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Minerality: My thoughts

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I’ve been reading lots about minerality, especially in the pages of the Somm Journal, where they’ve run a couple of articles on it lately. This one in the August-September issue is the poster child for these types of discussions in which very abstruse, hard-to-define issues related to wine are discussed by professionals, with no conclusive results. But rather than be frustrating for their lack of clarity, they advance the discussion, in fun and informative ways. We may never get to a definition of “minerality,” or even come to a consensus what wines display it, but meanwhile, it keeps wine writers (and somms) gainfully employed and active and raising the bar ever higher.

I use the word “minerality” a fair amount and have for many years. For example, since I began working at Jackson Family Wines, I’ve used it in my descriptions of Byron’s 2012 Pinot Noir and 2012 Chardonnay (both the regular and the Nielson), Cambria’s 2012 Clone 4 Pinot Noir, 2012 Tepusquet Viognier, 2012 Julia’s Pinot Noir and 2012 Katherine’s Vineyard Chardonnay, and several others.

I know what I mean by “minerality,” but obviously it’s a word that defies definition, or even clarity. I like wine director Jeff Taylor’s (Betony, New York) description: minerality is “the non-fruit and non-oak descriptors for a wine.” He lists “chalk, crushed seashells, gravel, gun flint, a sidewalk after a light rain” as illustrations, but these clearly are metaphors, not exact descriptions, since nobody really tastes sidewalks or crushed seashells. Well, I guess you could pound seashells into powder, then put them in your mouth, but even so, it would be hard to draw an exact analogy between that taste/feeling and “minerality” in the wine.

One of the controversies about minerality is whether or not whatever it is can travel from the soil, via the plant’s roots, into the grapes; and even if it can, how that “something” expresses itself. Some somms think it happens all the time; others don’t. Whatever “minerality” is, it’s a good thing: it’s bracing and grippy (in a non-tannic way), almost metallic (I think of licking a cold lamppost on a winter day, which is something I have done, a practice whose utilitarian value outweighs its unsanitariness). It’s easy in hindsight to theoretically identify where minerality comes from in a wine: for example, all those Santa Maria Valley wines that display it are grown in sandy soils that have quite a lot of ancient decomposed marine matter in them. The wines feel iron-y to me: despite their richness there’s a metallic vein that makes them chewy, almost as if a sheet of aluminum foil had been inserted inbetween the flavors. A little minerality goes a long way toward providing pleasurable structure.

On a meta level these conversations about minerality in California wine suggest that we’ve collectively achieved a new level of sophistication. Twenty years ago, even ten, you wouldn’t have heard them. We were too obsessed with describing more obvious fruit and oak flavors, and tannin and acid levels. The fact that we can now talk about things of great subtlety shows how far we’ve come. Does it also show a shifting style of winemaking, something less ripe, and more streamlined? I think so. Minerality is hard to find in a big, rich, fat, oaky wine. It may be there, but it’s smothered under the weight of all that richness. Tone down the wine a bit, and whatever minerality is there shows itself as a bright, lifted tone.

Minerality is one of those things that is good but not sufficient in itself to make for great wine. In an ordinary wine—a simple Gruner or Albarino, for example—it can be pleasant, refreshing and eminently quaffable, yet fail to rise above everydayness—an 86 or 87 point wine, in other words. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, if the price is right. But if you take a 90 point wine (red or white) and add a little minerality so that it has that fine, grippy tang, it lifts the wine up a degree or two, to 91 or 92 points. This is what’s so important about structure: it’s also why it’s taken the wine writing community so long to get around to appreciating the structural elements of a wine, including minerality: it takes a certain amount of experience for the palate and mind to grow beyond loving sheer massive hedonism in order to reach that level of understanding and appreciation.

  1. Bravo!
    It’s rare nowadays to come across a piece like this that treats minerality and its indication & connotation with such condensed precision and succinctness. Yet it is also exhilarating and refreshing.

    “Licking a cold lamppost on a winter day…”?? Those lampposts outside on the street are too tall to reach. I’ll need to figure out a way to lick one this winter.

  2. Two articles on “minerality” in a wine — does it exist?

    (Note that the famous Ann Noble-devised “Aroma Wheel” has no such descriptor.)

    From the New York Times:

    “Talk Dirt to Me”

    Link: http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/06/style/tmagazine/06tdirt.html?_r=0&pagewanted=print

    From The Drinks Business:

    “Nutrients Not the Cause of Minerality [in Wine]”

    Link: http://www.thedrinksbusiness.com/2013/03/nutrients-not-the-cause-of-minerality/

  3. Jim Vandegriff says:

    A friend gave me a bottle of 2009 Cima Collina pinot noir with grapes grown in the gavillan mountains in Monterey County. When tried with dinner the other night, it had a minerality I instantly recognized, and which I thought of as a slightly metallic taste with hints of chalkiness. It was appealing and added something to the wine. Thanks for writing about this topic so succinctly.

  4. I agree that in general, “Minerality is hard to find in a big, rich, fat, oaky wine. It may be there, but it’s smothered under the weight of all that richness.”

    Many Washington reds are exceptions – hefty, rich and alluring, in part due to that mineral streak.

    Thanks for the post and links. This topic is always a source of confusion and lively debate.

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