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The Myth Behind Minerality in Wine

01 Oct

id_2013_by_myth_dragon-d5vyn6p “Elegant palate with good minerality and the potential to develop. Nicely understated with firm, fresh fruit and good acidity. Well crafted.” Domaine Jean Bilaud-Simon Chablis Grand Cru Vaudesir £35, Decanter

“Firm, stony mineral nose. Tight-knit palate with a mineral backbone. Powerful and understated.” Domaine Wiliam Fevre Bougros Cote Bouguerots Chablis Grand Cru £40, Decanter

“Accesible, fresh quaffer with bountiful amounts of fruity appeal. It’s elegant, also, with delicate peach aromas and quite a long, mineral-tinged finish.” Sainsbury’s Taste Difference Gavi, Piedmont £7.99, Decanter

“This is classic, zesty Sancerre with a deliciously refreshing structure supporting vibrant, grassy aromas and textbook minerality.” Waitrose In Partnership with Joseph Mello Sancerre, Loire Valley £10.99, Decanter

“Well balanced Douro red at an attractive price, with subtle, spicy oak, good minerality and acidity and tarry, brambly fruit.” Tanners Douro Red, £7.95, Tim Atkin MW

“Subtle, flinty, yet ripe, with good almostGraves-like concentration and notes of gooseberry and minerals.” Reuilly Les Coignons, Denis Jamain, Loire Valley £14.25, Tim Atkin MW

“Lively, bracing, pure mineral nose. The Palate is dry with lovely mineral, citrus, pear and baked apple character. Very precise with a spicy, mineral core. Generous and ripe but with good acidity and a dry finish. Weighty but precise, showing beautiful poise.” Van Volxem Saar Riesling Mosel £15.95, Jamie Goode

“Very bright and fresh, this is a lean, lemony, mineral style of Chardonnay with keen acidity and some subtle toasty notes… There’s a little bit of matchstick minerality here. Tight, fresh and precise with some waxy, pithy complexity. Quite Chablis-like.” Tolpuddle Vineyard Chardonnay Tasmania, Jamie Goode

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Minerality is a romantic tasting descriptor. Its popularity is driven by our obsession with terroir. Its puzzlement follows the same mystique of making wine, or as many marketers would have us believe. It is a magical word that describes a sacred quality and makes the wine taste better whenever anyone mentions it. It is more than just a tingle on the tongue.

With ever-changing trends, we also change how we talk about wines. Look at tasting reviews and you will find that chalky Chablis, gravelly Sancerre and slatey Mosel Riesling are being replaced by the minerality phenomenon. With huge success appearing even in some ‘lucky’ New World regions.  Its noticeable overuse in the last couple of years, for any style, any price, any wine has spurred the flood of prose trying to unravel the mystery behind it.

Despite its mystique, minerality is a very unique concept universally understood to be good, indicating a specific provenance. Yet casual wine drinkers still have no idea what we are on about. In fact even wine experts cannot seem to agree on a simple definition or explanation. Tasting notes of wines with restrained aromas are glittered with it. More upfront and fruit driven wines less so. Marketing catchphrase or not, we seem to be obsessed with it. I am as guilty as anyone.

What do we actually mean by it? Ask any wine expert and you will receive a different answer.  It is impossible to define. And this is one of the reasons why there is so much debate about it. Some describe it as a zingy & acidic sensation or wet pebbles & chalky flavours, some speak of a smoky or salty taste, and a small few associate it with complex sulphur compounds and reduction. It is almost as controversial as biodynamic or natural wines and similarly difficult to explain (scientifically at least). In fact it is a very misleading concept because it is so subjective.

My experience tells me that it is the acidity that reinforces minerality in our minds. Both Bevan Johnson from Newton Johnson and Manfred Ing from Querciabella describe it as a perception of liveliness and freshness that is not just acidity. If you look at the type of grape varieties and the type of cool climate that minerality is associated with (Mosel Riesling, Loire Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir etc.) then this seems a very plausible explanation. Too often have I found myself hedging between high acidity and minerality and in my opinion they both are very closely knit.

UK wine writer Andrew Jefford is more sceptical. He argues that low acidic wine can express more minerality than high acidic wine. US wine critic Chris Kissack also believes that acidity and minerality feel very different on the palate.

Randall Grahm, winemaker and founder of Bonny Doon introduced an idea that minerality may be confused with reduction or mercaptans/thiols. Flavours such as that well-known appealing scent of cat’s pee and passion fruit, or less favourable characteristics of a struck match or flintiness. Sam Harrop MW points out that yes you can get a flinty smell from two rocks rubbing together but you can’t rub this smell into the final wine. His view is that sulphides produced during fermentation are responsible for this aroma.

