I can’t define “minerality,” but I know it when I feel it
In the vocabulary of winespeak, the most difficult term to define or understand is “minerality.”
Writers, including me, use it all the time. But I’m never quite sure if “minerality” is really the best word for me to use and, whether it is or isn’t, I can’t ever really know if my readers have any idea what I’m talking about.
It’s a word I’ve heard for a long time, from way before I was a writer myself. I can’t remember where I first read it, but I’m pretty sure it was with respect to French Chablis. I formed the idea in my mind that it had to do with the chalk that the grapes in Chablis are grown in, that Kimmeridgean limestone. Supposedly, it gives Chablis a “lick of steel” (whatever that means: does anyone really lick steel?), which sometimes is expressed as a “flintiness” (whatever that means. The only flint I’ve ever seen was old Indian arrowheads, and they neither had an aroma nor a taste, so far as I know, not that I’ve ever licked an Indian arrowhead).
I do sometimes stick odd things in my mouth to find wine analogies. I’ve licked my car ignition key, which gives me a tingly sensation of petrol-tinged, sour ions that reminds me of certain Rieslings. I’ve licked chalk and other stones from various vineyards. I’ve even chewed dirt. I remember chewing the dirt from one of Seghesio’s Zinfandel vineyards, at Asti on the Russian River, to try to understand the weird, minerally, earthy qualities of the wine.
But what do I mean by minerality? So concerned are we editors at Wine Enthusiast about the use (or misuse) of the word that we’ve scheduled some time to talk about it in August, when we’re all in New York.
This writer describes minerality as “the scent or taste (or even aftertaste) of some sort of mineral, stone or rock in a wine.” I’m not sure that’s helpful to most people. Minerals typically have no scent or taste, as I wrote above. So what is the average wine lover, trying to improve her knowledge, supposed to do with all these references to minerality?
I wish there were a better word. I know what I mean when I use the words “minerally” and “minerality.” I can find it in red wines, too, not just whites. I often find minerality in the Cabernets from Atlas Peak and Pritchard Hill. For instance, I described a Jean Edwards 2008 Cabernet, from the Stagecoach Vineyard, as have “lots of…mineral…flavors.” Stagecoach is, of course, the big vineyard that spills from the Atlas Peak AVA across the appellation line into the Napa Valley AVA, which therefore is all its entitled to. I fancy the mineral taste or feeling comes from the rocks in the soil. These vineyards are fantastically rocky, as Vaca Mountain vineyards tend to be (and are there any geologists out there who can tell me why the Vacas are so rocky while the Mayacamas aren’t?).
I wrote “mineral taste or feeling” above, and I think that’s what minerality really refers to, a mouthfeel, rather than a smell or flavor. It’s a firmness that’s very hard to describe. Again, in my imagination I think of it as caused by the vine’s roots absorbing through the soil all the minerally essences. There’s a bunch of phosphorous and iron and magnesium and whatnot in those stony soils and somehow they get brought into the grape, thence to the wine, where they give that impression of firmess. But I’m the first to admit I don’t really have an understanding of soil or grape chemistry, so this may just be romantic nonsense on my part.
I do like that minerally thing, though. I was at Greg Melanson’s vineyard yesterday, up in the Vacas, and he gave me a Chardonnay from a small block he’s subsequently replaced to Cabernet. The Chardonnay was quite good: dry, acidic and, yes, minerally. It was as far from a buttery fruit bomb as you could imagine, austere and streamlined and linear. I guess you could call it Chablisian. Greg’s vineyard is extremely rocky, with “boulders the size of Volkswagons,” in his words. The drier a wine is, the more apparent the minerals are (if there are any)–I think. At least, I don’t recall finding minerality in sweet wines. Maybe sugar masks it?
Well, these are just the kind of random thoughts that go through my taster’s mind from time to time. I’m always trying to refine my wine reviews so that they’re simpler, clearer and easier for people to understand. But “minerality”: now that’s a tough one. I know what I mean by it. I’m not sure anyone else does. But for now, there’s no better word, so I’ll keep using it.