Debating the minerality of wineBy Roy Williams
11:12 AM EDT, July 12, 2011
One of the first things I introduce students to in my wine appreciation classes is the concept of wine jargon, or what is often called “enobabble.”
Enobabble refers to the words or phrases that one often uses to describe some unique flavor or aroma that we experience in a glass of wine. It may be as simple as the smell or flavor of different fruits that appear in the wine such as blackberry, raspberry, or currant. It might also refer to the body or complexity of the wine such as full-bodied, or firm, or supple.
However, there are a number of descriptors in the enobabble vocabulary that are a little far out and perhaps hard to imagine being in your glass of wine. Imagine if you will a wine that has an element of cigar box in it or graphite as in pencil lead. And yet you will find these descriptors and many others continue to appear in reviews of various wines in Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast.
These descriptors are expressions of the reviewers own sensitivity to the wine and undoubtedly reflect years of wine tasting experience and thousands of wines. I can’t say that I have experienced cigar box or loamy earth in many of my wines. But I can appreciate the need to try to describe those unique if not magical aromas and flavors that may be hidden in a bottle of wine.
There is one descriptor that is often used with some wines that bears more consideration and investigation. It is the word “minerality.” This is a descriptor that has lead to a great many arguments and clashes between wine writers, wine experts and even some scientists.
Minerality is a term used by a great many wine experts and wine lovers to describe the essence of the terroir or soil or geology of the place where the grapes were grown. I know you have heard people refer to the “flintiness “in some sauvignon blancs from the Loire Valley or the chardonnays from Chablis. Fine German Rieslings are often described as expressing a component associated with the slate in the soil. These terms are woven together to pronounce the wine as having an expression of minerality on the palate.
I have always been fascinated with the idea of being able to taste the soil in the wine but I must admit that it has never happened. Perhaps that’s because the whole concept of rocks being able to transmit any flavor components though the vine that would survive the fermentation process seems rather unlikely to me.
One of the best articles attempting to explain minerality in wine came from Tim Patterson in his recent Wines and Vines paper entitled, “The Myth of minerality”. In this article he brings up a number of excellent points about the lack of reliable standards for describing minerality.
In order to describe this phenomenon you need to have some evidence or physical standards that express flintiness, or the hint of warm stones. There are none, and so it seems that such a term needs to be used more carefully in reference to the unique quality of a particular wine. Patterson also points out that the word “mineral” does not appear in the famous Wine Aroma Wheel!
Out of curiosity, I looked through several recent editions of Wine Spectator to see how many references to minerality I could find and just which grape varietals had the most comments. The most striking result of this search was the July edition, which had 11 references to minerality in the California section on chardonnays and 15 references associated with California pinot noirs. I should mention that these same minerality descriptors all came from the same reviewer.
Some of my very favorite descriptors were a “nice minerally edge” to the wine or a “dash of mineral” on the finish. You might also find references to “a streak of minerality” or “a hint of warm stone”. Sometimes when I anticipate some discussion about minerality in a wine at a tasting or dinner, I am tempted to stick a few clean rocks in my pocket that I could whip out at just the right moment and offer anyone to taste on a few stones. I can promise you that clean rocks don’t express any aroma or taste components!
So where does this elusive descriptor come from for those that can detect it in a wine. Some suggest that it is the result of different fermentation products arising in the cellar but not from the soil. Another very plausible answer might come from the high acidity of many wines that might be interpreted as a sharp, intense flavor on the palate.
As to how this acidity might be described as being mineral is a difficult question, but as a chemist it might be a reasonable answer. The next time you hear someone suggest that the wine you are tasting has good minerality, stop and ask them how them to describe minerality and where do they think it’s coming from. I would be interested in their answers. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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