Is There Minerality in Wine?

Posted on Feb 17, 2021


st emilion bordeaux

A sample of the limestone soils at BeauSejour Becot.

Minerality is a commonly used descriptor in the world of wine. We see it frequently when we read tasting notes. We see it as a term defined in the glossaries of wine books. We hear it used by winemakers when describing their wines. And, we use it ourselves. So just what is this minerality we and others speak of when talking about wine? Is it really there, in our glass? Do we even know what a mineral tastes like, or smells like?

First, let’s look at the raw science that surrounds the subject. Is this minerality that we speak of actually in our glass?

bordeaux france

The vineyards at Pichon Baron in Bordeaux.

Science has studied the matter and conclusively reported that the answer is “No”. Vines do not take up minerals from the soil and then infuse them into the grapes growing on those vines. The vine’s roots push ever deeper into the soil as the plant grows, in search of water, not minerals. But are there minerals in this underground water? The answer is yes, possibly, but only in the tiniest quantities.

Over time the surface of the rocks weather and erode, they break down and release their substances into the surrounding soil.

Colchagua valley wine chile

A yellow granite Polkura stone.

This is a process that takes years to occur, only a minimal amount of erosion would take place over the typical 100 day growing season. What the vines are finding in their water is a substance called humus, which is decayed biological matter. We have yet to hear that in any wine description.

Not content with relying on just science, we decided to conduct a few experiments of our own. First, we grabbed some rocks and washed them and thoroughly rinsed them. We then smelled them, and yes, all for you dear readers, we licked one. Gross! We could not discern any aroma or flavour from our stones in our little experiment. Our experiment confirmed what scientists have said all along, that geological materials are generally tasteless and odourless. We should have just listened to the scientists!

Finally, in a fit of silliness, we put the stones into a glass of wine. After a few minutes we smelled and tasted the wine with the stones in it next to a glass of the same wine without the stones.

resonance vineyard soil

The friable soil at Resonance Winery in Oregon.

So, if there is no physical trace of minerals that can be detected in wine, why does minerality as a term have such popularity when used to describe the taste or aroma of wine? The answer lies in the inherent difficulty of describing your personal sensory experience to another person. If we were to literally describe what we taste or smell in our wine glass, we would say it tastes or smells like wine. Or maybe alcohol or grapes. But most of the other descriptors that we use are really other sensory experience memories that the wine has evoked, not actual sensory experiences that the wine is creating at this moment.

This evoking of other sensory experiences is what the description of wine is all about. Think about all of the other terms that you use, or that you hear or read used by others, to describe wine.

Echapresto brothers dinner

Wine is a sensory experience.

Open a glass of Chablis and chances are you or someone else will, if describing it to another, refer to “citrus”, “apple”, “flint”, or if you open a Syrah you might find “blackberry”, “black cherry”, “leather”, etc. Yet none of those compounds are in the wine. But the wine’s character has evoked those memories and it becomes useful to use those descriptors (which are really more metaphors than descriptions of what you are actually tasting or smelling) when communicating your sensory experience of that wine.

Wine is such a fascinating subject to so many people that a whole language has evolved in an attempt to allow wine lovers to share their wine experiences with other wine lovers through conversation.

A glass at its source in Northern Spain.

That language does not have to be literal to be useful. The fact that there are no actual minerals in the wine that we are tasting does not mean we should not use the word minerality. If our wine vocabulary were limited to actual substances present in the wine, our vocabulary would be limited to mostly water, alcohol and grape. Not a great way to get your point across about how you find any particular wine.

So if minerality evokes for you one of the aspects of the wine you are tasting, then use that word. There is a good chance it will evoke something similar in the wine lover you are saying it to. If that helps foster more communication and more conversations, then especially today, that is a very good thing.

