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I can’t define “minerality,” but I know it when I feel it

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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.

  1. “boulders the size of Volkswagons”

    I use that term also in describing our vineyard site. Right here in the Mayacamas range.

  2. James Rego says:

    I get minerality; for me, it’s not a smell or taste so much as it is a tangy sensation on the palette.

  3. Steve, when you did the marathon tasting at Paso Robles PRWCA
    ( I believe it was something like 280 Reds, of which you discarded about 100 on bouquet),you did a vineyard tour with us at Cerro Prieto the next day. Our 4 blocks of Cab are all planted in solid limestone mountain, which required digging out 2 gals of rock and replacing it with 2 gals of dirt. The Syrah, shaped in an arc-like fashion, resembling an amphitheater is even moreso solid limestone, except NO topsoil. Again, we had to pick axe and pry bar thousands of holes to plant. Our lower, Very Cold Valley Vineyard, is the one with limestone rocks the size of my truck.(that is the pinot noir/Sauv blanc vineyard) But the balance of our Cab, Merlot, and esp Syrah are all planted in pure limestone mountain. The minerality in our wines gives me the sensation of something bubbly…altho of course, it isn’t.

    Minerality, esp in the mountains to the West of Paso is actually, fairly common. In our vineyard, there is no vine nor grape that isn’t subjected to limestone soil. When you plant in solid limestone, it isn’t necessary to make wine in a cement egg. We get our minerality from the rock our vines are grown in. It does make for one heckuva chore getting the vines going. And yes, as noted above by james rego, I sense minerality as a tangy sensation on the palate.

  4. Steve, considering the myriad things we taste in wine, I’m not surprised that we taste “stone” somewhere along the line. My rocky understanding of the subject is that mineral essences are not well understood, and our taxonomical minds need order. Some of what I get with minerals in wine is the odor (i.e. warm pools of water in granite bird-baths) and its relationship to taste, but I think that having tasted mineral water adds a memory of that taste which attaches itself to a similar taste or tastes in wine.
    My two cents!

  5. Clark Smith, on his article entitled “Speculations About Minerality”, wrote that “[j]ust as titratable acidity is sensed on the palate as a flow of protons discharging from binding sites on weak acids, minerality may be a flow of electrons released from various elements of the periodic table” as they move from the oxidized state to the reduced state.
    “To get the electrons flowing, the battery needs to be charged. There are a variety of sources of reductive energy, though we don’t know which are strong enough to be effective. Proper ripeness, which results in aggressive phenolic reductivity, is probably such a source. Oak tannins and lees stirring may also contribute to charging up the battery by moving the mineral redox pairs into the electron-loaded reductive state. Fermentation, which every winemaker knows has plenty of reductive strength to create sulfides, may not have the energy differential to reduce metals. The analogy is clear: electron flow vs. proton flow. It seems plausible that if we can sense one, we can sense the other. It’s the same sensation you get when you lick a fresh battery—a static discharge”.
    Smith also notes that “by contrast, red grapes subjected to excessive hangtime will have much lower reductive strength and will not appear minerally. Moreover, the bitterness of high alcohol will obscure the sensation [of minerality] even if it is present. These wines, which exemplify current trends in Napa Cab top-end collectibles, will lack both phenolic vigor and mineral energy; thus, they will be short lived”.

  6. @Peter O’Connor: chemistry was never my strong suit, but I did use the word “ion” in describing the feeling of minerality. That is close enough to Clark Smith’s “flow of electrons” and “batteries.”

  7. I would tend to agree with Dennis about the ‘memory’ of a mineral water to help identify that certain character in a wine. I would suggest flat over gassed would best describe it. It is usually dry and does have a distinctive taste, but unless you can accept that it is minerality you are experiencing, it is rather hard to define it in terms of anything else. Try Badoit water and then try to describe it. Aromatically, we have all likely been on a gravel path after a summer cloudburst and smelled the distinctive aroma of the water evaporating from the warm pebbles. That certain aroma is like nothing else and informs palate memory. Sometimes I get salt or brine in chardonnay, but never equate that to mineral.

  8. Timothy Milos says:

    What a great discussion. While we want to tease out the singular characteristic responsible for the experience, its worth noting that the sensory experience of a thing is a neurologic summation of diverse physical stimulation, that is, taste exists only in the mind. I always found other organoleptic properties easier to associate with thier origins -fruit, oak, smoke, tannin -these seem easy. But even most fruit flavors or the taste of oak is a mental integration event of many separate individual sensations, not just, say, our singular detection of oak lactone. Its why artificial flavors differ from naturally derived ones, and what makes wine such an interesting drink. But the experience of minerality? That’s a tough one. I would guess that Clark is on to something, at least a testable hypothesis, and I’ll suggest that the amount of tartrate and other cations play a role in the perception of mineral character. But I also think we may also be referring to flavor components produced by under certain environmental conditions interacting with pH and TA, as has anyone had a mineral wine with low acidity?

  9. My belief as a grower and winemaker, I am looking for the sense of place. In the sierra foothills we are quite varied but our slopes here at baiocchi wines are as granitic as they come. We too have boulders, more like Yugo size…

    The minerality in our fruit is natural (ion based) absorbed by the vines thorugh the water via the soil. In the winery its about not #&^%# up that putiry. The cleaner the wine making the more of the natural components shine through…

    Im excited about the topic and as one of the newbee wine makers handcrafting wines with a sense of place here in the foothills.

    I believe we can deliver some complexity in our wines if we stay with our sense of place.

    Cheers
    gb

  10. I concur with Doug Wilder: the aroma of minerality (petrichor) can be evoked in almost anyone’s smell memory as the aroma of rain on hot dry pavement, asphalt, brick, stones. This experience has a flavor, too; breathe in through your mouth next time you hose off your driveway in summer. Another touchstone is the smell/taste of the fizzy mist rising above Alka Seltzer as it is dissolving.

  11. Chablisian! Perfect word.

  12. Hello Steve,

    As a grower and maker in the Champagne region minerality is definitely a word we have to live with. First because it’s used and mis-used over and over and second because minerality is definitely expected today. As if it was the one and only scale on which chardonnay must be mesured.

    Like you I struggle to describe it and I often fail to sense it in wines that are described as very minerally as it’s often mistaken with acidity. Flintstone aromas are definitely in the mineral range but what comes from the soil and what comes from a slight reduction and careful making is impossible to know to most people.

    However I’ve had a strong sense of saltiness many years ago when I tasted my first Condrieu. The man who gave me the bottle said “To me, that’s minerality my friend”. It stayed. For me minerality as to do with the fugitive salty feeling of some wines that can in smell range from iodine and sea salt to silex.

    Link it to a particular plot or growing technic you may (not always) leave the realm of observation for the realm of sales talk. But it’s there nonetheless.

    When it’s there, it definitely ads a dimension to the wine. Is it always for it’s own good? I have no clue.

    As to the relationship with sugar… I always guessed that sugar acted more or less in wines like in food. Pushing fruity aromas in the front and hiding salt and therefore mineralty… a few dosage tasting in Champagne or a proper old sweet riesling tasting prooved me wrong.

    Definitely an exiting subject.

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