subscribe: Posts | Comments      Facebook      Email Steve

Musings on minerality in wine


I stumbled across Master of Wine Mary Gorman-McAdams’ blog on minerality in wine yesterday, and read it through with interest. She nails the topic, in all its complexity and irresolution, pointing out that we talk about this thing called “minerality” but that no one can properly define it, or even agree whether or not it has an aroma, taste or mouthfeel.

Potter Stewart on porn, anyone?

It’s true, as Gorman-McAdams points out, that certain Old World wines are more apparent in minerals than are California wines. Being grown more northerly in latitude, most European wines simply aren’t as fruity as California wines; that transparency allows the taster to discern background “minerality” if it’s there, whatever it is.

I don’t know what minerality is, any more than anyone else, but I do use the term a fair amount. I went back over my reviews from the past few months and chose out the following wines, for all of which I used the word “minerals” or “minerality.”

At first, I had thought my search would focus more on white wines than on reds, but no, there are plenty of reds I found minerality in. Then I thought Cabernet Sauvignon would be scarce in minerals, but it showed up, too. Here’s the list. All of these wines, by the way, received high scores; I think minerality is a good thing. Below each category of variety, I’ll talk about my conclusions.


Freestone 2009 Estate Chardonnay (Sonoma Coast)
Carneros Highway 2010 Nueva Chardonnay (Carneros)

Conclusion: Chardonnay needs a cool climate to show minerality. There seems to be a connection between minerality and acidity. There also seems to be a connection with lower alcohol.

Viogniers, Albarinos & various white blends

Kennefick Ranch 2010 Estate Pickett Road White (Calistoga); Viognier, Grenache Blanc and Marsanne
Calera 2010 Thirty-Fifth Anniversary Vintage Viognier (Central Coast)
Trenza 2009 Blanco (Edna Valley); Albarino and Grenache Blanc
Tangent 2010 Paragon Vineyard Albarino (Edna Valley)

Conclusion: As with Chardonnay, these whites show minerality when they were grown in the coolest coastal regions. Edna Valley whites always show this firmness; you can almost taste the wind, stones and fog. Calistoga, where the Kennefick Ranch white blend is from, obviously isn’t a cool coastal region,  but 2010 was chilly, even there.

Pinot Noirs

Kendric 2008 Pinot Noir (Marin County)
Dierberg 2008 Pinot Noir (Santa Maria Valley)
Calera 2008 Jensen Vineyard Pinot Noir (Mt. Harlan)
Calera 2008 MIlls Vineyard Pinot Noir (Mt. Harlan)

Conclusion: The Kendric and Dierbeg Pinots come from cool coastal climates. Mount Harlan isn’t particularly cool, but keep in mind that Josh Jensen chose this location because of the deposits of limestone that vein the soil.

Sauvignon Blancs

Mayacamas 2009 Sauvignon Blanc (Mount Veeder)
Hall 2010 T Bar T Ranch Sauvignon Blanc (Alexander Valley)
Pont de Chevalier 2009 Sauvignon Blanc (Knights Valley)

Conclusion: Minerality in California Sauvignon Blanc is very difficult to achieve because you need coolness, but that same cool climate can make Sauvignon Blanc green and cat pee-y. What these three have in common is mountain fruit. (T Bar T is high in the Mayacamas, not on the Alexander Valley floor.)

Cabernet Sauvignons

Volker Eisele 2008 Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
Storybook Mountain 2010 SEPS Estate Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley)
Thomas Fogarty 2007 Cabernet Sauvignon (Santa Cruz Mountains)
Atlas Peak 2006 Cabernet Sauvignon (Spring Mountain)

Conclusion: The key to minerals in Cabernet is the proper soil. It can be mountains or benches. If the minerality is there, it’s subtle, in a wine as rich and full-bodied as Cabernet, so the wine has to be fully dry in order to detect it. But properly grown, with limited yield, a great Cabernet will offer a taste of the dirt in which it it was grown. It’s harder to describe what “minerality” tastes or feels like in Cabernet than in lighter wines. For me, it’s as if specks of lead pencil or ground-up steel shavings were in the mix.

I’m interested to hear my readers’ takes on minerality in wine.

