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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.