Soon after posting yesterday’s list of interesting articles, I found Jordan Mackay’s treatise on minerality on Chow.com. (Hat tip to terroirist.com.) Mackay is one of the smartest writers on wine around these days, and is the award-winning author (with Rajat Parr) of Secrets of the Sommeliers. He asks if we’re actually tasting the dirt in a “mineral” wine, and concludes that we probably aren’t, but we’re tasting something delicious.
Mackay’s essay reminded me of my first wine column in The Washington Post, published October 1, 2008. I don’t think I ever posted it here on the blog, so I’ll do so now. It was headlined, “Sometimes, Minerality Rocks!”:
Linger long enough around a crowd of wine lovers, and you’re bound to hear someone say a wine has “minerality.” Others will nod in agreement, and the conversation will continue, most likely without explanation.
Minerality is the current buzzword of the vinoscenti, used to show off one’s expertise and sophisticated palate. It appears in wine reviews in newspapers and magazines with the assumption that readers will know what the word means. It’s a positive term: Wine lovers use “minerality” to express approval of a wine, just as neophytes say “Smooth!” (Just when you thought you were getting the hang of this, we come up with something new.) So what is minerality, and what does it taste like?
The word does not appear in my Webster’s, and there is no entry for it in the Oxford Companion to Wine (a.k.a. “The Great Big Book of Everything”). And there are some who dismiss the concept as baloney, citing a lack of scientific evidence that grapevines extract minerals from the soil and the absence of mineral flavors on the famous aroma wheel developed by the University of California at Davis enology program. If it ain’t on the wheel, it ain’t in the wine. Besides, the naysayers point out, wet gravel doesn’t taste very good.
Bacchanalians, you see, can argue over our passion for the grape with a fervor to rival that of any sectarian dispute. I, for one, dislike having my wine scientifically analyzed; that takes all the fun out of it.
But why isn’t the term in the Oxford Companion? I put the question directly to the eminent British wine writer Jancis Robinson, its editor. “Minerality is a term that has become fashionable relatively recently and, like so many terms used in tasting notes, it is used pretty imprecisely,” she replied in an e-mail. Robinson defined minerality in terms of what it is not: as a descriptor of wines that “are not obviously fruity.” As such, its popularity could be part of a market reaction against the “fruit bomb” wines so trendy a decade ago.
“It is generally used for a wide range of flavors that recall not fruits, not vegetals, nothing animal,” she said, “but something more mineral than anything else. The most obvious of them include the flavor I sometimes call ‘wet stones’ that I find in chablis, or the flavor we sometimes call ‘slate’ in Mosel Riesling — although it is now widely accepted that grapes do not pick up mineral-related flavors directly from the minerals found in the soils where they are grown.”
If there is no dictionary definition or scientific proof, what does it mean to say a wine has minerality? The next time someone drops that word on you, ask him. If he can’t explain the concept, he’s just trying to impress you by sounding knowledgeable.
For me, minerality is wine’s umami, that savory flavor touted as the fifth taste and sought after by chefs. It’s an expression of place, of terroir, that hard-to-define concept that a wine can display characteristics of its vineyard’s soil, climate and vintage. You don’t have to taste the vineyard to be able to taste the effect it has on the wine grown there. Nor do you need to be an expert, a certified sommelier or Master of Wine to discern it, but it does help to taste an awful lot of wines.
If you’ve ever enjoyed mineral water, you’ve tasted minerality. It may just be a little natural sodium, as in Gerolsteiner, a popular brand of fizz from Germany. Or it could be the sulfurous smack of a brew from Vichy. But those minerals give the water a little extra firmness, a clarity of flavor, a focus. Your taste buds might simply register “water,” but the minerality is there, just as the proper amount of salt boosts a dish’s flavor without making it taste salty.
If you’ve ever enjoyed an early-morning walk after a spring rain, you’ve smelled minerality. It’s there in the aromas of wet stones in your garden, liberated by the warmth of the sun. It’s in the freshness of the air emanating from the flagstone walkway or the dirt path leading through the woods.
If you’ve ever visited the crayeres of Reims, the ancient Roman chalk pits that now house the cellars of major champagne houses such as Ruinart and Pommery, you’ve seen minerality. You’ve felt it, touched it, maybe even put a chunk of it in your pocket for a souvenir. At the Clos des Goisses, the premier vineyard of Champagne Philipponnat, I picked up a chalk pebble and scratched my daughter’s name on the vineyard wall. At that moment, I intuitively understood minerality in a way that no wine essay, including this one, could ever convey.
So if you were to say that minerality is a matter of suggestion, expectation or even faith, I wouldn’t dispute you. For some, however, it’s pure gospel.
A German winemaker recently tried to explain to me how his Riesling from one vineyard differed dramatically from another grown a few clicks up the river; the former was grown on red slate, while the second vineyard’s soils were predominantly blue slate. The minerality of the two wines, he argued, differed like night and day. It was rather like listening to a proud father recount in excruciating detail the relative merits of his identical twin prodigy children.
The winemaker, of course, needs to know the differences among his vineyards and how those express themselves in his wines. We consumers do not. I listened and nodded politely as I enjoyed his wines with their flavors of apricot, peach and, yes, minerals. But for the life of me I couldn’t distinguish the taste of blue slate from red, and in the spirit of the moment I forgot to take notes about the pH levels and residual sugar, fermentation temperatures, native or cultured yeasts, or even the precise vineyard names.
That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate the work and effort the winemaker put into his craft, but when life is good, sometimes such details just don’t matter.Photo taken at Rasteau, in the Cotes-du-Rhone region, in November 2005.