  1. James Rego says:

    I think you nailed it with the lead pencil.

  2. Dave Montagne says:

    Clark Smith has an interesting take on minerality. From his Nov 2010 article on this subject in Wine & Vines:

    “In my lexicon, minerality is not an aroma, nor is it a flavor by mouth, though it could be argued to be a taste. It is an energetic buzz in the wine’s finish, almost like an electrical current running through the throat—a nervous raciness similar to acidity, with which it is often confused, but further back in the mouth.”

    Read more at:
    Copyright © Wines & Vines

    In the article, Clark goes on to hypothesize the reactions within the mouth that lead to the perception of minerality (as he defines it) and suggests that it is tied to “living soils” characterized by healthy mycorrhizal populations.

    I have tasted Smith’s “Faux Chablis” which clearly illustrates this character and once experienced is easily recognized in other wines. Is it “minerality” in the generally understood sense (if there is one)? I don’t know, but it’s clearly a quality that some wines possess and others lack.

  3. mike felong says:

    Steve, if you will: how,or if, does Brettanomyces figure in all this?Is it earth, minerals or bugs I remember in Bordeaux I drank in the 70s, burgundy more recently, and a few Cali Cabs today?

  4. Counter point to your Chardonnay analysis, Stone Hill, Smith Madrone, Schweiger, Robert Keenan. All on Spring Mountain, all are in what I would consider a warm climate, all have a distinct flinty minerality. My $.02

  5. JDE, I wouldn’t call Spring Mountain warm climate. It can get warm during the day but quickly cools off at night due to the elevation/diurnal swing. And it’s never as hot as the valley floor below.

  6. Mike Felong, I don’t think brett figures into minerality. Brett gives a sweaty, bacony smell and can tamp down fruit.

  7. raley roger says:

    Dave, super cool stuff about Clark Smith. Will check out that article. Thanks for posting info.

  8. Kiley Evans says:

    minerality is a subjective term, it doesn’t taste or smell the same to everyone. How many people put graphite in the same category as minerality? I agree with you, Steve, that there is certainly a connection between minerality and acidity, but not necessarily between minerality and microclimate, although acidity and microclimate might be related. How does winemaking style affect minerality? Minerality and brett are somewhat similar, though, in that one person’s complexity is another person’s horse barn.

  9. Steve mentioned you weren’t sure what Gregory la Paz’s meant by the phrase “a language full of code words.” Well, minerality is one of those code words.

    I take “minerality” literally. It tastes (or smells) like inorganic minerals almost metallic. Suck on a quarter and you get the idea. I’ve noticed that wines that aren’t acidic enough (pH and TA are non-relative), minerality remains a much more minor component and most often length corresponds with minerality. I’ve always suspected you have some receptors on your tongue that detect minerality in the wine only function at a fairly acid pH and you may not notice it if there is a lot of misdirection going on. So no acid, no detectable minerality.

    The real question is what about Cab makes it so dependent on soil and yield? I haven’t a clue.

  10. minerality is such a confusing term that it takes alonger time for wine drinkers to be able to discern it. During my tasting lessons to participants enrol for wine tasting,it takes me longer to allow participants to find it. first of all ,once they have been able to understant the different flavour and tastes,it is easier to ask them to find out more of the complexity of a chablis.
    slowly they are able to discern that component : called minerality,and allow them time to memorise that taste,like sucking pebbles,flinty,steely and so on.many can`t describe as it is difficult to explain.many do not expect to find such component so it is out of their vocabularies.once some of them will recall and it is then very easy to describe.

  11. The Clark article is a good start. Minerality is not rocks or minerals being taken up through the roots. That is physically impossible. The most likely explanation for minerality is that it is an aroma and taste that, like almost all aromas in wine (Brett, TCA exempted) is formed via a deductive process. Based on the nutrients, yeasts, presence or lack of chemicals on the grapes, whether the vines are irrigated or not (the mycorrhizal fungus needs deep, robust root system which is associated with very little or no irrigation) you may or may not end up with these ‘mineral or stone’s characteristics. Old world vines have traditionally been farmed in ways that encourage this mineral characteristic. There are quite a few new world wines that are

Leave a Reply


Recent Comments

Recent Posts