Oh, minerality. One of a few topics in wine guaranteed to cause tempers to flare and opinions aggressively to diverge. Not quite as bad as “terroir”, perhaps, but bad enough. Not too shabby, for a word that has only really been used to describe wines for the past 30 years or so.
Minerality is a word that is used a great deal in wine today, however – particularly by marketers, critics, professional tasters and writers. And it is, for all intents and purposes, used – or understood – incorrectly, apparently: we do not directly taste the minerals of the soils in which vines grow in the wines that are made from the grapes those vines produce. There are only trace minerals (14 of them, in fact) that make it into the vines themselves, and even they come from the surface layer of soil instead of from deeper down, rendering the concept of direct geological input moot. You might think your glass of Mosel Riesling tastes like the slate on which the vines are found, but, chemically, it just ain’t so.
So much and more has been asserted repeatedly. And it has been reaffirmed as recently as just a few short weeks ago by Alex Maltman, a professor of Geology at the University of Aberystwyth in Wales, during a presentation to a group of Masters of Wine. An interesting summary of what he had to say can be read on Jancis Robinson’s blog post about the topic.
Semantics is of extreme importance to me. Words have meaning. Semantics is how we agree on what they mean. Obviously, context is, likewise, extremely important. But if you are using a word incorrectly and are then misunderstood…well, guess who’s fault that is?
Yet we continue to use the word “minerality” to describe a particular set of aromas and flavours in wine that actually have little or nothing to do with the minerals to which it refers. An ever-increasing cadre of wine professionals and scientists would, perhaps rightly, like to see the word struck from our wine vocabulary.
But is there really any use to that?
As my old voice professor would say, “let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater”.
In wine circles, “minerality” can be and often is understood literally – and therein lies the problem. As mentioned, the literal taste of the vineyard soils does not emerge in the wines produced. But I would counter that the word is very effective at representing the flavours and aromas that are currently associated with it. A set of flavours and aromas, by the way, that achieve widespread recognition and acceptance in the industry, regardless of their actual provenance. Alone for this – as a label attached to a family of aromas – the word has merit. It has value. It is relevant. And it should not be tossed out because of misunderstanding or misuse. Rather, its use should be adjusted to reflect its real function. Nobody should be writing about being able to “taste the vineyard” or other such nonsense unless they are sucking on a rock that came from it.
But is this really such a problem? Do so many wine lovers genuinely think that the rocks from the soil have been somehow distilled through the roots of the vine? It’s a romantic notion, to be sure, and, therefore, appealing to many…but does it reflect what people really think? Not remotely, in my experience.
What about the critics?
It seems to me that critics of the word “minerality” are generally railing against the literal use of the word, which is a worthy cause. But they, likewise, often seem to be missing the bigger picture. The word is a catchall like several others that we use to describe wines. A classic example is “fruit”, and we get extremely specific about which fruits we find. Are there really gooseberries in that Sauvignon Blanc? Of course not. But the aroma is there, and it comes from esters that are also found in gooseberries. Nevertheless, gooseberries as fruit have nothing to do with that wine. Unfortunately, we can only describe flavours in reference to other, known things. Analogy and metaphor are all we’ve got. Gooseberry is useless to you as a reference if you have never smelled or tasted gooseberries before.
To complicate things, there is a distinct possibility that all those “mineral” aromas that so many wine lovers cherish are the products of sulphur compounds. There is a very interesting article on Decanter.com that points the way on that.
Going further, there may be more at work. Personally, I have always understood the word to communicate ideas beyond the simple “mineral” flavours that are otherwise hard to express. The effect that various soil types have on the vines planted in them, for example. If schist has a particular influence on a vine – adjusting its needs, causing it to grow in a particular way, to lack certain nutrient elements, etc., then this is certainly translated into the wines produced, and we can reference these effects with a wonderful word: minerality. If there is a commonality between grape varieties grown on the same soil, so much the better – and, again, there is widespread agreement among professional tasters that wines coming from certain soils tend to share some sensory characteristics.
Just don’t say you can taste the rocks.