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In Defense of Minerality

A wine term takes a beating lately, so I'll stick up for it
Photo by: David Yellen

Posted: Oct 29, 2009 10:12am ET

There’s been a spike in the number of columns and stories regarding terroir and minerality lately. Their general tack is that the earth doesn’t actually alter the flavor of wine, nor can you actually taste minerality in a wine. Egads!

One item in the New York Times yesterday reported the findings released at the recent annual meeting of the Geological Society of America that grapes don't contain a detectable trace of soil minerals. Finger Lakes wine writer Evan Dawson also published an article on the subject that's worth reading. The theme has been picked up and expanded upon elsewhere in the blogosphere and Twitter-land recently as you might imagine. Typically the discussions cite scientific evidence regarding the lack of soluble compounds in minerals, making it impossible to detect them aromatically or flavorwise. Yadda, yadda.

Sorry, but I’m crying "bunk" on the minerality nay-sayers. We have reported on studies in which the National Laboratory Center was able to correctly identify a wine's geographic origin based on trace metals in the wine. But rather than rely solely on science to skewer the scientists, I'm going to go a little Andy Rooney here as well.

Simply put, there are a few things in life that can’t ever be explained—they just are. People tend to look like their dogs. It always rains right as weekend getaway traffic starts. And there’s minerality in wines.

The wine lexicon is always taking some heat, and that’s a good thing. Criticism forces us to take another look at our own work to see if there’s a way to do it better. Constructive criticism should do that. Heck, I was once asked to drain my “impenetrable swamp of winespeak.” Funny, the writer didn’t use any flowery prose there …

There’s a lexicon for any field of endeavor or pleasure that draws people to it. Do we question the terms "can of corn" or "frozen rope" in baseball? I remember when hearing those for the first time, they certainly sounded odd. But they also piqued my interest in the game. When I heard the stories or explanations behind those expressions, it just kindled my interest even more. The lexicon helped to lure me in.

The wine lexicon has grown and developed as wine writing has spread far and wide. It’s certainly broader than ever. Today, delivering a concise tasting note that conveys to the reader a sense of the wine is a critical part of wine writing—always was, always will be. But I agree that there’s a balancing act when using the wine lexicon. Too concise a note, and it comes off as cold and uninteresting (both the writer and the wine). Too much baroque language, however, and the note comes off as lacking critical integrity, turning into a fan-styled rah-rah instead.

"Minerality" is one of those terms that convey a distinct aspect of wine, a bracing, distinctly non-fruit aspect. It also takes on personal connotations when people use it. I’ve kicked the jagged limestone chunks in Gigondas and tripped over the rolled stones of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. I’ve scrambled up crumbling granite slopes in Chile, gotten sandstone dust in my mouth while in South Africa and been caked with clay and loam in Argentina. They all were different and after experiencing them all firsthand, I feel I can often find these different aspects of minerality in the wines.

Or should I say, in the better wines? No one ever seems to find minerality in an $8 critter label wine. Instead, it always seems to be in those wines that offer more complexity and dimension, the wines that speak distinctly of where they’re from. And ultimately, that’s what we’re all looking for—complexity and diversity. The more diverse the offerings we have to describe, the more diverse our lexicon needs to become.

So, sometimes I use terms like "iron" or "loam" to help convey that diversity. I don’t want to just say "minerality" all the time and leave it to the reader to assume there’s a range. But I also don’t want to write a 400-word tasting note with endless descriptors that turn into run-on sentences, leaving the reader blurry-eyed (though I don’t begrudge a writer their personal style). It's a balancing act, just like the wine itself.

I remember one day as a youth, when my father was waxing poetic about a wine he was having at the dinner table. "Oak" this and all these fruit flavors he was finding. It was made from grapes, I thought, so how could there be raspberry and cherry in the wine? And oak?

“Think about licking this table,” said my dad, deadly serious.

My sister and I burst out laughing. We just didn’t get it then. But looking back now, I realize that incident helped kindle my interest in wine and, I think, "get it" today.

So, I’m going to hold the line on using the term "minerality," in no small part because I hope that it turns more folks on to wine, than not.

[You can now follow James Molesworth on Twitter, at http://twitter.com/jmolesworth1]

