Is there such a thing as minerality in wine? What is it? What does it taste like?
Minerality is a relatively new term in the wine lexicon, so much so that no spell checker accepts the word! Many of us know what we mean but can’t describe it. Many experienced wine tasters will agree with a statement that a certain wine is minerally, but not what constitutes the term. Not long ago, as a Master of Wine, teaching tasting to aspiring Masters of Wine, I would ask students what they meant by the term. They couldn’t convincingly answer. At that time I encouraged students not to use the term unless they had a personal definition, were prepared to state that definition and hew to it in their tasting notes. It seemed so vague and arbitrary that I felt I would rather see the term not be used at all. But, on the contrary, its use has grown and, much as I resisted it, I am using the term myself. It seems as if the definition is a bit like that of pornography as in; “…. I can’t give an exact definition of pornography but I know it when I see it!”
Wine is composed of many minerals and grows in soils containing minerals. Surely, these tastes, if derived from minerals, cannot all be the same. The dictionary defines a mineral as a solid inorganic substance of natural occurrence. Let’s start with a simple one. Some tasters say that a certain wine is salty. Salt is a mineral and we can taste it. But most tasters will say the wine is saline or salty, not minerally. Generally, tasters will describe a wine using the name of the mineral they taste such as “salt,” “chalk” or “sulfur.” After a great deal of thinking, tasting, head-scratching, observing my own use of the term, evaluating the use of the term by others and seeing the overall level of consensus, a personal definition is crystallizing.
What minerality is not. Minerality is not a taste of fruit nor the taste of spoilage compounds such as volatile acidity or brettanomyces yeast. Minerality is not the taste of oak nor is it floral or dried flowers or muscat characteristics. Minerality seems to exist or not exist irrespective of the aforementioned characteristics. So finally for me, and this is a work and study in progress, minerality is more a feeling than a taste. I rarely observe minerality in entry level wines intended for uncomplicated, immediate consumption. When I use the term, it is in a positive sense. It is something that I appreciate in the wine, something that adds to quality. So, is minerality perhaps another way of saying terroir? At first you want to say, “hell no, let’s not get any more confused than we already are!” But on reflection, again to the extent that the term terroir is a positive term, there is an overlap. There is a feeling that the best terroirs confer upon their wines, that has minerality as a partial subset.
So mineralty is a feeling? Yes, this is the closest for me. Minerality is a combination of backbone, grip and yes, minerals. Backbone relates to the structure of wine and that portion of backbone that adds to minerality is partially conferred by acid, such as in quality Chablis. Backbone is a passive characteristic; it exists or doesn’t. Grip is akin to backbone but is more active, an active impact of the palate, something that arises from the glass and exerts some hold on the palate. For the longest time, the adjective grip was used in the concept of port wines where that grip was imparted largely by the fortifying alcohol. That too has changed over time with unfortified wines too being called grippy, meaning possessing of a powerful palate authority.
Do some grape varieties taste natuarally minerally and others not? The answer here is somewhat nuanced; a very careful yes. Take for example Muscadet grown on the Loire. The classic taste descriptor for good Muscadet, is crushed sea shells, a mineral note. But not all Muscadet is minerally. Take fine Sangiovese for example, say from Montalcino or Chianti. These wines have a touch of iodine as reported by many tasters, a mineral note to be sure but did that taster also describe the wine as minerally? Could the wine both have an iodine character and be independently minerally? My answer is yes. So, in this instance I must answer that some grapes are slightly more inclined to making minerally wines than others but almost all grapes can make minerally wine. This is the overlap with terroir.
This is clearly not the last word on the subject for me and others. At this stage minerally is for me and some of my fellow tasters:
- More a feeling than a taste
- Overlaps with terroir
- Is a positive description
- Includes grip
- IS HERE TO STAY!
Want to taste wine which is mineral and crispy on the tongue?
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Selected by Peter Koff MW
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