10 Comments

  1. robin@42aspens.com'

    This is a subject that plagues me and makes me realize how little we really know. I read an article by Tim Gaiser MW once on the subject of the the aromas in wine that discussed the subject of volatile aromas in wine. The just of it was, while we often tell people that there is no right answer to what they smell in a wine, that it is their interpretation, there is a right answer. Chemically there are quantifiable volatile compounds being released from the wine, in that moment. How we interpret them is dependent on our scent memory. In that moment, of course, is key.
    So why is it that so many of us use the term mineral? What is it about the volatile compounds being released from a wine that causes us to give this descriptor, and why do we find that it comes up with specific soil varieties?
    You have sent me down a deep dive into the rabbit hole on this one. I really want to get my hands on a Le Nez kit to hone my skills at identifying volatile compounds.
    I found a fascinating article on this whole minerality thing that you may have seen. I have not finished reading it, but find the concept and study very interesting.
    https://www.google.com/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=web&cd=&ved=2ahUKEwiP9cS8_v3uAhWyHzQIHT1oDb0QFjACegQIARAD&url=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.mdpi.com%2F2306-5710%2F4%2F4%2F77%2Fpdf&usg=AOvVaw1O33sPeEa5wX_O9KOcDaEb

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    • Definitely a rabbit-hole topic that requires further reading and discussion (preferably over a glass of wine that we can then try and describe lol)! Thanks for the link and will definitely look forward to reading further…

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  2. lbwhipple@gmail.com'

    Thanks for this common-sense explanation of wine descriptors as evoking sensations or sensory memories. Applies to minerality and all other descriptors writers use to approximate the experience of tasting wine. Guess that’s why we talk about wine as being poetry. LOL! I definitely will cite this article when people ask, “How does blackberry get into my wine?”

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    • Thank you for taking the time to read Linda and appreciate your comment. We have often been talking with people who feel too intimidated to even attempt to describe what they’re smelling or tasting for fear of being “wrong” or that they don’t “get” what people are describing. For us wine is about bringing people together and sharing the experience so we hope it helps. Cheers!

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  3. swirlingdervish@outlook.com'

    The most concise and common-sense explanation of wine descriptors I’ve read! As I study for my last DipWSET exam, I’m often frustrated by the list of aromas I “should” detect in a given wine (but sometimes do not.) That they are perhaps more evocative than absolute is so rational. Fantastic post!

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    • Thank you so much Lauren! It was borne from several discussions with wine enthusiasts as well as people feeling intimidated by wine descriptors. Minerality is one that comes up a lot and we’re glad our take made sense. So often one of us is saying the same thing but using a different descriptor…! Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment and best of luck on your DipWSET exam!

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    • thewineteacher@shaw.ca'

      Not sure about your experience, but when I am stuck on putting a name to an aroma and I consult a ‘list’, I’ve always taken it as a list of aromas you MIGHT find in a wine of that variety. (And I have over 20 years judging experience.)

      That said, when I teach courses I tell people that it really doesn’t matter if you smell ‘cherries’ or not. All that truly matters is do you like it or not. The flip side of that is the more you learn about wines, the more it deepens your appreciation of them.

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  4. lwg.mine@gmail.com'

    The language of wine, and memories, is indeed fascinating. When I saw your post pop up it immediately made me think of a New Yorker article I just read about Harold McGee’s new book Nose Dive: A Field Guide to the World’s Smells. This is what the author (Rachel Syme) shares that immediately made me think of the mineral/minerality aroma in wine:

    “… sublime scent emitted when rain hits rocks or pavement, comes not from the minerals in the stone but from an imperceptible layer of “volatiles” covering all outdoor surfaces. These volatiles, generated by fungi, plants, and even human technology, are, McGee writes, “usually too sparse and omnipresent for us to notice them in the air around us.” It is only during a storm that what soil scientists call a “wet-up” can occur, and a fine mist of abundant life becomes perceptible to our noses.”

    I’ve done quite a bit of hiking through/on/around rocks and stone faces and the smell of those experiences, especially when on misty, dewy morning is imprinted in my memory. Perhaps I was experiencing wet-ups!

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    • Thanks for sharing that Lynn, I’ve never heard that term before but that certainly fits with what we think of. We often reference cement roads or driveways that after several hot days, gets that first rainfall — the aroma is so distinct (if you’ve experienced it) similar to the author’s mention of rain hitting rocks. We’ll have to start adopting “wet-ups”!

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    • cwallace@cccinvestmentbanking.com'

      Lynn, thanks so much for your very thoughtful comment.That is fascinating to read about the wet up and explains why you don’t get that scent after it has been raining for a bit; only just after a fresh rain hits after a dry spell! Or why you don’t get that scent after you pull a stone out of a creek. Fascinating!

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