given up yet though. To this day, scientists from New Zealand to Bordeaux to Napa Valley are analysing wines. They do so in an attempt to identify the aspects of their chemical composition that might correlate with perceived minerality.
I find that depicting wine as having minerality helps me to describe a wine to people in a metaphorical way. I know that we’re not tasting the minerals of stones, chalk, slate etc. But I find that people can associate the imagery in the descriptions.
Minerality in Red and White Wine
Continuing my sentiment above (minerality as an imagery tool), I use it to describe white grapes more commonly than red. It is more prevalent in those with lean and precise profiles (chablis for example), than those more fleshier and opulent.
Anyway, red wines generally have denser fruit as well as the tannins and other flavours extracted from the skins. So, these would tend to overpower any sense of minerality the wines may hold.
I read an article by Dr. Kevin Pogue, who owns VinTerra Consulting in Walla Walla, Washington, and is also a professor of Geology at Whitman College. In it he said that “I think what most people describe as minerality is the result of acidity interacting with phenolic components to provide flavors that seem like part of the mineral [e.g flint, steel, concrete instead of plum, violet, tobacco], rather than biological world.
To my knowledge, no one has isolated the specific compounds that account for the ‘minerality’ sensation, but we do know that it does not derive from the translocation of minerals in the soil to our taste buds via grapes.”
Is Minerality in Wine Meaningless?
Above, I’ve delved into a bit of the science behind minerality and have given you my personal views on the topic.
For further reading on the subject, I am going to recommend a great article. It’s from https://www.internationalwinechallenge.com/ – and the article talks about saving the term ‘minerality’ Minerality: A new definition.
I have to say that I agree with the sentiment of the piece. So, I’ll finish this post by using the same words as John Szabo, MS (Canadian master sommelier, author, and principal critic for WineAlign.com).
“Let’s hope it’s not too late for minerality. Let’s rescue it from overuse, abuse and ambiguity, its willy-nilly application wherever one wants to conjure up quality and relation to place. Let’s put the ‘mineral’ back in minerality and put an end to the need for articles such as this.”
And that’s a yes from me.
If you would like to talk to me or any of the wine team here in Green Acres about types of wine that show minerality, pop-in, call us, browse online or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
#staysafe – Talk Soon – James.