How many times have you heard wine critics describing the smell of wet stones as minerality in wines? There is actually such a smell. What happens is that rocks covered with organic matter and plants release a volatile compound petrichor after rain, which is responsible for this unique kind of earthy smell. In fact, it is not the smell of the rock but the organic matter that we associate with minerality. But none of that is relevant to the sensation on our palates.

So how is minerality produced? Despite digging deep, there is no scientific explanation and therefore no solid answer on offer. However, let’s be absolutely clear about one aspect. Minerality in wine and whatever this represents to us, is irrelevant to the geological minerals in the soil despite its literal suggestion. As Alex Maltmam, geology professor confirms “ Whatever minerality is, it cannot literally be the taste of minerals derived from the vineyard geology.”

Vines do absorb minerals but only in the form of dissolved ions (not the actual geological rocks) together with essential water and nutrients through their roots. It is then unlikely that any amount of rocky minerals (feldspar, quartz, gypsum, graphite) or nutrient minerals (ions of calcium, sodium, potassium, aluminium, silicon, manganese) is transferred to the grapes. No matter how rocky or nutritious the soil is. After all, almost all mineral nutrients are flavourless and odourless. Their concentration is so low we just aren’t able to taste them.

This is not to say that soil does not influence the flavour of wine. For example, alkaline soils such as limestone and chalk predispose high acidity and low ph in wines. It is also essential to have mycorrhizal fungi and humus present in the soil in order for the roots to transfer nutrients to the plant. It is logical to conclude that a fertile soil is the pre-condition for minerality sensation as well as having an influence on wine taste, balance and quality, even if indirectly. However, in practise it is the poor rocky soil with deep roots that we associate with minerality.

Anyway going back to our search for the source or cause of minerality. Neither can we claim that it is produced during fermentation despite some minerals such as aluminium, calcium and iron being present during this conversion. While it is true that some minerals influence the metabolism of yeast and therefore the outcome of fermentation flavours.  Two Czech scientists observed that minerality “was more to do with the relationship between the nutritional stress of yeasts and succinic acid production, which can result in a final difference in the taste of wine. The more succinic acid the greater the perceived minerality there was in the wine”. (Dyson & McShane) Succinic acid is produced during fermentation and we perceive it as a salty or bitter taste in the final wine. But this is very rare.  Similarly it is very rare to have traces of sodium chloride which gives the sensation of saltiness.

Fining with bentonite, that can leach earth elements to the must, doesn’t present sufficient grounds to be the source. The amounts are miniscule, cannot be tasted and not all wines that are described as having minerality have been fined by this method. Neither does it develop during ageing. In fact, both potassium and calcium are transformed to potassium bitartrate crystals during ageing and therefore reduced even further.

As minerality comes in so many guises and with no convincing pattern, we are unable to define or explain it. The only answer is the fact that minerality sensation has several pre-dispositions. Whether it is cool climate, grape variety, high acidity, level of pH, composition of soil, production of mercaptans or succinic acids during the fermentation or something totally different and as yet undiscovered. The question is, should we search further for the most credible answer? Or alternatively we can just continue using it metaphorically in the same way as we describe lemony notes of Riesling or pencil shaving flavours in Claret.

SOURCE & USEFUL READS

Alex Maltman (2013) –

http://cadair.aber.ac.uk/dspace/bitstream/handle/2160/10840/minerality_in_wine.pdf?sequence=1

Andrew Jeffford (2013) -

http://www.decanter.com/news/blogs/expert/529708/jefford-on-monday-a-fashion-for-stones

Chris Kissack (2013) – http://thewinedoctor.com/blog/2013/09/minerality-is-confusing/

Jordan Ross (2012) – http://www.enologyinternational.com/articles/Minerality_reprint.pdf

Sally Easton MW (2013) – http://www.winewisdom.com/articles/describing-minerality/

Sue Dyson and Roger McShane (2013) -

http://www.livingwines.com.au/Articles/Minerality-in-wine-Part-2.pdf

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2 Comments

Posted by on October 1, 2013 in Uncategorized

 

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2 responses to “The Myth Behind Minerality in Wine

  1. Simon Woolf (@simonjwoolf)

    October 3, 2013 at 10:31 am

    A great overview and collection of links to research more. Thanks Dani!

     
  2. danigongoozler

    October 3, 2013 at 11:40 am

    Thanks Simon.

     

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