What is wine minerality and where does it come from?

wine minerality


The word minerality is used very frequently by winemakers, critics, retailers, sommeliers and more. But describing a wine in these terms can mean many different things to different people. It’s over used and poorly defined. Ask three wine professionals what the word means and you’ll probably get three different answers. But despite this lack of consensus about the term, its use is on the rise. Its growth in analysing wine has been phenomenal, from virtual non - existence just a decade or so ago, restricted mostly around the wines of Chablis and the Mosel Valley, to near ubiquity today. People describe smelling and tasting chalk, flint, wet stones, crushed rocks, iodine, smokiness, the list goes on. But what is it that we’re actually smelling and tasting?

Frustratingly there’s really no real agreement among wine experts or even wine scientists as to how to define minerality in a wine. Geologists talk about geological compounds, plant scientists refer to mineral ions or nutrients. Vines require 16 mineral nutrients to complete their annual cycle but just because a plant takes something up from the soil doesn’t necessarily mean it will reach the fruit.

Geologist Alex Maltman from the University of Wales says, “Inorganic mineral elements make up only around 0.2% of wine. In these concentrations we simply can’t taste them. As soon as people say minerality they assume there are vineyard minerals in the wine. Sure there are tiny amounts of dissolved ions taken up originally through the vine roots, but these are not the same things as the geological minerals and rocks in the vineyard soil. Vine roots cannot absorb these complex geological compounds.”

At a symposium in Barcelona, one of the speakers, Doctor Josep de Haro, a specialist in sensorial pathologies suggests that minerality is a metaphorical interpretation based on knowledge, memory, even habits rather than a sensory sensation.

Charles M. Bear Dalton, writer of Bear on Wine, disagrees. He believes that we can taste the mineral component in certain wines and that slate, limestone, granite, a big component in terroir, does come through as a discernible sensory component. Even sand, gravel and certain clay soils are said to have the possibility of imparting minerality. He argues that while we (scientists, winemakers and certainly the rest of us) don’t know how these aromas and taste and even feel get into wine there’s no denying the impression people of mineral is there.

I think a lot of people in the wine industry would strongly agree that some wines without a doubt taste and smell like stones – wet stones, hot stones, slate, hot granite, chalk , pebbles. If minerality in wine is a myth, then why does a Beaujolais-Villages have a granite-like bitterness, while a Beaujolais, from chalky soil is all about acidity and why a Cru Beaujolais from Morgon will often deliver a different character again that is supposed to come from the manganese in the soil.

It’s also an undeniably popular component in white wines, possibly a backlash against the oaky, buttery styles that dominated styles 15 years ago. And also seems to imply a higher quality level. As wine drinkers become more sophisticated, they are attracted to wines that reflect a place.

There is much more research ahead in this area, as Jancis Robinson said recently to science graduates “Scientists, you would not believe how many of the most basic questions about wine remain unanswered.” But of course research requires funds and within the wine industry funds are generally directed towards subjects regarded as critical such as, in the last few years, sustainability, climate change, new production technologies, grape genetics and vine diseases among others. It was as late as 1860 that Louis Pasteur discovered that yeast caused fermentation. Not knowing how grape juice became wine didn’t stop it from doing so. And not knowing how what we identify or describe as ‘mineral’ gets into wine doesn’t mean it isn’t there it just means we have yet to learn.

25th June 2015

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