When wine lovers use words like “minerality,” they mean that a wine’s flavors suggest stones, chalk or something elemental deep within the Earth. There is certainly the idea that the vineyard’s geology contributes to this quality. However, I’ve never seen anyone claim that the actual minerals from the soil are drawn up through the vine into the grapes and, ultimately, our glass. And yet, a number of scientific studies have contested the idea that minerals from the soil end up in the wine.
No scientific studies I know of have tried to refute the notion that cabernet sauvignon tastes like blackberries or black currants. No one seems to be testing whether New Zealand sauvignon blanc contains actual cat’s pee or gooseberries — both invoked in some descriptions of that wine. But denial of minerality continues.
The latest study, out of Spain, suggests that the flavors we describe as “mineral” result from “a variety of volatile chemical compounds derived from the metabolism of the vine,” according to the Drinks Business, a British publication. (But couldn’t the vine be metabolizing minerals from the soil?) Our perception of minerality may also result from flavors produced by yeast during fermentation or techniques applied in the winemaking or aging processes. The research was conducted by Excell Ibérica, a Spanish wine analysis company, and Outlook Wine, also known as the Barcelona Wine School. The authors are Antonio Palacios and David Molina.
Why try to deny the notion of minerality? “Without a doubt,” the authors wrote, “the use of the term ‘mineral’ is very trendy into the 21st century and it is widely used by producers, distributors, and especially by tasters and well-known gurus as a relevant differential and refinement value between wines, particularly those of high range and high price. To talk about minerality in the tasting description of a wine is to potentially add sensory and commercial value to it.”
In other words, winemakers might be able to create minerality in the winery. That’s certainly believable, given modern chemistry and the number of extracts and additives available to a winemaker’s palette. But the wines exciting our palates with mineral flavors tend to be made by small, artisanal producers who — we’d like to think — don’t rely on modern chemistry or hocus pocus to produce great wine.
That isn’t to say a vineyard’s soil has no effect on the flavor of wine. Soil depth, water retention (or lack thereof), slope and micronutrients, among other factors, influence how grapes ripen. The authors note that wines described as having minerality often are cool-climate white wines high in acidity and low in aromas, or red wines made in a reductive style, with little or no exposure to oxygen.
The idea of trendy minerality bumping up the price may have some winemakers salivating and analyzing the report for recipe hints. It also highlights the importance of terminology used by retailers, sommeliers and wine reviewers when describing wines. Minerality has no real definition; it isn’t in the dictionary, as I pointed out in my first column in The Washington Post in October 2008. (I’ve actually shied away from the term lately, trying to be more precise — stones, chalk, talc, etc. — or just “minerally.”) And the word made it into the Oxford Companion to Wine only with the recently published fourth edition.
“It is not possible to determine whether minerality is a terroir or a winemaking effect,” according to the Oxford entry, agreeing somewhat with Palacios and Molina. “In any one wine it could easily be either or both.” Even the choice of screw caps over natural cork may increase the perception of minerality in wine by restricting the flow of oxygen. New Zealand sauvignon blancs, once seen as fruit-forward before kiwi winemakers switched almost completely to screw caps, are nowadays described in mineral terms, for example.
They say good wine is made in the vineyard, but apparently a minerally one can be made in the winery, too.