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]