Two of wine’s most loaded words, it seems, are terroir and minerality. Writers have consumed much ink (and bandwidth, in the case of this blog) dancing around these terms. I hear them frequently thrown around in wine conversations. Ask for a definition, and you won’t get much agreement.
Both words refer to important and, I believe, glorious aspects of wine, two ideas that make wine such a special experience. Reducing them to false connections cheapens the wonder, however, and that's the problem.
For years I have gritted my teeth and rolled my eyes listening to self-proclaimed wine experts find an earthy flavor in a wine and expound on how they could “taste the terroir.” Now that minerality appears to be the wine word of the year, I am hearing the same sort of malarky about minerals in the soil being present in the wines. Why they taste minerally is much more complex, mysterious and wonderful than that.
A scientific paper presented earlier this year focused on debunking this very notion. This led the august New York Times to headline a story "The Fanciful Notion of ‘Minerality’ in Wine." The story reported that vines do not impart minerals absorbed from the soil into the wine. (Despite the existence of studies in which the National Laboratory Center was able to correctly identify a wine's geographic origin based on trace metals in the wine.) The headline of the Times article suggested that you can’t taste minerality in wine, that it doesn’t exist. Unfortunately, this contrarian view has gained currency in the confusion.
It’s the same muddle unsuspecting wine folks get themselves into about terroir.
Despite the wrongheaded notion that defines terroir as literally "the taste of the soil," i.e., an earthy taste in the wine, it really means something more subtle. Soil, climate, altitude and daylight during the growing season are some of the elements that determine what effect a particular place may have on the wine that comes from the vines that grow there. One vineyard may produce a medium-bodied Pinot Noir that tastes more like cherries while a different one in the same area, made by the same winemaker with the same clones of the same grape variety, might make a light-bodied wine that tastes more like raspberries.
Some places show it more than others. Some winemakers aim specifically at drawing out these distinctions. Terroir is so hard to pin down because it’s not a definition, it’s a tendency. Better yet, a set of tendencies. It is nothing less than the notion that a sense of place can make itself manifest in the wine. My colleague Matt Kramer coined a term for it: "somewhereness."
A similar vineyard-wine connection causes confusion over minerality, only the situation is reversed. Some mistakenly think they can find mineral flavors in the wine because the same minerals are present in the soil of the vineyard.
Minerals in the soil may not transfer into the wine, but they do affect the health and chemistry of the vine, which in turn affects flavor and structure. But not by creating minerality in the wine. Minerality is a product of fermentation, aromas and flavors reminiscent of minerals (think of what warm rain on pebbles smells like, or hot sun on wet rocks). As with other elements of fermentation, it adds to the complexity, and therefore the class of the wine. Minerality often distinguishes great wines.
Rich, ripe fruit flavors can overwhelm the subtle taste of minerality in wine. This is why the term is associated with less fruity wines, especial those higher in acidity (i.e., less ripe).
Some scoff at the idea of wine tasting like minerals. Drinking rocks doesn’t sound very appetizing, they say, probably while sipping a glass of mineral water. What do they think makes Evian and San Pellegrino taste different from each other (and from filtered tap water)? It’s the mineral content.
Let’s get over the idea that we can taste the chalk or the slate in the wine because it migrated from the soil. Minerality is something more magical. Just like terroir.
Scott Elder — The Dalles, OR — December 28, 2009 1:47pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — December 28, 2009 2:20pm ET
Scott Elder — The Dalles, OR — December 28, 2009 4:26pm ET
Troy Peterson — Burbank, CA — December 28, 2009 5:01pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — December 28, 2009 5:15pm ET
Sandy Fitzgerald — Centennial, CO — December 28, 2009 5:18pm ET
Harvey Steiman — San Francisco, CA — December 28, 2009 5:40pm ET
Don Rauba — Schaumburg, IL — December 28, 2009 5:49pm ET
Scott Elder — The Dalles, OR — December 28, 2009 9:03pm ET
Pacific Rim Winemakers — Portland, OR — December 29, 2009 10:31am ET
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento,CA — December 29, 2009 12:21pm ET
Eric P Perramond — Colorado Springs, CO — December 29, 2009 12:24pm ET
Bob Betz — Woodinville, WA — December 29, 2009 1:53pm ET
Jon Wollenhaupt — San Francisco — December 29, 2009 2:19pm ET
Troy Peterson — Burbank, CA — December 29, 2009 5:13pm ET
Andrew J Walter — Sacramento,CA — December 29, 2009 8:56pm ET
Jamie Sherman — Sacramento — December 30, 2009 6:49pm ET
Jonathan Davis — Birmingham — December 31, 2009 7:21pm ET
Mr Andrew J Green — Kansas — January 3, 2010 11:24am ET
Jeffrey Matchen — New Jersey — January 4, 2010 3:43pm ET
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