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Exploring Minerality

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Geek loves to use this page to inform, educate, chastise & pontificate to other geeks and wannabe geeks alike. We typically try to be ‘au courant’ and address the very latest hot button subjects, but today’s subject: ‘minerality’ in wine is not a new subject: it has been much discussed and debated over the past two or three years. However, Geek continues to hear the term—in all its iterations—used and confused by the trade; it has become a bit of a code word for informed wine lovers to prove they are ‘in the know’. So, we thought we would leave no stone unturned in trying to explain (get it? stone unturned).

Most usually applied to whites—but not always—minerality is a bit of a catchall phrase for a group of words that are vaguely or specifically related to rocks, stones and minerals: flinty, slate, stony, chalky, calcareous, gravel, wet cement, river rocks are all terms we’ve seen or heard as descriptors for wines of late. They all attempt to describe aromas and flavors in wines that are not fruit or flowers or spice or wood—sort of an ‘all other’ descriptor. Note however that one of the wisest quotes Geek has seen was from Sarah Jane Evans, MW who opined ‘wine vocabulary is a poor traveler’, meaning one person’s ‘fruity’ is another person’s ‘sweet’. So at the outset, minerality means different things to different people.

The first time Geek heard any sort of reference to minerality per se was almost 20 years ago at a Domaine in Sancerre where the producer’s comment after we tasted a wine was ‘tongue to stone, oui?’. Geek nodded even though he had no idea what the man was talking about. As the tasting and conversation progressed and we talked about Sancerre’s three distinct soil types and how they translated to the wines, it all made sense. And by golly, one of the wines did taste like you were licking a rock. In Germany’s Mosel Valley, producers are fond of having you lick a piece of slate (really), then taste their Riesling and say ‘do you see?’ Hopefully, it’s not the same piece of slate for each visitor. To see this first hand, watch the oh-so-entertaining Madeline Puckette’s video on Wine Folly called ‘minerality in wine’. You’ll see rocks do indeed taste and smell, even though there is a bit of controversy on the subject.

The controversy is based on scientists’ attempts to disprove, prove or quantify the presence of minerals in wine and the discussion on how the ‘minerality’ gets into the wine. None other than the redoubtable Dr. Carole Meredith, Professor Emerita at U.C. Davis, states that ‘the vine is unable to take up these minerals’[1]. However, Gerd Stepp, a highly regarded international wine consultant from Germany’s Pfalz states that the mineral content of wine ranges from 1.5 to 4 grams per liter. So which is it? Reading between the lines, Geek has determined that the argument stems from the notion of some that when vines are planted in slate-based soils for example, the vine uptakes the ‘flavors’ of slate through its roots, and passes on those flavors to the grapes, hence the wine. Those in the no-such-thing-as-minerality camp say this is hooey. They do concede that the soil type, it’s mineral content and the presence of stones and rocks can absolutely  affect how the vine takes up water and nutrients, which does affect the fruit, hence the wine—but NO direct ‘flavoring’ of the wine. There are also many who feel that this thing we sometime call minerality is really the result of sulfurous compound in the wine that are a result of the winemaking regime. Lots of opinions, no real analytical proof, and in Geek’s opinion, who cares? Renowned Spanish winemaker Alvaro Palacios (Priorato and Bierzo) dismisses the scientists by saying ‘wine should not be a technical obsession’. We agree and the bottom line is all these mineral terms are likely better as descriptors than a means of connecting a wine to its breeding ground, but it is interesting that we feel the most compelled to use the M word when describing wines from Chablis (and some other white Burgundies), German Riesling, Muscadet, wines from the Wachau, Sancerre, Priorat and Bierzo…so we guess the controversy continues!

 

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[1] Practical Vineyard & Winery, Sept 2012

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