Sandy Fitzgerald
Centennial, CO —  October 29, 2009 12:32pm ET

Great article! Have someone taste a Sancere along side a Sonoma Sav blanc. If they can't grasp minerality in the Sancere, they have no taste buds.
Harvey Steiman
San Francisco, CA —  October 29, 2009 1:34pm ET
Maybe the minerals in the soil don't exactly translate into the mineral aromas and flavors in the wine, but I agree, those characters exist and they make a wine more distinctive. You don't have to lick the stones to get the idea. Anyone who has smelled the air as a warm summer storm moistens the pebbles in the driveway knows what we're talking about.
Fredric Leighton
Elizabeth, NJ —  October 29, 2009 1:42pm ET
Whenever anyone questions that wines can have a mineral character I ask if they've ever tasted real Chablis. Not if they've visited the vineyards and seen that there's virtually no topsoil, just fossil-rich limestone subsoil. The proof is in the unique nose and flavors of Chablis - as mineral as it gets.
Actually, this response is from Peter Meier, not Fred Leighton, but I can't imagine Fred disagreeing.
Errol R Kovitch
Michigan —  October 29, 2009 3:07pm ET
Excellent posting James.
Morgan Dawson
Rochester, NY —  October 29, 2009 3:28pm ET
Excellent post, James. I should clarify that my piece on minerality was certainly not intended to imply there is no minerality in wines -- there is! -- but simply to urge all of us to use more specific terms. Each individual wine region seems to have its own take on minerality, which I think is wonderful. It's just bound to be confusing to some readers and wine consumers, and that's why I prefer different language. That said - I tend to side more with the romantics than the scientists. Wine reflects its sense of place so beautifully, and we should celebrate that. -Evan Dawson
Richard Thompson
Mount Nebbiolo, Colorado —  October 29, 2009 3:33pm ET
....and if you need a little more convincing about terroir induced nuance sample the scorched earth notes in a wine like Terra di Lavoro, or the dusty ashen nuances of an Aglianico del Vulture.....being convinced needn't be complicated process.

James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  October 29, 2009 3:46pm ET
Evan: You and I are on the same page on that score - helping to define 'minerality' as we use the term from note to note is the next step...
Jason Thompson
Foster City, CA —  October 29, 2009 6:19pm ET
Well put....
David Tietz
Columbus, OH —  October 29, 2009 7:55pm ET
Diss him as some occasionally do, it's worth everyone watching Gary Vaynerchuk's episode where he tastes everything he can put in his mouth to find flavors in wines.

From eating my fair share of Tums, I can tell you that calcium, being a mineral, definitely shows up in 'chalky' wines. And many rieslings show flint or slate or stony characteristics- and I guarantee there are minerals in those rocks. Whether a wine comes from rocky vineyards or more traditional soil, all of those have minerals in them. And the vines need minerals to grow. Therefore, I agree with your post, James, and think all of the naysayers are missing something that can add layers of complexity to wine, red or white.
Jeffrey Ghi
New York —  October 29, 2009 10:41pm ET
If the grapes itself doesn't impart the flavors but say, the vineyard itself does, is it still terroir?

Let's say you have a grape, and it tastes the same everywhere in the world. But due to where the winemaker is based, the oils of a eucalyptus plant happen to waft into the fermentation tank. Or like in your example where the limestone dusts of Gigondas may have gotten into the open air wine tank. Is that still terroir?

I feel at times there are those wine lovers that say it's the grapes themselves that impart the flavor of the earth, and in that sense, I'd probably agree with the scientists here and not the wine lovers. Scientific study has shown that these grapes do not contain a source of detectable minerals.

But I do think it's the land itself, the terroir that imparts it's uniqueness on the wines themselves.

Take San Francisco sour dough bread. The yeast, flour and water to make the bread is the same across the country, but it's that San Fran salty ocean breeze that imparts the unique briny sour dough flavor found only in San Francisco.
William Keene
North Carolina —  October 30, 2009 7:41am ET
James: I enjoyed the blog post. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.
When I was becoming more serious about wine, I attended a Loire tasting at my local wine shop. The importer had slides of the different soil types in the region. It was interesting to see the photos and taste the wines from the various soils. I remember thinking how cool it was that the wines showed a sense of place. It is still fascinating to me and I enjoy reading about this sort of thing. Thanks again.
Peter Shanahan
burlington, ontario —  October 30, 2009 6:30pm ET
Maybe this is simplistic, but wine is made mostly of water. Water can taste significantly different upon the source and most noticeably mineral flavors. Therefore why would wine not reflect its location the same as water.
Scott Bailey
North Carolina —  October 31, 2009 8:55pm ET
Great post, James. Saw you at the Wine Experience...losing a little weight?
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  October 31, 2009 8:58pm ET
Scott: Thanks, yes, I've shed a few pounds this summer - not enough truffles I guess.

Hope you liked the NYWE...
Andrew J Walter
Sacramento,CA —  November 1, 2009 9:15am ET
Has anyone ever harvested grapes? Well lets just say they dropped on the ground, handled by dirty hands (from the vineyard), have dust blown on them in the open bins....plus not to mention all of the bugs (for those you have never experienced it...there are more crushed and fremented bugs than you would like to know in your wine)! The grapes are never washed and unless they are individually sorted all of this gets in the fermentors. I am assuming these factors are differnet the world over and that they must have at least some impact on the wine flavor. Add to this any impact of roots/soil intereaction and differences in climate and regional wine making practices and this certainly accounts for what we percieve as terroir. Nice post. BTW, how did your Syrah come out? You have not blogged about this in a while
James Molesworth
Senior Editor, Wine Spectator —  November 1, 2009 3:58pm ET
Andrew: In the end I was pretty happy with my Syrah. It showed great right after bottling back in March, then tightened up a little. Recently it's reemerged, shows nice mouthfeel, dark cherry fruit and lingering tobacco hints - definitely in the lower alcohol, more elegant style for California.

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